Research: COVID-19 is echoed in dreams

Research has shown that the exceptional circumstances brought about by the novel coronavirus have affected the nightmares people have. The Sleep and Mind research group at the University of Helsinki employed artificial intelligence to investigate people’s dreams.

The content of the nightmares of nearly a thousand individuals during the coronavirus pandemic were analysed in a study published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal. The study found that the pandemic had affected more than half of the bad dreams reported.

The study, which was based on the crowdsourcing of dreams, saw more than 4,000 people respond to a survey in the sixth week of the state of emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Finland. The survey was published in connection with an article on dreams that appeared in the Helsingin Sanomat daily. Roughly 800 respondents also described their dreams.

“It was interesting to see recurring dream content, which echoed the apocalyptic atmosphere of the circumstances brought about by COVID-19,” says Professor Anu-Katriina Pesonen, head of the Sleep and Mind research group at the University of Helsinki.

“The findings enabled us to speculate that dreaming in the middle of exceptional circumstances is a form of shared mindscape between individuals,” she adds.

Themes related to the pandemic repeated in nightmares

Together with her team, Pesonen translated the content of dreams from Finnish to English-language word lists, employing in the analysis an AI-based approach where combinations of words that recur often are identified. The computational analysis established ‘dream clusters’ on the basis of statistical co-occurrence from recurring word associations and their networks. In other words, the dream associations served as individual dream content particles, not comprehensive dream narratives.

Many of the dream clusters were thematic, and there was pandemic-related content in more than half of the nightmare clusters. Such content included failure to observe safe social distancing, contracting the coronavirus, masks and other protective equipment, dystopias and the apocalypse.

For example, the word associations in a dream cluster named ‘Ignoring social distancing’ included hugging by mistake, hug-handshakes, restrictions related to handshakes, handshaking distance, lapses in social distancing, restrictions related to gatherings and crowded parties.

“The computational analysis carried out in the study is new to dream research,” Pesonen notes. “Indeed, we hope to see more AI-aided efforts in the field in the future.”

New details pertaining to stress during the pandemic

The study also offered some insights into people’s sleeping habits and stress levels during the pandemic. For instance, more than half of the respondents reported having slept more than before, although 10% of respondents found falling asleep more difficult and 25% had more nightmares than before.

That more than half of the study participants said their stress levels had increased is not surprising, and the rise was in turn connected to having nightmares. Those experiencing the most severe stress also had dreams with pandemic-related content.

Sleep is a key factor associated with mental health, with recurring powerful nightmares a potential indication of post-traumatic stress. The content of dreams is not entirely arbitrary, but it may be key to understanding what lies at the heart of stress, traumas and anxiety.

Further information

Anu-Katriina Pesonen, professor
Phone: +358 40 754 4942

Reference: Anu-Katriina Pesonen, Jari O. Lipsanen,  Risto Halonen,  Marko Elovainio,  Nils s. Sandman,  Juha-Matti Mäkelä,  Minea Antila,  deni Beckhard, Hanna M. Ollila and Liisa Kuula: Pandemic dreams: network analysis of dream content during the COVID-19 lockdown. Frontiers in Psychology DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.573961

Read more about the Sleep and Mind research group on the group’s website.