The Wild Dreams of a Pandemic

Have you been having intense dreams lately? In this time of the pandemic, many New Yorkers say they have. 

Katya Bouazza-Salva, a marketer who lives in Brooklyn, is one. She dreamed she had a cotton swab shoved up her nose and twisted. Her pediatrician gave her the diagnosis, but it was not what she expected. It was leukemia, not COVID-19. Although she felt alright, her friends had to keep everyone else away from her for her own good. Then, the next night, Bouazza-Salva dreamed that she was repairing a raccoon’s broken leg. 

Kate Fishman, a writer who lives in New Paltz, dreamed she found a group of toddlers and babies playing unattended. She scooped one up, and he squished her face as if she were the baby, and then Fishman fed him cereal. “It was a happy dream,” she said. 

Not so the dream of Ruby Zats, a student who lives in Manhattan. She dreamed that someone set off a bomb in a bar on her college campus, known for cheap beer. The school sent everyone to safe places, but they all knew they would not survive. 

Andrew Shaw, an engineer who lives in Staten Island, dreamed he slept in his car, with his seat reclined as far as it could go to avoid staying in a crowded house. When he got out of the car, he saw nine full moons, which then exploded. 

These dreams are diverse, but one thing these people all have in common is that they believe they are having more dreams lately, in the time of a pandemic.

Do they? Fred Coolidge, a professor of psychology  at the University of Colorado and author of Dream Interpretation as a Psychotherapeutic Technique, says that it’s not that people have more dreams nowadays, it’s that people remember more of them. Humans dream for about 25 percent of their total sleep time, pandemic or not, and an average person dreams about two hours a night, according to Coolidge. That has not changed because of COVID-19.  

However, since the shelter-in-place order, most people are confined to two spaces: Their heads and their homes. For that reason, he said, people may be more aware of their dreams.

Photo by Carlos Ebert/ From Flickr Commons. No changes have been made


“I think our phenomenological worlds have narrowed, such that we might find that we are actually paying more attention to our dreams,” he said. “It’s our perception.”   

Anne Cutler, a psychoanalyst in Manhattan, agrees that people are remembering more, not having more dreams. Still, she points out, some dreams are more memorable than others. 

“Anxiety dreams are the most remembered dreams for a couple of reasons,” she said. “One is that they are more dramatic. But, more importantly, anxiety dreams are often strong enough to wake us up out of a dream, which means you are more likely to remember it.” 

Two-thirds of dreams are negative, according to Coolidge. Evolutionarily, that may be valuable. According to the threat-simulation theory, dreams may help us prepare to tackle dangerous situations we may face while awake. 

“Humans have negative dreams, and anxiety, because those anxieties generally help us be better prepared for the future,” he said. 

For instance, people frequently dream of missing something critical like their keys or their phone, Coolidge said. Dreams like these prime people to remember things in the morning. “I can’t find this. I can’t find that, it’s all like an archetype for forgetting something,” Coolidge said. “And when we wake up we’re less likely to forget it.”

Priming could also play another role in why people are reporting more dreams recently, the dream experts say. The amount of discussion surrounding dreams has increased. Hearing  friends discuss their dream, or even reading an article like this one, could prime people to remember their dreams. 

“If you make a dream diary and you write ‘Dream Journal’ on it and put it beside your bed, you would not believe how that primes people to remember,” Coolidge explained. “So if you have people telling you about a dream, more like a nightmare about the virus or about death, it’s not surprising that you tell somebody and they will start paying more attention.”

Cutler pays attention to dreams. In her private practice, she says she has noticed some patterns in the dreams New Yorkers remember. Many dreams have touched on how COVID-19 has impacted the dreamer personally, she said.   

“So it might be, for someone sheltering-in-place, being completely alone or out of touch with people, in their lives,” she said. “Or, it could be what Freud calls wish fulfillment. In other words, they are actually meeting people that they would like to be with in their dreams. It can cut either way.”

Erin Gravley, the creator of “I Dream of COVID,” a website where people from all over the world post dreams they believe to be COVID-19 related, said she has noticed some patterns in the dream submissions from New York City. Many dreams featured elevators, grocery stores, and dreams of surgery, according to Gravley. 

“A few of the dreams that came out of New York City were very specific to what’s happening in the city,” she wrote in an email. “For example, one dream involved the dreamer watching a video of two women that had been murdered. The dreamer stated that no one was helping, but everyone was cheering and clapping in the background. When I read that dream, I immediately thought of the nightly applause that happens in the city.”

Even though Gravley and Cutler have noticed some similarities between dreams, they mean different things to each dreamer, according to Coolidge.

“Are our dreams random? Heck no. Can they be interpreted? Heck yes,” he said. “If I dream about a key and a lock and a prisoner in jail dreams of a key and a lock, it’s not going to mean the same thing. It cannot mean the same thing.”