Much has been written about the bizarre and distressing dreams many of us have been experiencing since lockdown. No one is certain why our dreams have become so vivid and easy to remember, although there’s been much speculation.

In a recent article for National Geographic, Rebecca Renner collected views from a number of dream experts. The general consensus is that increased anxiety and decreased physical activity have reduced sleep quality, leading in turn to more frequent waking and, as a result, more opportunities to remember our dreams.

The bizarre and distressing content, they suggest, may be because we’re deprived of our usual busy and challenging environments, leaving us with little inspiration and forcing us instead to draw on memories and themes from our past.

Perhaps. But Deirdre Barrett, a Harvard professor and dream expert, has found pandemic dream content is often fantastical - about zombies, monsters, mass shooters, swarms of insects. Such material is unlikely to be derived from direct past experience, so the idea that we’re only excavating personal memories seems inadequate. Instead, I think we’re also answering a need for more mental stimulation. Without the usual buzz we’re used to, our minds have become more creative at night to compensate.

Current circumstances, although necessary, could even be considered a mild form of sensory deprivation (SD). Understanding what happens to those who endure severe SD might help us understand the current collective emotional and cognitive state, and the content of our dreams.

Philip Solomon, at the University of California San Diego, and colleagues at Harvard and Stanford, compiled the results of a symposium on SD in 1958 at Harvard Medical School. The main features of those who experience SD include impairments in organised thinking and negative emotional reactions. Individuals become more suggestible, easily influenced. They become restless, unable to relax. Over time they begin to crave sensory stimuli and in extreme circumstances experience perceptual distortions, even hallucinations. Thankfully, once they regain access to normal external stimulation these unpleasant reactions resolve rapidly for most.

If you’re feeling a lack of challenge in daily life, what might you try that’s enjoyable but still safe?

1. Step out of your comfort zone. Try something quite different. For example, if you usually listen to classical music, familiarise yourself with current pop songs or listen to jazz.

2. Have a backwards day. Start the day with your usual evening activities. Follow with supper and afternoon pastimes. After lunch, pursue your usual morning activities. Finish the day with breakfast. Not only is this entertaining, it will also make you think about the way you spend your time. Based on what you find, build in as much challenge and variety as possible every day.

The Daily Telegraph

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