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The Science of Sleep: Lockdown Dreams

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Did you know, on average we all dream 4 – 5 times per night? Even though we don’t always remember them, we all have dreams! Over the last year, lots of people have reported having more vivid or memorable dreams than usual, especially when we have been living in lockdown. Amy Barrett from Science Focus and Professor Mark Blagrove, director of the Sleep Laboratory at Swansea University, explain why…

“There are several stages within one night’s sleep” explains Amy. “First of all, we get drowsy. Our brain activity begins to lull and we move quickly into light, then deep sleep – these three stages together are what’s known as non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep. After around an hour’s sleep, we move into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Both REM and non-REM sleep are vital for the brain – any disruption to either has been observed to affect mood and memory in particular – and we cycle between the two several times during the course of the night.”

“The leading theory of why we dream is that dreaming is a side effect of our brain sorting through and processing our memories. This is why we tend to associate REM sleep with dreaming – though we do dream in non-REM sleep, studies have found we are less likely to remember these dreams.” 

“We know that people are having more dreams than normal,” explains Blagrove. “It seems to be because people are sleeping longer. A lot of people are waking up without alarm clocks, so their final REM sleep period of the night is probably longer than it normally would be. Our morning routines are also more relaxed, which means we probably have more time to stop and think about the dreams we’ve just awoken from”

Experiments at the University of Swansea have shown that we dream of our waking life’s emotional experiences more than non-emotional experiences. “Emotions for a lot of people may be higher over this period. “Stress has also been found to make us have more nightmares,” says Blagrove, “although these nightmares are often not about the specific stressor occurring – instead, they may have some other theme but carry the same negative emotion from waking life.”

“For a lot of people at the moment, the stress they’re under is a very current stress. And so it may be, I’m afraid, that the nightmares will still happen. It may be that we need to have an endpoint to it [the pandemic] for our dreams to get back to normal.”