My theory about dreams is straightforward: while your conscious brain is sleeping, your subconscious brain is still at work, sifting through what you’ve read or heard or seen or otherwise experienced recently and trying to organize it into some kind of story — because our brains crave order and are hard-wired to try to put things into patterns. Dreams are strange and disconnected because it’s hard to turn random incidents into a coherent story, but the subconscious brain does its best.
I think the operative plot elements of your dreams all come from the recent brain input, but ancillary characters, background settings, and other details that fill in the inevitable, yawning gaps in the story line are drawn from your vast repository of memories. That’s why you might see a former work colleague who has been dead for years suddenly turn up, sharply etched from memory, as the boatyard attendant in a dream that involves some weird effort to take a boat to meet a friend. And because the settings seem to be based on decades of collective memories, they tend to involve, in some murky, dream-like sense, the world of the past.
That’s why it’s interesting to me that, four months after the coronavirus hit and the world tilted on its axis, I’m starting to have dreams that have some kind of COVID-19 element. Last night I had a dream in which one of the people in the background was wearing a blue paper coronavirus mask — certainly something that would not have been part of any dream I would have before March 2020 — and I’ve also had a dream where my dream self was troubled to see that there were discarded coronavirus masks on a roadway as I walked past.
So far, at least, I haven’t had any coronavirus embarrassment or anxiety-type dreams, where I’ve humiliatingly shown up for some important event without a mask, or in my dream I’m horribly late for something because I stupidly put off getting a mask and now I can’t find one anywhere. I imagine it’s just a matter of time before those kinds of dreams get worked into the nightly mix.
And that’s probably the most disturbing part of all of this. The coronavirus period has gone on long enough to work its way into our subconscious brains. If, like me, you still have dreams from time to time about missing an important exam — decades after your last exam ever occurred — you have to wonder: are we going to be haunted by periodic COVID-19 dreams for the rest of our lives? We may sincerely hope that a successful vaccine is developed, “herd immunity” is achieved, and the world returns to “normal” — but come night-time our subconscious brains may continue to give us a dose of the topsy-turvy coronavirus world of 2020 whether we like it or not.