Is This All Just A Dream?

Masha Voronchenko

Did you see blood coming from a car last night, or a wall crumbing in front of you? Or was it just a dream? Now can you remember this dream? With nowhere to go and not much to do, I’ve found myself entering a different world every night while sleeping. A vivid one that is far more unpleasant than it should be. And I'm not the only one. “I had the craziest dream last night,” is a message that I’ve woken up to. So he took the broken glass mirror on the floor of dead beige roses and started throwing it at me, a message that I clearly remember from a friend whose life right now is hardly far from a nightmare, relatively speaking in comparison to other people. But why is it that now all of a sudden nearly 30% of the American population has experienced an increased recall in the past month, especially the younger people of ages 18-34?*

*(Field work for the online survey was conducted April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the U.S. adult population.)

For some answers, we can turn to the “father of psychology”, Sigmund Freud, whose theories all focused around the idea of the unconscious. He proposed that we are all born with different amounts of libido, a biological psychosexual urge, that is unconscious. What we call our “self” is divided into three parts, our Id - our unconscious desires and impulses, our Ego- comes in contact with reality and guides defenses mechanisms, and our SuperEgo- which is perfection seeking and also unconscious. Our Id is driven by the unconscious desire for sexual gratification or pleasure. Thus our desires and impulses, often having to do with sex, violence, or killing, are in constant struggle with our Superego and our Ego, which represses these “unacceptable” thoughts and desires back into the unconscious. It is through the process of sublimation through which we express our innate desires in socially acceptable ways, such as the extreme example of becoming a soldier in order to satisfy the impulse of killing. But from these unconscious desires being constantly repressed, arises an unconscious psychosexual conflict that all humans go through. In an attempt to solve this conflict, Freud believed in “tapping into the unconscious” through psychoanalysis with his patients. And dreams, as the ones that many of us are starting to recall more and more of right now, were one of the ways he believed he could gain insight into a person.

Dreams, being an example of primary process thinking, are often nonlinear and irrational, defying the rules of time, space and geography which command our daily lives. They are an expression of our unconscious, which for many people now is filled with conflicting thoughts that they may not even be fully aware of. It is often younger people who depend on social activities and societal outlets to express their desires in and release their urges though. But with social distancing in place and with the closing of all museums, schools, restaurants, gyms, and bars, young people’s urges are unable to be expressed and are unable to even be thought about since the ego would repress any of these unconscious desires that might seem repulsing. This a host of negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, anger, or trauma spill into the dream life and are expressed there. With less places to go, many sleep deprived people are catching up on sleep by sleeping for longer periods of time without being artificially woken up. Thus they’re experiencing more complete sleep cycles and more REM sleep (rapid eye movement) which is a period of deep sleep when most vivid dreams tend to occur, making more of us able to dream vividly. But with the stress of COVID 19 all around us, sleep disruptions are more likely to happen as our bodies become unconsciously anxious and prepare for a fight or flight response, resulting in a sudden repeated emergence from REM sleep throughout the night, causing a higher recall of the strange dreams. So the work, family, self, and broader stresses of the current situation add to heightened emotionality which result in unpleasant vivid dreams that reflect the many of the unconscious emotions, impulses, and urges we may be feeling that are harder to express now. So Freud might have not been wrong. Maybe our dreams not only need to be looked into more, but maybe our dream life, which has been stimulated by the crisis, gives us an array of alternative paths in the future answering the call for visionary guidance from the younger generations.