Weird pandemic dreams might be good for you, says researcher

Daniele Quercia has been analyzing people's 'weird' COVID-era dreams using natural language processing and machine learning.

COVID dreams reveal emotional and psychological impact of pandemic

Although our COVID-era dreams can seem alarming, machine learning can help make sense of the function they serve. (amenic181/Shutterstock)

Have your dreams during the pandemic been a little odd?

Perhaps you've had nightmares where you're literally sick, or maybe they've been more abstract, where you're being attacked by animals, or your teeth are falling out. If so, you're far from alone. In fact these dreams can even be healthy. 

Analyzing our COVID nightmares at scale can reveal a lot about our emotional and psychological experience of the pandemic. Computer scientist and urban informatics researcher, Daniele Quercia recently co-authored a study called Epidemic Dreams: dreaming about health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Quercia and the research team used machine learning to make sense of pandemic dreams at a larger scale than would be possible manually. Their algorithm looked for mentions of medical conditions in texts from two different datasets: thousands of 'dream reports' and nearly 60 million tweets. The premise is that dreams are an extension of our waking life concerns, something called the continuity hypothesis, and Quercia and the team wanted to see if there was a difference between what people dreamed about, and what they talked about in waking life.

Unsurprisingly, in many cases, dreams simply expressed a literal continuation of waking COVID concerns. People talked about 'coughs' in tweets, for instance, and dreamed about coughs. But what Quercia found interesting was where dreams took a more psychological, metaphorical turn. 

"People were dreaming about really weird stuff, for example, teeth falling out, or bodies crumbling into sand," Quercia told Spark host, Nora Young.

Some things we dream about are equally prevalent in our waking discussions (identified here in orange) according to the paper, Epidemic Dreams: Dreaming about health during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Nokia Bell Labs/University of Copenhagen/Harvard Medical )

As they dug into the data more, they were able to understand the relationship between these strange dreams and people's emotional experience of the pandemic. "Now, all of a sudden, we could actually see that balding and teeth falling out were associated with words that very much were related to anxiety, so that was a way of expressing anxiety," Quercia said.

"People, when they verbalize their experiences during the pandemic, they try to rationalize things. They go through a logical process of sense-making. Whereas when they dream, they go through a more emotional process," he said.

Although these dreams can seem alarming, Quercia said they serve a useful function. "One of the consequences of the continuity hypothesis is that many psychologists would then say, well, if the continuity hypothesis holds, then dreams work as a 'night therapist' relive the experiences you have during your waking life and you make sense of them," Quercia added. 

Daniele Quercia used machine learning to analyze people's COVID-era dreams. (D. Quercia)

Quercia acknowledged there are inherent challenges involved in using machine learning to gain insights from text, for example discerning the meaning of a word or phrase depending on context, something humans generally do quite easily. So developing a sophisticated natural language processing algorithm was an important part of the research project. 

What use might we make of this sort of analysis of our dream-state anxieties in this strange time? As the research team pointed out in their research paper, throughout the pandemic, various techniques have been used to get a sense of the public's experience: in particular, surveys and social media analysis. But this analysis gets at a different layer of experience which is more psychological and metaphorical in nature, but nonetheless speaks to mental and physical well-being. 

Written by Nora Young. Produced by Nora Young and Michelle Parise.