A study has been published in the Frontiers in Psychology in which the scientists used artificial intelligence to analyze the dream content of around thousand people in Finland and found that the novel coronavirus had infected more than half of the distressing dreams that were reported.
The researchers crowdsourced sleep and stress data from more than 4,000 people during the sixth week of the COVID-19 lockdown in Finland. 800 additional respondents also contributed information about their dreams. And most of them revealed their anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
Dr. Anu-Katriina Pesonen, head of the Sleep & Mind Research Group at the University of Helsinki and the lead author of the study said, “We were thrilled to observe repeating dream content associations across individuals that reflected the apocalyptic ambiance of COVID-19 lockdown.”
“The results allowed us to speculate that dreaming in extreme circumstances reveal shared visual imagery and memory traces. Dreams can indicate some form of shared mindscape across individuals. The idea of shared imagery reflected in dreams is intriguing,” she added.
Pesonen and her team transcribed the content of the dreams from Finnish into English words and fed the data into an AI algorithm, which scanned for frequently appearing word associations. The computer showed what the researchers called dream clusters that are the “smaller dream particles” rather than entire dreams.
As a result, 33 dream clusters and themes emerged, out of which twenty of the dream clusters were classified as bad dreams, and 55 per cent of them showed pandemic-specific content. The themes specifically showed up as failures in social distancing, coronavirus contagion, personal protective equipment, dystopia, and apocalypse were rated as pandemic specific.
For example, word pairs in a dream cluster were labeled as “Disregard of Distancing” included mistake-hug, hug-handshake, handshake-restriction, handshake-distancing, distancing-disregard, distancing-crowd, crowd-restriction, and crowd-party.
“The computerized linguistics-based, AI-assisted analytics that we used is a new approach in dream research. We hope to see more AI-assisted dream research in the future. We hope that our study opened the development towards that direction,” Pesonen added.
Some insights into the sleep patterns and stress levels of people during this pandemic were offered in the study. For instance, more than half of respondents reported sleeping more than before the period of self-quarantine, though 10 per cent had a tougher time falling asleep and more than a quarter reported more frequent nightmares.
It was reported that more than half of study participants saw increases in stress levels, which were more closely linked to patterns like a night of disturbed sleep and bad dreams. The ones who are most stressed out are the ones who saw more pandemic-specific dreams.
The medical experts who are already working on the studies related to the mental health issues due to coronavirus can get valuable insights from this research.
According to Pesonen, Sleep is a central factor in all mental health issues and said, “Repeated, intense nightmares may refer to post-traumatic stress. The content of dreams is not entirely random, but can be an important key to understand the feeling of experiencing stress, trauma, and anxiety.”