Dreaming in Lockdown: Prisoners, Astronauts, and Self-Isolators

By Samantha Treasure, MA Medical Anthropology

I am in a gondola lift, alone. As it ascends from a landing, I see two people I know, talking and laughing as they climb aboard another gondola. I bang on the window, trying to get their attention, but they can’t hear me. Suddenly, I’m sitting around a huge table with my mum, in a posh restaurant with wooden panels, warm lighting, and polite waiters. I decide to order pig ears, and they suddenly appear on the plate before me. Due to a lapse in memory, my mum pays the bill instead of me, and I feel guilty. I tell her I’ll stop at the ATM on our way out and she nods.

Many of us in self-isolation have noticed an increase in the intensity and bizarreness of our “lockdown dreams”, perhaps due to sleeping in (more time to dream), or from a need to process our newly unpredictable surroundings. The recent talk of lockdown dreams made me wonder what astronauts and prisoners dream of when they’re isolated from society. A dominant dream theory in psychology is the continuity hypothesis, which simply states that dreams reflect our waking life. However, periods of social isolation don’t necessarily result in dreams void of people, as might be expected.

In fact, just the opposite seems to happen. In 1962, PhD candidate Paul Baker Wood found that after a day of complete social isolation, dream reports showed an increase in social interactions. More recently, Antii Revonsuo and his team put forward the social simulation theory, which argues that the over-representation of social content in dreams suggests a social evolutionary function. The preponderance of social dream content might also be explained by the research of psychologists such as Michael Schredl, who found that dreams reflect our emotional concerns: since many of us are most emotional about people, that’s what we will most dream about.

The dreams of prisoners

During World War 2, Major Kenneth Hopkins collected dream reports from his fellow British prisoners of war, which showed food dreams to be a frequent theme. This was also the case with American Civil War PoWs, who found comfort in sharing their dreams with each other. A lot of these dreams were placed food in the context of home and family, supporting the social simulation theory, while others consisted simply of seeing or eating the food.

Interestingly, isolation has also been found to increase daydreams of social simulations. In an Aeon article, an ex-prisoner in New York recalled how, missing connections with the outside world, he corresponded with a woman named Mercedes during each day of his first month in solitary confinement. This cheered him up, even though he had to write her replies himself.

Prisoners have also reported coping with isolation through out-of-body experiences or focusing on their inner world. American convict Ed Morrell became the subject of Jack London’s 1915 book Star Rover after spending five years in solitary confinement. He reported numerous out-of-body experiences while imprisoned, in which he felt himself escaping the limits of his cell to wander around the town and beyond. In contrast, former prisoner Jennifer Toon described how she embraced her cell as a place of refuge, which led to the outside world fading away as her inner world rose to the surface, “as if it had always been waiting to do so.”

The diversity of these reactions to imprisonment are fascinating and surely warrant further research.

The dreams of astronauts

Contrary to prisoners, astronauts are fulfilling their dream of being in space. They also live with their colleagues, are chosen for their ability to work with others, and have regular consultations with a psychologist. Yet they have a lot to contend with in terms of sleep disruption: zero-gravity conditions and an adapting vestibular system, motion sickness, increased CO2 levels, the excitement of being in space, intense workdays, and hallucinations, some apparently caused by cosmic radiation, some of an unknown origin. On his first space flight, Leland D. Melvin experienced these cosmic ray hallucinations first-hand, appearing as flashes of light or streaks of colour. In orbit, the stimulus of the day would give him vividly coloured dreams, and like the prisoners mentioned above, he dreamt of food that he craved, such as greasy hamburgers and pizza.
Retired astronaut Scott Kelly has also spoken about his “crazy” dreams in space. After being repeatedly asked about his space dreams by the public, he decided to keep a dream journal the next time he went into orbit, many of which he shared in his book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery. A recurring theme involves visits with his girlfriend, either in space or back on Earth. In one of these dreams, he wanders the streets of New York with her, rescuing her pet spiders from an evil cab driver. In another dream, a new arrival to the ISS creates a meth lab on board. This causes smoke to spill into other areas, and Kelly starts to worry about the air quality. To solve this problem, he tricks the newcomer into the airlock and “spaces” him. This dream seemed to reflect his ongoing concerns, which he mentions throughout the book, about CO2 levels on board, which rise with each crew member. While he gives many more interesting examples of space dreams, none of them quite match up to the bizarreness that plagued cosmonaut Sergey Krichevsky’s colleagues.

I stumbled upon a Russian news article about the strange dreams of astronauts, particularly after a month in orbit. According to Krichevsky’s informant (who wished to remain anonymous), a common type of space dream involves the feeling of rapid transformation into an animal. Although this usually happens at bedtime, it can also occur while resting, particularly after lunch. My favourite example is of an astronaut who transforms into a dinosaur, and feels himself roar as he runs along a riverbank. I found this story quoted on multiple sites, where it is sometimes described like a lucid dream (i.e. the feeling is so real that the astronaut can’t believe it’s not happening) or an out-of-body experience (the astronaut transforms after leaving his body).
I enquired about astronaut dreams to psychiatrist and dream researcher Elena Korabelnikova, who is based at First Moscow State Medical University. Surely a nation with such a robust presence in space, and which has produced a wonderful body of dream research, would have academic literature on the subject of astronaut dreams? However, according to Korabelnikova, astronauts are reluctant to risk compromising themselves by sharing their experiences, including dreams, due to the strict criteria of professional selection to go into space. I agree with Krichevsky when he argues that serious studies should be done on changes to the human psyche while in space. Referring to the dinosaur example above, he asks (flinging his arms in the air, I imagine), “Will he be able to control a spaceship in this state?”

As the public experiences the effects of isolation themselves, perhaps there will be more impetus to study these effects in different circumstances, including in prison or in space.

Lockdown Dreams

While prisoners and astronauts are limited to confined physical spaces as many of us now are, self-isolators do not have to contend with cosmic radiation or the monotony of a punitive cell. The defining feature of our isolation is the invisible virus that may be anywhere – and in anyone – yet the new rules of our society restrict us from seeking out loved ones for protection and comfort.

Among the countless reports of unusually vivid lockdown dreams are dreams of being chased by bugs, and entering the wrong Zoom meeting. Dream researcher Dierdre Barrett suggests that this is due to improved dream recall, because more people are (1) catching up on sleep, and (2) waking up without an alarm. But the content of these dreams may also be telling of the social changed affecting us during the pandemic.

During the Third Reich, over 300 dreams were collected from German citizens by Charlotte Beradt, a Jewish journalist based in Berlin who noticed her dreams changing after Hitler’s rise to power. The reports revealed disparities between citizens’ daytime beliefs (i.e. that they could resist their government), and their dreams. Many of these dreams reflected questions of “where to and when?” that concerned their safety. Beradt’s study informed the work of social scientist W. Gordon Lawrence (1934-2013), who invented the social dream matrix, a method of sharing dreams which highlights their social aspects. Participants are invited to share a recent dream, after which others share a dream with similar associations, and so on. Rather than interpret the dream, reflections and insights are freely discussed by the group.

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a social dreaming matrix run by the Tavistock Institute, in which dozens of people from across the world shared their dreams via Zoom. The current concerns of dreamers during the Covid-19 pandemic seemed reflected in these dreams, which largely involved difficulties with relationships and with access to buildings.

In one of these dreams, the dreamer’s granddaughter was standing several metres away from her, as per the pandemic regulations, but no longer wanted to meet with her. She missed her granddaughter very much and this dream upset her. The theme of social exclusion continued with several dreams about experiencing racial discrimination or being denied entry into buildings for not having money or the right documents. Another common theme was the formation of new partnerships, and marriage came up several times. In one, two tigers got married, while another dream involved marriage between the dreamer and a stranger, which made her feel safe. This was followed by another participant’s dream of an unwanted union, in which her ex attempted to seduce her. In contrast with Beradt’s collection of “where to and when?” dreams, these lockdown dreams seem to reflect concerns around “where to and with whom?”

I think my dream reflected social concerns similarly: being in an enclosed gondola lift, alone, separated from those that cannot hear me; concerns about social adequacy, in which I feel like a burden to my Mum after she pays our restaurant bill. Incidentally, traveling and eating in restaurants are two things I’ve dearly missed during my time in lockdown (I haven’t dreamt of greasy pizza yet, but that’s probably because I can just get it delivered). I have made an oath to continue sampling my inner self’s bizarre menu even after lockdown ends, keeping in mind the effect of environmental factors on dreams (such as zero-gravity or catching up on sleep). I will probably listen with more interest when people talk about their dreams, being now made aware of what they uncover about the dynamics and trajectories of our social world.


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