Mathematics Utilized To Understand Bizarre Pandemic Dreams

Our dreams, which have become more strange and vivid, reflect the troublesome feelings that emerged with the pandemic.
Derya Ozdemir

As the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic became our new normal, the associated feelings that came with it, the fear, sadness, anxiety, and all those difficult feelings, have been reflected on our dreams, with numerous people reporting that their dreams have changed, becoming more strange and vivid.

In a first-of-its-kind study, published in PLOS ONE which looked at these mental suffering signs and their association with dreams during the pandemic, the researchers have managed to document the continuity between what happens in the dream world and people's mental lives during the pandemic. 

Analyzing the dreams using mathematics 

The researchers used natural language processing tools to analyze 239 dream reports by 67 subjects produced in March and April 2020 to see the effect of the pandemic on people's dreams, Eurokalert reports. While previous studies have been done on the subject, the study is unusual for a few reasons. 

"This is interesting from the standpoint of dream theory," the study's supervisor Sidarta Ribeiro said. "Another point worth highlighting is that they did so quantitatively, using mathematics to extract semantics."

The dream reports were recorded by the volunteers using a smartphone app. Then, they were transcribed and analyzed using three software tools. The first one focused on discourse structure, word count, and connectedness, while the other two focused solely on content. One of the two ranged words in certain emotional categories such as positive and negative emotions. The other used a neural network to identify semantic similarity to specified pandemic-related keywords such as contamination, cleanliness, sickness, health, death, and life.

It was seen that pandemic dreams had more anger and sadness words with a higher average of semantic similarities to the terms "contamination" and "cleanness." The researchers wrote that these features seemed to be associated with mental suffering linked to social isolation.

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The researchers wrote in the article that "the significant similarity to 'cleanness' in dream reports points towards new social strategies (e.g. use of masks, avoidance of physical contact) and new hygiene practices (e.g. use of hand sanitizer and other cleaning products) that have become central to new social rules and behavior."

"Taken together, these findings seem to show that dream contents reflect the different sources of fear and frustration arising out of the current scenario."

The researchers also indirectly detected there was a gender difference, with women reporting more negative dreams and nightmares. "I think this has to do with women's history and daily lives, with working a double or triple shift, and the heavier mental burden entailed by concerning themselves with a job plus the home and children. The pandemic has made this worse," said Natália Bezerra Mota, a neuroscientist and lead author of the study.

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