The Pandemic of Our Dreams

Illustration by Kapp Singer

You’re walking upstream between two icy mountain ranges. On the horizon, you see a humongous can of Coors beer. Water laps at its circular base, and the air you breathe tastes like peppermint gum and cold mist. Everything is fresh and enveloped in a blue glow. Eventually, you are within steps of the Coors can, moments away from the most satisfying  moment of your life: cracking open a cold one. Then you wake up.

Coors recently partnered with Deirdre Barrett, a professor and researcher of dreams at Harvard University, to create a dream incubation experiment as a substitute for a Superbowl ad. The idea was to implant Coors into the minds of consumers so that they could create their own Coors ads in their sleep––like the one I fabricated above. The campaign utilized dream incubation technology and was disseminated to the masses through a video guide on that plays throughout your sleep. Zayn Malik served as an ambassador for the program and fell asleep on Instagram Live listening to the video stimulus said to spark “refreshing” dreams. 

This is the largest dream incubation experiment ever. “We could all use a refreshing dream right now”––claims Coors, suggesting that the beer company could provide some kind of relief for our increased nightmares (and the nightmarish quality of our daytime) during COVID-19. But the Coors dream ads demonstrate a broader, more fascinating issue: whether dreams should be private, and the power of creating a community that communicates through them. 

Recently, Deirdre Barrett––when not serving as the science expert for Coors––has become a public authority on pandemic dreams after conducting a massive survey collecting accounts of over 6,000 dreams since March, and ultimately publishing the book Pandemic Dreams.

Barrett found that, as early as April 2020, our dreams have changed. We are dreaming more. We are talking about our dreams more. We are dreaming more vividly—or at least remembering more vivid dreams. Barrett’s findings reveal that some of these dreams have taken an invisible virus and translated it into the dreamscape as highly visual symbols like bugs. Dr. Barrett also noted the recurring themes of social distancing adventures, mask mishaps, and a hoard of imaginative pandemic scenarios. An uptick in nightmares, post traumatic stress disorder, and dreams completely unrelated to the pandemic have also been tied to COVID-19, too. 

What if there is something meaningful about this era of dreaming? We are being fed stories by our minds in our sleep––fundamentally, our dreams constitute our subconscious attempt to make sense of a world that’s incredibly complex, fearful, and uncertain. What are we supposed to do with our repertoire of unconscious imagery? Yes, we are talking about our dreams. But should we be talking about them differently? Should we try to control them à la Coors, or share them in a quasi community?

Adam Haar Horowitz is a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group. His interdisciplinary approach toward dreaming led him to create Dormio, a technology that controls dreams to stimulate creativity. Dormio, and targeted dreaming in general, can be used as a therapy to treat nightmares, too. He says that he was approached by Coors before Dr. Barrett, but refused to lend his technique and expertise due to ethical concerns surrounding the use of dream incubation for marketing purposes. A model very similar to Dormio ended up being adopted for the Coors project after partnering with Barrett.

Dream incubation has also been used to reduce nightmares. The theory goes, if you think about what you want to dream before you fall asleep, and process your dreams upon waking up, you can actually change your dreams. Matthew Spellberg, a Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, studies the comparative history of dreaming. He emphasizes an additional aspect of dream interactions which is found in many Indigenous cultures: dream negotiation––that is, the discussion of private dreams in a public sphere in order to contextualize them in relation to others’ dreams and waking experiences. 

“I think the pandemic has shown us that when we feel cut off from the systems we belong to, dreams sound the alarm,” says Spellberg. Our dreams reveal how our deep individual experiences relate to the collective and, especially in times of isolation, warn us to pay attention to this negotiation. 

While, Twitter trends, and everyday conversations provide an outlet for sharing dreams, they do not provide the kind of structure that makes dream sharing anything more than a niche activity. This isolation and privatization of dreams is a product of Western ideology, and has been exacerbated by COVID-19, Spellberg says.

“In the West for a really long time, we’ve had these large top-down ideological and political structures that are really enormous, and they can’t accept the kind of flexibility that bringing dreams into the public sphere entails,” said Spellberg. “When you’re asleep and when you’re dreaming, you’re not in contact with anyone else, all your sensory modes are shut off and you’re just in your own head… you lose your connection to all of the stabilizing, unconscious procedures that hold together a communally agreed-upon picture of reality and what you get instead is the mind experimenting wildly with the parameters of reality.”

Spellberg has studied smaller-scale communities that have created unique frameworks to communicate about their dreams that are, in a lot of ways, far more sophisticated and more central to these societies than Western conceptions of dreams. In an article in Cabinet Magazine, Spellberg provides the example of the Ongees of Andaman Islands, who negotiated the content of their dreams at the end of the day, creating a kind of communal dream consciousness. 

Neither Coors’ capitalistic campaign nor pandemic dream forums constitute communal dream frameworks, and they’re not trying to be. But perhaps COVID-19 is revealing a communal urge to talk about our dreams, revel in their mystery, address the nightmares, and contemplate why our dreams always feel meaningful at the moment when we experience them in ways we can’t understand and can’t always remember. Coors, too, is perhaps co-opting our desire for dream sharing––and its integration of dream experience into a commercial mirrors how many artists have validated theirs in paintings and their fiction. 

Maybe we are better off contemplating grander ideas than just our dreams. But by off-handedly dismissing our dreams, perhaps we are ignoring an opportunity to understand our relationship to ourselves, communicate better with our communities, and tap into the creative problem-solving that we exercise in our sleep. Perhaps by being more mindful of our dreams, we can not only learn more about ourselves, but about how we fit into the greater web of dreamers around us.

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