It’s late at night and there is a balmy September heatwave. Second chance summer, I’m calling it. After 18 months of living alone, staring at the same surroundings in my (albeit lovely) one-bedroom flat, I have the privilege of having just returned from a remote Greek island in the Aegean Sea.
The appeal of holidays is, quite literally, escapism. They are a chance to live out a fantasy. During the pandemic, though, they have been fraught. Nowhere in the world has been untouched by COVID-19 or the economic downturn it has brought with it. Travel, even when it was allowed, has meant taking on potential risks yourself and posing a risk to others. Nonetheless, as the success of the vaccine rollout became apparent, holiday bookings surged.
In spite of everything, escapism, it seemed, was still a priority for those who could afford it.
Summer nights on the island are silent but for the odd fight between the stray cats for whom people leave out food and water. While there, for the first time in around eight months I was able to dream, in spite of the Cycladic heat. If anything, it leeched my thoughts out of me. Perhaps, because I was not at home or at work, I had given myself permission to dream. It felt like having the privilege to take a break and leave my regular surroundings had created the space to think again.
As I slept I had long, winding conversations with exes. I had four huge pet tigers. I lived on the island and ran a restaurant where everything I served was grown in my own vegetable patch. I witnessed London become submerged in a flood caused by the climate emergency before being invaded by aliens.
My thoughts moved as quickly as the clouds that would descend on the island as evening rolled in, making everything damp. They were vivid enough to quiet any anxieties about infection rates at home and passenger locator forms. At the same time, they were working through everything that had happened recently in my personal life, as well as the news: breakups, the IPCC's "code red" climate change report and possibly even the story of Geronimo the alpaca which, somehow, I think was linked to the tigers.
Research from 2020 shows that the pandemic has shaped our dreams and, indeed, our nightmares. One study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that people were sleeping and dreaming more.
This should come as no surprise. Our dreams reflect our waking consciousness by spontaneously incorporating our daytime experiences. The available evidence suggests that this happens by something known as a circaseptan process. A circaseptan rhythm is a cycle consisting of approximately seven days in which many biological processes of life resolve. And so our dreams tend to include events from the preceding day (known as the day-residue effect) and the preceding week (known as the dream-lag effect).
Dreaming is an inbuilt mechanism for us to imagine ourselves in possible futures and in different social situations.
Dr Heather Sequeira
While I was away, my dreams continued when I was awake. In daydreams I fantasised about alternative versions of my life: Maybe I could just move here... I have always wanted to be a florist... Perhaps I could have a baby... As I sat in the sun I concentrated hard on inserting myself into these daydreams, to live in them and feel them out. I pulled my other lives on and walked around in them.
Back in London, I cannot sleep at night. I do not dream. I turn and turn again. I place the pillow on its colder side. I resist the urge to turn my phone over and see what time it is. Instead I focus on my fantasies, conjuring them up in the liminal space between night and day, between being awake and asleep. When the light comes, I take a walk before settling down to work for the day and do the same. I daydream. Turning over visions of the life I could have in my mind as I pace the same routes I have taken for months on end. I don’t want to stop. My real life feels like an unwanted interruption and I feel guilty for wanting to escape it.
Now, I wonder, am I dreaming too much? Dr Heather Sequeira is a consultant psychologist. She says there is a line but, on the whole, "allowing our minds to daydream or ‘try different experiences on for size’ in our inner world is largely a good thing and can be beneficial." This is because dreaming is what Heather calls our "inbuilt mechanism for us to imagine ourselves in possible futures and in different social situations. It’s a way of our brain to test our desires, to gauge how things might feel in different situations and contexts. It's a way for us to ‘try out’ and rehearse potential future events and especially those events that involve social encounters and relationships."
Dreaming, then, is productive for our emotional lives. "It is also a way to review past experiences," Heather continues. "Particularly social ones. We can get lost in trying to predict what a person was thinking and feeling when they were interacting with us – indeed this kind of daydreaming can help our brain make sense of these experiences. To do this our brain sorts through the thousands of social encounters we hold in our brain already and tries to put together all the variations, imagining and predicting the inner world and behaviour of other people in relation to ourselves in these imagined contexts."
While of course it’s true that our daydreams can sometimes be idealised imaginings – just as they can be projections of things we fear or wish to avoid – Heather says that there is evidence that they can aid our creativity.
"There are countless examples of authors, scientists and other creatives stumbling upon ‘aha’ moments, novel concepts and alternative solutions to problems while dreaming or daydreaming," she says. "When we daydream, a collection of brain regions known as the ‘default mode network’ is active. This area of the brain is most active when we mentally ‘drift off’ or ‘zone out’ when we are not occupied by an external task that needs our attention."
Heather is not alone in extolling the virtues of daydreams. Earlier this year a group of researchers published a study in the journal Emotion in which they argued that daydreaming is an important activity in the brain. One which we all need to learn to do more.
It's important to keep in mind the extent to which dreaming is useful and valuable, rather than good or bad.
DR HEATHER SEQUEIRA
Erin Westgate is one of the study’s authors. She is a social psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Florida. She wrote that daydreaming is a "part of our cognitive toolkit that’s underdeveloped, and it’s kind of sad."
Erin and the study’s other authors found that we "simply don’t know what to think about in order to think for pleasure, or daydream." They speculated that this could be, in part, because as children we are shamed for daydreaming and told to concentrate rather than encouraged to get lost in our thoughts.
"It’s always a balance between staying present in the here and now and letting your mind go off into fantasy or future prediction," Heather says. "So it’s important to keep in mind the extent to which dreaming is useful and valuable, rather than good or bad."
At the same time, she cautions, it can become addictive and unhelpful levels of daydreaming can be an automatic coping mechanism that a person is using to regulate emotional distress. This is known as maladaptive daydreaming and it is accepted as a response to trauma, abuse or loneliness.
And so, as we emerge from 18 months of uncertainty and upheaval, perhaps our dreams are doing more work than we realise. The Indian author Arundhati Roy suggested in April 2020 that the pandemic was "a portal".
"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew," she wrote. "This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next."
Our dreams, too, provide a portal. We have all been forced to face ourselves. To confront what is and isn’t working in our own lives as well as our collective life as a society, from inequality to racism, the crisis in safe and secure housing to the climate emergency. Our dreams provide an egress, opening out into a space where we can thrash things out and try new ways of doing things. When they come to us, wherever we are, we should embrace them.