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For now, travel is the stuff of dreams—literally

The Globe & Mail / March 2021

Like it has everything else, COVID-19 is affecting what we see when we sleep

Last night I went to Jupiter again.

Jupiter, Florida, that is, where not too long ago in the Before Times I spent every Christmas. Just as I remembered, and all in vibrant shades of turquoise and teal and aquamarine, palm trees swayed and gentle waves crashed. Sunshine warmed my much-younger body atop pink sand. I wish I had a sexy plot twist here, but I don’t. That’s the whole dream.

Like it has everything else, COVID-19 has affected our sleep and dreams, though not usually for the better: We’re sleeping more – though not necessarily more soundly – in lockdown, upping both our time spent in dream-filled REM sleep and our dream-recall rate, all while the brain works overtime to process our new normal.

One-third of respondents to a recent survey from dream researchers at the University of Toronto said they had “COVID-specific dreams,” like finding themselves maskless in a crowd or being tasked with home-schooling the whole class. Nearly three-quarters, however, reported that even if they weren’t having COVID nightmares, their dreams had changed since the pandemic began. Many people are experiencing longer, more vivid and, in some cases, totally bizarre dreams.

Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett compiled thousands of them in her book Pandemic Dreams. Of the 4,500 dreamers she’s tracked so far, just 153 reported imagined vacations. “These dreams fall into the theme of wish fulfilment,” she says. Mid-lockdown, they serve an additional purpose to “let you do the very thing that you can’t.” If I’m enjoying them, she adds, then good for me; as a dream researcher, however, she suspects they’re not so straightforward.

Some of my regular adventures seem purely pleasurable, like pasta feasts in Italy and riding camels in the Valley of the Kings. Others maybe not, like a recurring time-travel dream to my long-gone grandma’s house, where I discover a secret door and crawl up into the wall. “That sounds potentially loaded,” Barrett notes. Naturally, I called up the U of T dream team for immediate assessment: Am I the only one having these dreamed getaways? Are they normal?

Yes and no, explains researcher Leela McKinnon of the U of T dream survey. “We saw lots of travel dreams that started pleasurably,” she says. “You’re on a lovely vacation then suddenly you remember COVID and you can’t get home and it turns into a nightmare.” The threat-simulation hypothesis posits dreams are the brain practising for calamity in real life; the dream-continuity hypothesis guesses dreams are consolidating and processing information from the day. Travel dreams mid-lockdown don’t fit into either category, so we decide to dig deeper into my experience via a dream diary.

For a week, I start each morning by audio-recording a sleepy play-by-play. They’re torturous to listen to and even worse to report here: I’m at a safari, it’s old and rundown. I can’t read the map. Is this Africa? The only animal is a polar bear locked in a cage, then I was in the cage too, and the jaguar’s watching me now. I’m hungry for popcorn.

Luckily other people have far cooler subconscious minds than I do. “I was in a packed New York City subway, totally aware of COVID but I didn’t care, dancing and swinging around the poles,” says La Carmina, a Vancouver-based travel writer. She used to travel monthly, so while you might think her lockdown is particularly stifling, it’s actually not. “At least a few times a month, I dream of Tokyo or Hong Kong. I’m walking through busy cities, looking at stores and people, and they’re as vivid as if I were actually there.”

Since childhood, La Carmina’s enjoyed what are known as “lucid dreams” – when the dreamer is aware they’re dreaming and can thus control the plot. Despite their elusive reputation, lucid dreams aren’t hard to have if you know how. “Some people take a month, others can do it in a few days,” says Joseph De Koninck, psychology professor at the University of Ottawa who’s studied lucid dreams for decades – and mastered how to have them. “I trained myself to fly over Quebec City, where I was born, and swoop down to explore.”

Dream incubation” is the fancy term for a simple technique to try to control your dreams: “Think about the dream you want as you fall asleep,” De Koninck says, or repeat an easy phrase (for a free vacation, he suggests “tonight I’ll travel, tonight I’ll travel”). Once you drift off and find yourself on a fabulous Alaskan cruise, if there’s any awareness that it’s just a dream, then you’ve succeeded. Try to interact and change your surroundings. La Carmina fast-tracks the process via a bedroom hack. “Set an early alarm then go back to sleep right away,” she says. “That’s a great time for a lucid dream.”

But to anyone satisfying their wanderlust in dreamland, be warned of looming reality. “The big question about travel dreams is how do you feel in the morning?” De Koninck asks. “Some people wake up with a crash of sadness,” Barrett says, though luckily waking moods are more easily controlled than dreams. Like every other getaway I’ve ever been on, I tend to be sad it’s over but glad I went. And until I can pack my bags and go again, the pandemic travel dream will just have to do.