A couple of weeks ago, I dreamed that I was in the Andamans, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, as part of a team of anthropologists. We were trying to establish contact with an isolated and fearsome tribe that could only be the fabled Sentinelese.
The Sentinelese, now a population not exceeding one hundred, have occupied a coral-fringed island the size of Manhattan for tens of thousands of years, according to National Geographic. After a gift-bearing mission nearly three decades ago (the Indian government sent anthropologists carrying coconuts), nobody has managed to make friendly contact with them. In 2018, they allegedly killed a US missionary who sought to sneak into the island to spread the lord’s word. It wasn’t the first time an outsider had tried to trespass, with tragic consequences. The government has made it illegal to enter the island, a move meant to maintain the peace and keep the Sentinelese safe from infections.
Coming back to my dream. It was like an Indiana Jones flick, replete with formulaic action: putting on camouflage to avoid the tribe’s deadly arrows, frenzied running around on a sparkling, sandy beach, a whole lot of note-taking, and much shushing by a man who must have been our group leader. We couldn’t spot the tribe and nobody died, but I remember waking up with a distinctly ominous feeling. I also felt a tinge of regret, as if I had left a very important assignment unfinished.
I have been to the Andamans twice, including in 2004, when our family vacation was aborted by the Indian Ocean tsunami. That incident triggered a fear of water and earthquakes that still infiltrates my dreams. But this dream was clearly not about any of that.
Rather, it fit into a series of dreams that has become something of a pattern in the past three or four months: I’m lost in Europe without money; hiding from someone in a minority ghetto in New Zealand; enslaved by a wealthy trader in Mumbai, till his wife – who’s my wife in the real world – conspires to set me free.
The thing is, I am not much of an adventurer. In fact as the whole world went into a paroxysm of travel withdrawal during lockdown, I often smugly told friends that being cooped up didn’t affect me at all, because that’s my preferred mode of existence anyway.
My dreams have largely reflected my way of life – until now.
‘Unprecedented opening of the oneiric floodgates’
Tore Nielsen, a psychiatrist who runs the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at Université de Montréal, might explain the shift in my dreamscape thus: "It seems clear that some basic biological and social dynamics may have played a role in this unprecedented opening of the oneiric floodgates."
In a long, utterly intriguing article for Scientific American, Nielsen says Covid-19 has impacted "how much we dream, how many of our dreams we remember and the nature of our dreams themselves".
"Early this year, when stay-at-home directives were put in place widely, society quite unexpectedly experienced what I am calling a dream surge: a global increase in the reporting of vivid, bizarre dreams, many of which are concerned with coronavirus and social distancing."
Nielsen identifies three factors behind this "surge":
- disrupted sleep schedules augmenting the amount of REM sleep and therefore dreaming
- threats of contagion and social distancing taxing dreaming’s capacity to regulate emotions
- and social and mainstream media amplifying the public’s reaction to the surge.
He adds that many Covid-19 dreams reflect tensions about contagion and social distancing.
While I am working with my therapist to decode my dreams, I can see how dreaming about a remote tribe that has resisted socialisation with the wider world and is uniquely vulnerable to infections could be part of this global dreamscape.
PS: After three weeks in lockdown in Naples, my friend and colleague Irene wrote this in a newsletter:
"[W]hen night comes, I go out on the wildest walks (in my dreams, of course!). Last night, I was in Madrid, figuring out where to leave my luggage before heading to the airport. The night before, I was in a beautiful villa with a huge garden and three (!!) swimming pools. If I had to guess from the bougainvillea around the property and the view from the top, it was probably on the island of Capri. I was in the water, swimming, and so was Lorenzo, my son. The sun was out but it was not too hot ..."
What about you? Has Covid-19 altered your dreams (or nightmares)? If yes, how and what do you make of it? Do write to me.
Until next week, sleep well and dream on.