Gender differences in lockdown dreams

There was a weird period of lockdown when everyone simultaneously decided to revisit Houseparty, Year 10’s hottest piece of cyberbullying equipment. One of the few conversation starters you could grasp out of the static of daily nothingness was the Lockdown Dream Report. Back in your real life, subjecting anyone to the details of a nocturnal adventure had been the lowest form of chat-crime, but now that everything basically felt like one long hallucination anyway, you thought you could get away with it.

Since then, however, research has been published suggesting some more depressing implications to the differences in the dreams people reported. A paper released earlier this year from the Harvard Medical School showed that women reported significantly darker content in their coronavirus dreams than men. Deirdre Barrett of Harvard’s Department of Psychiatry, collected survey data from around 3,000 respondents of all ages, genders, and nationalities and used a tool called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) to assess their emotional content. Barrett compared results between men and women in 9 LIWC categories – positive emotions, negative emotions, anxiety, anger, biological processes, body, health, and death – and used data from a very similar 1996 study to investigate changes between the two groups.

The results showed universal changes in the directions you’d expect: lower in positive emotions, higher ineverything else. Men and women shared similar dramatic increases in health-related dream content, but women seemed to be disproportionately more affected in every other area. There were large decreases in the level of positive emotion, elevated anxiety, anger and sadness and more of a focus on biological processes, the body and death. In men, the change from positive and negative emotion and the prevalence of anxiety and death occurred to some extent, but significantly less and there was no change in the anger, sadness and body categories at all. Barrett puts this startling disparity down what psychologists call the continuity hypothesis, which is the idea that dreams reflect the waking emotional state of the dreamer.

Others have suggested that this difference could be explained by the threat simulation theory of dreaming. Antti Revonsuo of the University of Turku. Finland, outlined this theory in an article published in 2000. He believes that dreams can act as a kind of ‘virtual training ground’ for events that the conscious mind thinks could come up in the future. He also thinks this feature is an evolutionary adaptation formed millions of years ago, and so was ‘designed’ to best deal with the kind of threats our ancestors would have faced, rather than what we are likely to experience now. He cites a range of evidence: firstly, the massive increase in nightmares in individuals who have experienced trauma.

People, especially children, exposed to traumatic events are almost always found to have dreams in which they return to the traumatic situation and are forced to relive it, or where they seek revenge on the cause of their trauma, for example, an attacker. One particular case he brings up is a study of the dreams of Arab and Israeli children in living in the West Bank in 1989. Here, the ‘other side’ was overrepresented in the children’s dreams compared with their real lives, and in many cases, they dreamt about entirely plausible events given their situation, but nonetheless events that had not yet happened to them.

Secondly, the absence of ‘intellectual content’ from most people’s dreams. That is, walking, conversation, and sexual activity are about as common in dreams as they are while awake, whereas reading and writing almost never appear. Finally, the fact that dreamt threat often doesn’t align with actual threat in modern societies – people living comfortable lives are much more likely to dream about the extremely rare axe murderer than the much more likely car crash. A study he refers to finds that the most common sources of hostility in nightmares are dangerous animals and aggressive human males. It is only when we return to the victims of violent trauma that it starts to look more rational, he says, because those events are more similar to the kinds of emotionally charged risks that prehistoric humans faced.

If you think that all sounds a bit unbelievable, I don’t blame you. But, in Revonsuo’s defense, he does remind us that if it did exist, the threat simulation theory wouldn’t be the first human risk avoidance behaviour to be a holdover from our past. Plenty of people appear to have an instinctive response to spiders, snakes, and rats, and fewer to cigarettes and buses. 

Returning back to Barrett, then, it looks as if her findings could demonstrate a major difference in the suffering being experienced by men and women during the pandemic. As she points out, women are 3x more likely to be engaged in unpaid care work, and make up 70% of healthcare workers, where jobs are less likely to be well paid or have high status and are more likely to go without PPE. They are at a greater risk of domestic violence and more likely in unstable employment. The pay gap remains at 16%, and women have lost more jobs overall than men since the start of the pandemic. Overall, Barrett’s study is a pretty bleak reminder of the extent to which coronavirus has exacerbated inequality worldwide and will continue to do so.

By Finn Laslett

Header image: Fabian Oelkers/Unsplash