The human subconscious may treat Covid-19 as a “threat” rather than an “illness”, according to a study of people’s dreams by Chinese scientists.
Covid-19 has killed more than 1.3 million people around the world but the amount of disease-related content in the dreams of 100 Chinese people studied in February was no more than usual, while the number of threatening events they dreamt about increased, the researchers said.
“The more people encounter threatening experiences in waking life, the more likely they are to report dreams about threatening events,” said the team led by professor Shen Heyong from South China Normal University.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
The peer-reviewed study was published on Saturday in the journal Consciousness and Cognition.
“The idea here is that the situations encountered in dreams help us learn how to recognise and respond to threatening circumstances, and the better we get at applying this knowledge to real threats in our waking life, the more likely we are to survive and reproduce,” Shen said.
To test how the so-called threat-rehearsal theory applied to the coronavirus outbreak, the researchers recruited about 100 volunteers at a time when the health crisis was at its peak in China.
The participants were then asked to provide details of their dreams, including how they felt, what the settings were, who featured in them. Some of the volunteers’ descriptions ran to more than 1,000 words.
Three researchers were involved in the dream decoding process, with two working with the subjects to record their interpretations and a third acting as arbiter to settle disputes.
Content such as escapes, pursuits, accidents and catastrophes were categorised as indicators of a threat. Other events, including those related to social activities and illness, were also marked and counted.
Some scientists oppose the threat-rehearsal model, saying dreams are a continuation of people’s waking thoughts. If that is the case, the participants might have been expected to dream about getting sick because there was much discussion of the coronavirus at the time.
In Shen’s study the volunteers did not dream more about a particular sickness, but reported a 40 per cent increase in content related to threatening events, the paper said.
Analysis of the data found that people regarded the pandemic as a “natural threat” rather than a “human” one, the study said.
The researchers did not observe a decline in dream events associated with neutral or positive social interactions during the outbreak, although many parts of the country were placed under lockdown as China sought to contain the outbreak.
Despite the findings, the researchers said the results should be treated with caution because of the small sample size and the fact that most of the participants were students and did not represent society as a whole.
“Additional studies could be designed to test this idea,” the study said.
In other parts of the world the number of calls to suicide prevention hotlines rose as the coronavirus pandemic spread, according to other research. A recent study in Japan found the suicide rate among young women rose considerably during the outbreak but fell for men.
More from South China Morning Post:
This article Coronavirus: Chinese dreamers saw Covid-19 as a threat, not an illness, study says first appeared on South China Morning Post