Many feel the coronavirus pandemic has changed not just our everyday lives, but also our inner mental lives. There has been talk of a mental health pandemic, but also of lockdown brain fog when we are awake, as well as reports of more frequent, vivid, and bizarre dreams when we are asleep.
We tend to think of our waking and dream lives as separate. But it is striking how deeply they are linked.
Spontaneous thought, or mind wandering, occupies up to 50% of wakefulness. Our thoughts and attention frequently drift away from what we are doing and what is happening in our immediate surroundings, with one thought following another along an associative trajectory.
Spontaneous thoughts and experiences are also pervasive in sleep. The clearest example is dreaming, which has been described as an intensified form of the mind wandering that happens when we are awake.
Considering dreaming and mind wandering together suggests the fluctuations in spontaneous experience, the natural ebb and flow of attention and somewhat erratic trajectory of thoughts continue throughout waking and sleep.
In normal circumstances, we mostly remain oblivious to the fact our minds have wandered. Most people also only rarely remember their dreams, but when awakened in the sleep laboratory can report multiple dreams per night. Like mind wandering, dreaming is also largely (with the exception of certain lucid dreams) beyond our control.
However, attention to our inner lives may be amplified at a time when control over our everyday lives is elusive.