Dreams in the Time of COVID-19: Science Meets Art

For those of you that know me only as Dr Cloutman-Green, you probably won’t know that, in my life outside of the hospital, most of my friends call me Dream. I’ve been called this since I was a teenager. I’d like to say there was a super cool reason for this, but the real reasons are twofold:

  • I have always had very vivid dreams and I have them pretty frequently.
  • Even now, but especially as a young child, I am/was so caught up in thought that I will/would tend to wander into things whilst walking: like lamp posts!

I got my PhD. Then a shy, retiring drunk from Birmingham – in a rare moment of sobriety – designed the Dr Dream logo as a gift and it’s kind of stuck.

During the last year I have not slept well and my dreams have been especially intense. I dream a lot when I’m solving problems and will often perform experiments or clinical scenarios in my sleep. In many ways these have helped me as they often lead to what I call my 3am ‘moments of clarity’: those moments when I wake up and I’ve finally worked out the solution to a problem or a new approach so I can see it from a different angle. The problem this year has been that those 3am moments are no longer ‘moments of clarity’, as the problems we’re facing cannot be solved by just me. They are too big. They are now 3am ‘moments of panic’ or ‘moments of frustration’.

In April I posted about a particularly strange dream I’d had and, via the magic of twitter, I was put in touch with Professor Mark Blagrove, Dr Julia Lockheart and the DreamsID team. The team are interested in how COVID-19 is impacting on dreaming. They have an amazing process, where Julia uses her creative skills to combine art and science in order to produce imagery of the dream onto pages from the first English translation of The Interpretation of Dreams.

The Process

The discussion of a dream follows the dream-appreciation method devised for dream discussion groups by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Montague Ullman. Further information about Montague Ullman can be seen on the website https://siivola.org/monte/. The method is described in his 1996 book Appreciating dreams: A group approach (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage). The method comprises the following stages:
•The dreamer reads aloud their dream.
•The group asks questions about the dream so that it is described as fully as possible.
•The group members, except the dreamer, briefly describe how they would relate the dream to their own lives, as if the dream were their own.
•The dreamer responds to what the other group members have said.
•The dreamer describes their own life circumstances, with emphasis on recent waking life concerns and recent emotional or important events.
•The dream is read back to the dreamer in the second person.
•The group and dreamer make or suggest connections between the dream and what the dreamer has said about events and concerns in their recent waking life.

My Dream

The Setting

My office is a converted bathroom.  It’s pretty small and still has a sign saying ‘bathroom’ on the door (in purple).  It’s pretty small: it has room for one desk chair and an L-shaped desk across from the door and running down the right hand side of the space. It’s a totally white space with no natural light or ventilation. It has quite bright white lighting: an LED lamp on the L intersection that lights my main workspace where I work with my back to the door.

The Dream

In my dream, I am working at my normal workspace (the desk part opposite the door) in my desk chair, which is’ a ‘Bond villain’ desk, large and black mesh.  Unusually, I also have the purple furry blanket that normally lives on my sofa across my knees. It’s trailing onto the floor, so I’m slightly trapped where I am.  My desk is clear apart from the lamp of the normal bits and pieces, although there are still my post-it notes under the shelves above my head, which remind me of what I need to be doing, and my shoe a day calendar that sits in front of me on the shelving.  Behind the lamp, however, the hatch that is normally solid and leads to the electrical space has a transparent door with a handle and looks like the pass hatch into a medical safety cabinet.  On the left of me where my in-tray normally sits is now a scientific water bath, white outside, full and bubbling, with a box of blue nitrile gloves sitting next to it.  Floating within the water bath in the floatation tray, instead of the normal reagents, is a set of a dozen quail eggs.  The back of my desk is covered with electronic timers.  At the start of dream, I’m wearing a pair of gloves and I have a set of eggs in front of me (in what looks like a standard Waitrose quail egg box). I’m trying to peel the eggs, wearing gloves (I don’t remember having anywhere to discard the shells so don’t know if they are all around me?). I’m finding it really difficult to get enough grip on the eggs; I’m rolling them gently to try and make some cracks appear but I just can’t manage to get a grip on the cracks in the shell in order to get them off cleanly.  I’m getting there, but it is taking me ages. 

The timer starts going off and I’m trying to get the eggs out of the water bath whilst still having the previous batch on the go.  Then the phone rings.  I didn’t know who it was. I know there was a discussion about needing them to treat a patient and being asked a bunch of questions that I thought I knew the answers to but not being sure that these eggs were going to do what was needed, despite how important they were.  I shove the first lot of eggs into the clear door of the hatch, aware that they need more, and so get on with trying to do the ones that have just come out of the water bath.  I’m also looking around as I know I need to get the next batch on. I can’t see any and there’s no time to  get any.  I change my gloves and start trying to peel the next batch, but they’re still warm and they are hurting my fingers.  Not only that, but because they are still hot they are too soft and some of them start to implode as I’m trying to peel.  I’ve got yolk all over my gloves and I need to save as many as I can.  Then the phone starts ringing and I can’t answer it as I’m covered in yolk and bits of shell.  I sit there crying, at my desk, trying to peel the rest, pushing my glasses up with my wrist so I don’t get yolk on my lenses.

The wonderful thing about this process, for me, was that I didn’t see the art being produced. I was on the phone talking to Mark but very specifically not seeing what Julia was producing. I only got to see that at the end and when watching the YouTube video later. I got to be an active part of the creation of a piece of art and that was a wonderful thing. They’ve even now sent me that final piece of art work, which is now going to hang in the on-call bathroom and will be something really concrete for me that has come out of 2020.

It’s a reminder to both take opportunities as they come, and to think about how we can communicate our work in creative and inspiring ways, to reach new audiences, and to work across boundaries.

So, I wanted to take a moment to say a massive thank you to the DreamsID team for including me in this work, and for including me in their article, as this is the one and only time anything linked to me is ever likely to feature in New Scientist! My family finally think I’m a rock star as that’s a science publication they’ve heard of!

Read more: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2242379-how-coronavirus-is-affecting-your-dreams-and-what-to-do-about-it/#ixzz6i63ukNsa

All opinions in this blog are my own

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