Have you ever woken up in the morning to the sight of a disgruntled partner, upset that you gave them a long speech in your sleep? This is one example of the many strange things we can do while we’re supposed to be oblivious to the world. Read on for our top five picks.
By Maria Cohut Fact checked by Tim Newman
Although it is not clear exactly how many people experience parasomnias, or sleep disorders, it is likely that you. Or someone you know — have faced at least one such event at some point.
Parasomnias are often associated with unsettling actions or behaviors. Made all the more strange for being acted out in a person’s sleep, while they are completely unconscious.
In this Spotlight, we look at four of the strangest things some people do while they’re fast asleep.
Sleepwalking, or somnambulism, is perhaps the best-known type of parasomnia, having captured people’s imaginations for years, and featuring prominently in literature and movies.
Sleepwalkers may engage in complex and sometimes dangerous behaviors.
This sleep disorder usually takes place during the stage three non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep; this is a “deep sleep” period in which brainwaves slow down, and breathing also becomes deep and slow-paced.
People cannot be easily woken at this stage, which is partly what makes sleepwalking so unsettling. As the somnambulist is physically active while still emerged in a deep state of slumber.
But the weirdness does not stop here.
A related sleepwalking disorder is that of sleep-related eating, in which individuals get out of bed, make their way to the fridge, and have a snack, all without actually waking up.
The eating behavior is usually compulsive, and the person could wake up the next morning to find a mountain of incriminating. And shocking — evidence, in the form of dirty wrappers and food containers, as in this case study.
There are, however, some sleepwalking behaviors that are much more dangerous than overeating. One such example is that of sleep driving, in which a person drives a motorized vehicle technically on autopilot, while fully unconscious of their actions.
Though no scientific studies have yet been conducted to address this issue, apparently sleep texting is not uncommon. Especially among adolescents.
Over the past few years, various media outlets have reported cases of teenagers embarrassed to find out they had sent text messages to their friends or their crushes while asleep.
Sleep specialists have declared that this is a new feature in terms of sleep disorders, and the behavior is not yet listed in specialized textbooks.
Many of you are probably familiar with the phenomenon of sleep starts, or “hypnic jerks.”
Sleep starts are usually accompanied by the sensation of falling from a great height.
Weiss notes that sleep starts “frequently occur in normal people and at any age,” with a prevalence of approximately 60–70 percent in adults; they are not considered a type of sleep disorder.
Typically, the muscle contractions last for less than 1 second, and they occur as a person is about to transition to a state of sleep, or during a stage of light sleep.
Although sleep starts are a normal occurrence, scientists suggest that certain factors may increase their likelihood. According to Weiss, these include, “fatigue, emotional stress, sleep deprivation, vigorous exercise, and stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine.”
A few individuals engage in erotic behaviors during sleep, which may spell out trouble if they also involve a bed partner.
Some of the most controversial unconscious acts performed during sleep are those of a sexual nature. Especially when the individual attempts to involve an unwitting co-sleeper.
But due to the fact that they remain unconscious throughout these acts, and they cannot remember them the following morning. Violent sexual acts committed during sleep remain deeply challenging when brought to court.
The authors of one case report note that, in the instance that they evaluated. The patient affected by sexsomnia managed to gain some control over these night-time occurrences. By attending psychotherapy sessions targeting stress management.
Acting out dreams
Finally, the parasomnia known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder is. Much like sleepwalking, characterized by the performance of fairly complex actions while in a state of sleep.
Some individuals act out their dreams, often responding to violent or unsettling dream content.
However, there are also several differences between the two sleep disorders.
As its name suggests, REM sleep behavior disorder takes place during the REM stage of sleep, when most of the dreaming happens.
Individuals with this behavior disorder tend to “act out” or physically respond to whatever takes place in their dreams, which isn’t always great news.
As Sujay Kansagra and Bradley Vaughn write in Parasomnias, “Dream content is […] reported to become more violent with [REM sleep behavior disorder] onset, and involves the subject being attacked or having to defend a position or others.”
Kansagra and Vaughn also note that most individuals with this disorder are over 50 years of age. Though its incidence and prevalence rates are unclear.
Such troubled sleepers may make chaotic movements that correspond to their dream content. But fortunately, they are not usually physically violent, either toward themselves or others.
However, violent behavior is more often present in men than it is in women with REM sleep behavior disorder.