Mysteries of the Sleeping Brain

SleepPunching your fist through a window and eating a snack in bed are drastically different behaviors, but both could be considered effects of parasomnia–a disorder characterized by abnormal or unusual behavior of the nervous system during sleep.

Exploring and explaining different types of parasomnia were Elizabeth Hand, author of award winning gothic nonfiction books, and Columbia University neurologist Carl Bazil, M.D., Ph.D., at a program last Friday night at the Rubin Museum in New York City. Hand talked about the impact that her lasting parasomnia has had on her life. Paired with Bazil for a program in the museum’s Brainwave series, her curiosity about her very real reactions to dreams and night terrors (such as the aforementioned window punching) made for a lively discussion with Bazil about the science behind her actions.

At the start of the program, the audience was asked if they had ever experienced parasomnia, and few people raised their hands. Bazil went on to disprove what is a common misconception, and defined parasomnia as any “weird or strange” sleep-related occurrence. He explained different types of parasomnia, many of which are experienced by most people throughout their lives.

Nightmares and sleep talking are common parasomnias. Sleep walking or night terrors (unexplainable panic in the middle of deep sleep, often experienced by young children) are typically outgrown. More extreme parasomnias, however, can be very disruptive.

Hand related that she had once dreamt that an intruder was in her home, and had gone as far as taking the curtain rod off the window in order to wield it as a weapon, before waking up to realize no one was there. She also once punched her fist through a screen window because she dreamt her apartment was on fire.  Bazil provided an example of the dangers of extreme parasomnia. He recounted an instance where a patient once walked out of a two-story window.

Bazil explained that while parasomnias can spontaneously occur from factors such as sleep deprivation or medication, different sleep disorders may also be the cause. REM Behavior Disorder (RBD) is a phenomenon that disables the brain’s natural ability to paralyze the muscles during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the second phase in the sleep cycle. REM is also the phase most connected with dreaming.  Most people do not act out their dreams because their bodies are locked up–and it is normal to wake during a dream and feel like you cannot move your limbs. While this feeling of paralysis is unsettling, it is really a safety mechanism our brains create.  Without it, those with RBD are able to move their bodies and physically engage in what they are doing in their dreams.

Many people also encounter confusional arousal, a parasomnia that occurs in non-REM sleep and causes the person to be half-awake and confused about what they are doing.  Often this type of parasomnia is accompanied by more vague feelings and thoughts, rather than the plot-like dreams the REM cycle creates. Instances could range from sending a weird text without remembering it, to an example that Hand gave, of a two-year stint she had of waking up rummaging through her drawers for her medication, only to realize each time that she wasn’t on medication.

While sometimes amusing to recount in hindsight, parasomnias can disrupt lives. Although prescription treatments are available, Bazil suggested first trying behavior therapy.  He recommended hypnosis, sleep therapy, relaxation techniques, and meditation. Drugs, he explained, often produce side effects and in some cases, fuel other types of parasomnias.

Hand and Bazil addressed common curiosities during a lively Q&A session with the audience. But a takeaway from the fascinating program was that there is still much to be learned by scientists on what goes on in the sleeping brain.

This year is the ninth year of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series, where popular personalities are paired with neuroscientists for a themed discussion. Events will continue into July and tickets are available online.

– Celina Sooksatan

One response

  1. I have been been sleep walking and talking since I was a child (been told many stories of my wanderings and sleep chatter), but it progressed into sleep eating in my 20’s. It had gotten so bad that I had to stop keeping sweets in the house (after waking up to a new box of cookies laying next to me, empty, with the wrapper ripped to shreds, like I had grown Edward Scissor Hands in the night, and being told by my niece that I had very nearly eaten an entire pie at the table, with a jaw dropping amount of ease, then simply laid back on the couch).

    Since my mother moved in with me, it has been increasingly difficult to abide by my “no sweets in the house” rule, because she eats sweets (and now, so do I). Which leads me to describe the absolute craziest thing I do when I am asleep.

    I hide food while I am sleeping from my waking self, and then retrieve it (and consume it) when I am sleeping (the next night or whenever). But…. I cannot, for the life of me, find my “stash” when I am awake!

    Yup (sigh)

    I came to realize that I do this after I purchasing some Little Debbie Oatmeal Cookies for my mother. Once they were gone I was pleased, because I didn’t want to be munching on them in my sleep. But, to my surprise, I woke up with an oatmeal cookie wrapper on my chest the next morning. I checked… and searched… but I could find no oatmeal cookies in the house. This happened on several mornings, awakening to evidence of there being a secret oatmeal cookie stockpile… but I have never found that secret stash (of lord knows what, now).

    It is a little disconcerting to wake up with empty wrappers in the bed, let alone having to ask yourself, “when did I buy THAT?”

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