Punching 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