Dangerous? Meaningful? Indiscreet?
The answer to all three questions is, not usually. But if you stayed awake in ninth grade English, you’re familiar with the most famously indiscreet sleep talking lines of all time: “Out damned spot! Out I say!” Thwords Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth as she acted out her guilt and tried to sleep wash King Duncan’s imaginary blood off her hands.
In her case, midnight warbling was a problem. It was easily understood and said front of two witnesses. Fortunately for most of us, talking in our sleep isn’t dangerous nor confessional – and not usually not very intelligible. I’ve been doing it since childhood. And as a guy who writes a sleep blog, I figured I should learn more about it.
My first research stop was a well-known medical website, one where I’ve found good information in the past. This time they fell a little short. One of the lead sections is headed (and this is true), “What are the symptoms of sleep talking?” If you think about it, that’s not exactly a Final Jeopardy question. My own (correct) first guess was probably the same as yours. Sure enough, the “symptoms of sleep talking” are…wait for it… saying words in your sleep. I decided maybe an intern wrote that section, and I moved on to other sources.
How common is Sleep Talking?
Somniloquy (sleep talking) is slightly more common in males than in females. It is also much more common in children than in adults. About half of children chirp in their sleep. Many parents have checked on their child’s nighttime verbal outburst, only to find the little darling still sound asleep. 90% of kids outgrow it by puberty, but a few of us keep it up. Also, some don’t begin doing it until later in life. According to researchers, around 5% of adults are sleep talkers.
I have some question about the accuracy of the figure. If you sleep alone, how would you know if you talk in your sleep? The definition of somniloquy is that you’re not aware of it, so evidence comes only from someone who hears you. For that reason, I suspect it may be a little more common than thought. If you think you might be an undiagnosed sleep talker, there is now an easy way to find out. You can download any of several voice activated apps to your phone. When activated they will automatically record any nighttime words.
A warning, though. If you do get some audio recordings, you might better understand how sleep talking can be disturbing for listeners, and how it can seem threatening. Besides the strange thoughts and word combinations, your voice may not sound like you. That’s because you don’t necessarily modulate your voice when you are unconscious. That difference from your awake voice could lead a superstitious listener to think you are possessed by a demonic spirit. Might put you at risk of having a stake driven through your heart.
So why do we sleep talk?
Some adult sleep talking can be traced to physical causes, especially in people over 25 who have no previous sleep talking history. For them it may come on as a result of stress, alcohol, high fever or a mental illness. In stress-related sleep talking the content may include words related to the specific source of the stress. If the person has experienced a flood or fire, or an armed robbery, for instance, they sometimes use words connected with drowning or burning or guns.
For most of us though, there no clear root cause is apparent, and our sleep talk words seem to consist largely of short, random babble, not connected with anything in our conscious experience. It does seem to run in families, though that doesn’t explain why we do it, or if our unconscious words mean anything.
Is sleep talking a result of dreaming?
Sleep talk can be triggered by a dream, but not necessarily. When sleep talkers are awakened mid-stream, they often say they were not aware of any accompanying dream images. Also, for both children and adults, sleep talking can occur in any stage of the sleep cycle. It happens even during REM sleep, when most muscular actions are disabled.
That REM “sleep paralysis” is important for our protection. It prevents us from physically reacting to thoughts that may be racing through our minds. For instance, if you’re mind says you are being chased by a pack of rabid dachshunds, you are much safer if you can’t get out of bed and sprint into the bedroom wall. But if we’re paralyzed, how is it we can we talk out loud in REM sleep?
One sleep researcher, Arthur Arkin, likens it to a seal swimming underwater. The seal occasionally breaks the surface to bark a few times, then quickly re-submerges. In Arkin’s hypothesis, the REM state sleep talker breaks out of REM paralysis just long enough to say a few words, then quickly drops back into REM immobility.
My own sleep talk is reportedly similar to the seal’s barks – short bursts of a word or two, maybe a phrase, then back under. Unfortunately, none of my sleeping companions have ever said they heard anything from me that was worth the interruption to their own sleep.
Does sleep talk ever have significant meaning?
My ex, like Lady Macbeth could go on for a bit, speaking what her mind intended to be sentences. Unlike Lady Macbeth, though, her words didn’t usually come together into any combination that made sense. Early in our marriage I’d sometimes ask her questions as she babbled. It was tempting, but also potentially scary.
Did I really want to know if I was the sexiest guy she’d ever known? She would respond to me in the rational tone of voice her awake self would use to answer a question, but her sleep answers had no apparent relationship to what I asked.
For instance, she might patiently respond to the “sexiest guy” question by saying, “the toaster is hungry.” I never did find out my relative hotness rating. Maybe a good thing. Also, unlike Lady Macbeth, my wife never sleep-confessed to anything.
Not that it would matter – not even if she admitted she bumped off Jimmy Hoffa and accurately revealed his resting place. American courts have considered the matter, and they’ve decided sleep talk is not admissible evidence.
Extreme Sleep Talkers
There are documented instances of people who string together long coherent narratives in their sleep. 50 years ago, Decca Records put out an LP featuring one of them, Dion McGregor. In 2014, 20 years after McGregor died, a retrospective recording came out, along with a book about his strange ability. McGregor could go on for minutes at a time. Two Harvard research physicians reviewed 600 McGregor transcripts and concluded they were not the product of an act. Here’s a part of one his somniloquy soliloquies:
“Turn around, turn around. Spin that Lazy Susan and everybody takes what they want on it. All right. Turn it, grab it, grab, grab, grab. We’re playing food roulette. Food roulette. We have a poisoned eclair on there and somebody’s going to get it…”
And another goes on for six minutes, including McGregor assigning a 16 item Scavenger Hunt list:
“First one on there, a yellow robin’s egg. Second one, a wolf’s dream. Third, a Welsh shoelace. Fourth, a dirty napkin used by Garbo….”
Sounds like an avante garde poet, doesn’t he? One of the Harvard investigators said it was the first time he’d ever known a sleep talker go on that long without drifting off topic.
Curious about what you say at night?
Adam Rosenberg, a Colorado filmmaker was curious. He’d often been told about his sleep talk, and he decided to record his own wisdom for an entire year. Some of it turned out to sound like jabberwocky rap – no discernable meaning, but delivered with impressive rhythm:
“Once a brown hanny banny hanny pranny spoony spooner. Round a penny two away. Poppa ganny rolls!”
But other times he seemed to be accurately describing what he was seeing:
“So that’s where farts go!”
We might not want to know where they went, but it’s clear that sleeping Adam was visualizing a destination that seemed real to his brain. You can see and hear more on his Youtube recording, some of it a little risqué.
Want more information on sleep talking?
The internet, including its many Youtube creators, brings sleep talkers, researchers, and others together in a way not possible earlier. There are websites focused on sleep talking, including recordings, content discussions and humorous examples. Check them out.
And If you think you might be similarly entertaining in your sleep, just download one of the recording apps mentioned earlier. I can’t predict customer demand, but your kids and your friends will probably enjoy it – at least the short version.
That’s it for now. In future we’ll look at a variant of sleep talking – sleep laughing.