Every eight-year-old knows the joke: “Last night in my dream I ate a 10-pound marshmallow; when I woke up my pillow was gone!” (Sorry…) But is there even a tiny bit of truth behind that old chestnut? In this episode of “This Is Your Brain… The Guided Tour,” we ask: what weird things do we do while we’re asleep? And why on earth do we do them? We talk. We walk. We eat and drink. We drive, or sing. We can even violently act out our dreams. Or so the study of parasomnia has shown.
Parasomnia is a fancy word for unusual behaviors that occur during sleep. They have been reported in roughly 17 percent of children ages three to 13, with the prevalence falling to roughly 3 or 4 percent in older teens and adults. The individual experiencing the event has no memory of it – but if you witness someone doing it, you’re unlikely to forget it!
One weird disorder is preparing and eating food while asleep. People with a sleep-related eating disorder will have little to no memory of the events when they awake in the morning, and may wonder why there’s evidence of someone having cooked and eaten in their kitchen.
One former chef reported cooking spaghetti Bolognese and fish and chips during his sleep. Others aren’t so lucky – one patient apparently ate “buttered cigarettes” during his nighttime noshing.
Poor food choices aside, sleep eating isn’t quite as potentially dangerous as other nighttime activities. One woman in England went on midnight drives in her car and even on her motorcycle. Less dangerous – but no doubt more annoying – was the person who would get up every night and sing the national anthem, and then go back to bed. Some of the disorders don’t even require getting out of bed – like Catathrenia — recurrent episodes of groaning during sleep.
And then there is Exploding Head Syndrome. Despite its alarming name, Exploding Head Syndrome is a benign disorder, in which someone experiences a phantom perception of sudden loud noise or explosive crashing sound inside their head just as they’re falling asleep or when awakened in the middle of the night.
Studies of sleepwalkers show that the parts of the brain controlling vision, movement and emotion appear to be awake, while areas of the brain involved in memory, decision-making and rational thinking appear to remain in deep sleep.
Which makes sense, because there’s nothing rational about singing the national anthem while you’re asleep.
Nightie-Night … from “This Is Your Brain, The Guided Tour!