“That was quite an interesting conversation you were having last night,” my roommate, Natasha, said as she handed me my morning coffee.
What conversation? We had been to a few bars the night before. Had I forgotten the event in a case of drunken amnesia? Natasha’s impish grin told me that, if I had, it was probably because the memory would just be too embarrassing.
It turns out that the conversation was with my pillow and I had forgotten it not because I was drunk, but because I was asleep. My name is Molly and I am a sleep talker. Roommates and significant others beware.
Have You Heard?
I’m not alone. According to a 2004 poll by the National Sleep Foundation, approximately 5 percent of adults and more than 10 percent of children converse in their sleep on a regular basis. Many more have occasional episodes of sleep talking, or somniloquy. The study showed no correlation between sleep talking and gender, but did suggest that the habit may run in families.
Data on the subject is elusive however, since most people who do talk in their sleep don’t remember it afterward. They only realize that they are somniloquists if people around them alert them to the fact. So if you live alone, you may be a sleep talker and not even know it.
Is There a Problem?
Probably not. Sleep talking is usually nothing more than a harmless phenomenon with no greater consequence than disturbing your partner’s shut-eye.
No one is exactly sure what causes somniloquy, but experts believe it to be an evolutionary response to stress. To avoid letting predators know that you are asleep and vulnerable, you shout or speak to signal a high level of vigilance that will deter attackers. Stress can also cause an interruption in sleep patterns and lead to REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD), symptoms of which are sleep talking, night terrors, sleep walking, and nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NS-RED), or sleep eating.
If your sleep talking is not associated with anything like bad dreams or unexplained weight gain, it is probably nothing. But if you experience any of these, you may want to consider reducing your levels of stress and seeking the advice of a sleep specialist.
What Did You Say?
Sleep talking manifests itself differently for every somniloquist. Some people shout out streams of babble and others merely chirp a word or two now and then. Those late night diatribes can be violent, graphic, and offensive, or sweet and eloquent. Studies dating back to the 1970s, beginning with the work of Arthur M. Arkin, a professor in the Department of Psychology at New York City College, suggest that there is some correlation between sleep speech and waking mentality, but remain inconclusive. Legally, sleep speech is not admissible in court, since it’s not considered the product of a conscious and rational mind.
So if you’re worried about revealing something particularly juicy in your sleep, you won’t be tried for it, but you might have some explaining to do to your sweetie. And you might consider fessing up before turning in.
Put a Sock in It!
The good news is that sleep talking is not usually serious or disruptive. The bad news is that if you do want treatment because you are disturbing a partner, there is no fail-safe treatment. The best advice is to reduce anxiety and stress and develop habits for more restful sleep, like taking a soothing bath at night, avoiding excessive stimulation close to bedtime, and using aromatherapy scents like lavender and chamomile to help you relax and unwind.
You can also seek help from a sleep specialist if somniloquy is really a problem for you. To prepare for this step, keep a sleep diary for two weeks that notes the frequency and duration of sleep talking episodes, along with the times you go to bed, fall asleep, and awaken. You should also include the medicines you take and their dosages, the amounts of alcohol and caffeine you ingest daily, and how frequently you exercise. These pieces of information will all contribute to your doctor’s understanding of your sleep patterns and help them to identify any underlying causes for your somniloquy.
And if you don’t stop talking in your sleep but do want to maintain a relationship, you might want to invest in some ear plugs for whoever sleeps next to you.
Updated July 21, 2009