Most people fall asleep, move through the different stages of sleep, and wake up feeling refreshed, often without any memory of their dreams or what happened during the night. That’s happens for most people most of the time, but sometimes strange, scary and exciting things can happen while you sleep, especially when the line between sleep and waking gets blurred.
The scientific name for sleepwalking is somnambulism, a term that includes not just going for a walk, but also activities such as getting dressed, urinating in the wrong place or even sexual behaviour, according to the Sleep Foundation. It happens during the deepest parts of NREM sleep (not dreaming), when it seems that, as sleep scientist Matthew Walker puts it, the brain starts to wake up but gets stuck between sleep and wakefulness, neither awake nor asleep. It’s more common among kids than adults, but alcohol, some medications, stress and being sleep deprived might increase the chances of sleepwalking.1
Somnambulism is usually not dangerous, but there are some extreme sleepwalking stories, such as the case of Kenneth Parks described in Walker’s book Why We Sleep. Parks had been stressed and suffering from insomnia, and then one night while still asleep, he got out of bed, got into his car, and drove 14 miles to his mother-in-law’s house and killed her. After returning to his car, he woke up, saw the blood on himself and went to the police. He was later found not guilty of murder due to the fact that he was asleep.
Nightmares and sleep paralysis.
Nightmares (bad dreams that cause you to wake up) happen during REM sleep, when most dreaming occurs, and can leave people feeling scared or upset after waking. Common nightmare themes include being attacked or being chased, failing or feeling helpless, accidents, and even hurting other people.2 Although it’s not clear why people have nightmares, the Sleep Foundation explains that some experts believe dreams help us to process emotions, which means that bad dreams might be part of an emotional response to fear and trauma. Again, sleep deprivation and stress, as well as anxiety and trauma, can increase the likelihood of having a nightmare.
Scarier than a nightmare perhaps, how about waking up, realising that you can’t move, and feeling that there is someone or something scary in the room? This is what’s known as sleep paralysis, and again, it’s a mix of being partly asleep and partly awake. During REM sleep the body is partially paralysed, and some people wake from this but not fully, leaving them partly aware, and perhaps believing they’re awake, but unable to move. In addition to this, around 75% of people experiencing sleep paralysis have some kind of hallucination, according to the Sleep Foundation; this might be seeing or feeling that there is dangerous person or scary presence in the room or even something sitting on your chest. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen frequently for most people, they say.
Imagine this: you’re dreaming, but you know that you’re dreaming and can control what happens in your dream – what would you do? This is what’s known as lucid dreaming. Sometimes it happens by accident, when for some reason you become aware that you’re dreaming but you continue dreaming. However, most of us don’t do this naturally, or at least frequently, so some people use techniques to increase the likelihood of lucid dreaming.
A popular technique to do this is reality testing – repeatedly doing little checks of whether you’re awake or asleep during the day. On the World of Lucid Dreaming website, Rebecca Turner explains that her favourite reality test is trying to push two fingers through the palm of her other hand. Obviously, when you’re awake you won’t be able to do this, but, if you do it enough, at some point it should happen in your dream, as the things we do in the daytime often appear in our dreams. When the check does appear in a dream, you will probably be able to push your fingers right through your hand, helping you to become aware that you’re dreaming, and from there you can control your dream and do what you want.
As good as lucid dreaming might sound, the Sleep Foundation warns that there are some potential problems, such as disturbed sleep and a possible blurring of the line between reality and fantasy. Walker is quite hopeful about the potential benefits of lucid dreaming, however: he explains that, as dreams help us with solving problems, we might one day be able to use lucid dreaming to help us solve waking life problems more effectively.
Sleep well. And if you’re not sleeping well, or if you’re worried about anything here, the Sleep Foundation has good suggestions about how to sleep better and reduce or manage sleep problems – see the links below.
IELTS Reading Questions for Strange Things that Happen when You Sleep:
True / False / Not Given & Sentence Completion.
Sources and links from Strange Things that Happen when You Sleep.
– The website for sleep scientist Matthew Walker with information about his book Why We Sleep.
– Here are the links for the relevant pages from the Sleep Foundation:
– sleepwalking (1)
– sleep paralysis
– lucid dreaming
– Article about reality checks on The World of Lucid Dreaming
– A study of nightmares from the Journal of Clincal Sleep Medicine (2).
– Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay