Illustration by Dave van Patten

Does What You Say in Your Sleep Mean Anything?

And how weird is sleep-talking, anyway?

If you’ve ever shared a bed with a sleep-talker, it can be an amusing, disturbing, sleep-disrupting experience. What does it mean? Why are they saying it? And when will they shut the fuck up so you can get some rest?

When Adam Rosenberg’s friends told him he often said weird shit in his sleep, he decided to record himself at night to get to the bottom of the mumbling.

This Man Heard He Talks in His Sleep, so He Recorded Himself. Mistake.

He’s an entertaining sleep talker, as evidenced by the largely nonsensical mumbling and vocalizations like “Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” or “wha schwanie miney” to be found here. But there are nonsensical context-free phrases that puzzle, too, such as “No, you should put the drumsticks in your mouth,” or “Get some more fucking towels, that’s good shit.” Other highlights include, “That’s where all my farts go!” and something that sounds like vaguely spiritual chanting.

At the end of the video, Rosenberg asks whether there’s anything to be learned from what he’s recorded or whether it’s all just “meaningless rambling, the insignificant reflex of an unconscious mind.” His conclusion? A fart — an actual fart, from the sleep audio he recorded.

Reached by email, Rosenberg said he couldn’t pinpoint any links between his sleep-time musings and his real life. “I rarely remember my dreams,” he wrote. “So when I was working on this project I never made any connections with what I was saying in my sleep. I also didn’t make any connections with my life other than the occasional friend’s name. So the things I say seem to be mostly random.”

That fits the medically held definition of sleep talking, aka somniloquy. “It is generally nonsensical or even just mumbling,” Dr. David Brown, a sleep psychologist at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, told me. “It is considered a parasomnia, or unusual behavior during sleep. There is no evidence that what the talker says is truthful, though it may reflect thoughts and could get someone in trouble if the bed partner took offense.”

That sleep talking is maybe a reflection of our thoughts but not necessarily what we truly think contradicts the message of the famous Romantics song “Talking in Your Sleep,” whose chorus (“I hear/ the secrets that you keep/when you’re talking in your sleep”) suggests that sleep talking is a dead giveaway for what you really feel.

Still, sleep talking is a strange behavior we don’t quite know what to make of. If dreams themselves can be parsed into infinity for divining our most primitive unconscious state, why would what we say when asleep be any different?

Maybe it’s because we all dream, but not all of us mutter through it. About half the population has sleep talked at some point, but only about 5 percent of the population does it regularly, according to research from Arizona’s Valley Sleep Center. While it doesn’t seem to cause any problems for the sleeper, the fact that it annoys anyone in earshot is why it’s considered a sleep disorder. Plus, people who talk in their sleep a lot tend toward other sleep disorders, like night terrors or sleep apnea.

You might assume sleep talking is happening during REM sleep, when vivid dreams happen. And it does, sometimes, and is considered “motor breakthrough,” meaning whatever is happening in a dream somehow temporarily breaks through, and you might mumble something a character in the dream said.

But Dr. Brown says that’s not typically the case. “The most interesting thing about somniloquy to me is that it demonstrates, contrary to popular belief, that the mind is active, even during NREM [or dreamless] sleep,” he said. “Sleep talking appears to be a NREM phenomenon. We can make short utterances during REM sleep but generally not the production of multiple words or sounds…. Whereas a REM dream usually has a story line, characters, action and unusual occurrences that the dreamer rarely questions, the NREM mentation is more like a single thought, e.g., ‘I was sitting in my office.’ Somniloquy demonstrates that the mind is still thinking even in NREM sleep, though these thoughts are generally forgotten completely on awakening.”

It doesn’t stop us from taking what we say in our sleep very seriously in some cases, or worrying that it’s a deeper reflection of truths buried deep in the subconscious. But Massachusetts’ Supreme Court in 2000 rejected the idea that sleep talk — in the case of a 10-year-old girl who spoke while asleep about her father’s abuse — could be admitted as evidence, on the basis that we still don’t know how the mind works in sleep.

But experts say that even if it’s not a bad thing, whatever we say must be a reflection of something going on in our minds. Sleep expert Eti Ben-Simon, a psychologist at UC–Berkeley who researches the effect of sleep loss on emotion, told me there is “no evidence” that sleep talking is related to any pathology. However, “since we dream in both REM and NREM sleep, it seems reasonable to assume that sleep talking is related to whatever goes on in our minds during sleep.”

So assuming you’re dealing with relatively benign, if comical, instances of non-troubling babbling, experts say the real concern is whether it’s indicative of an underlying medical condition or whether it disrupts the sleep of the sleeper or the bed partner.

“Sufficient, quality sleep is foundational, and necessary for all aspects of our functioning, well-being and quality of life,” Terry Cralle, a registered nurse and certified sleep educator, told me. “Sufficient sleep is also fundamental to good relationships, good outlook, good mood, peak performance (the list goes on) — and serves to mitigate stress. Sleep must be valued, prioritized and protected! We don’t want this guy’s bed partner to have interrupted sleep.”

Assuming Rosenberg’s bed partner is suffering — and who wouldn’t be? — Cralle says he may simply need to sleep alone. “There are plenty of happy couples that are happy because they sleep apart, and get the sleep they need to be their best,” Cralle says.

She admits that advising sleep talkers to go solo isn’t a very sexy answer, but at least it means that the talking, or the blurting out of a lover’s name — and most importantly, the farts — can remain unheard.