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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Sleep

Do we really sleep like logs? And what’s the deal with jerking? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Sleep! Is it as relaxing as it sounds? Is snorting like a pig an inevitable side effect? Close your eyes and read on. Wait, that makes no sense. Disregard.

Lie #1: Sleeping Is Peaceful

Not if you have exploding head syndrome (EHS) it fucking isn’t. It sounds like something from Theme Hospital, but it’s a real condition. Also known as episodic cranial sensory shock, EHS sufferers experience massive loud bangs when transitioning in and out of deep sleep. It’s a pretty mysterious and largely unstudied condition, with 60 percent of sufferers assuming “something in the brain” is to blame. One of the most popular things sufferers do to avoid it is getting really drunk, which while great fun, does bring other issues with it.

A new study published in the journal Sleep Medicine found 45 percent of sufferers experienced extreme fear during episodes, while women were slightly more likely to suffer from it than men. Alice Gregory of Goldsmiths, University of London, one of the paper’s authors, told the BBC, “Exploding head syndrome isn’t discussed very much in the media or elsewhere. Consequently, people having this experience may have very little information about what’s going on.” Great news for anyone going through what sounds like a terrifying experience: Science has no idea what is wrong with you!

Lie #2: “I Sleep Like a Log”

No, you sleep with a log, assuming “log” is somehow acceptable as a euphemism for “erection.” It probably is, right? It’s a long hard thing made of wood. They probably say it somewhere. You get boners in your sleep, is the thing.

Nocturnal penile tumescence, science’s name for a sleepy hard-on, typically happens during REM sleep, up to five times a night. While the reason for a midnight mast isn’t clear, keeping an eye on them can be useful in diagnosing the cause of erectile dysfunction — if someone struggles to maintain an erection while awake but spends half the night rocking something they could smash a window with, that’s a sign that their issue is psychological rather than physiological. 

Lie #3: “This Album Put Me To Sleep” Is a Bad Review

Not if you write lullabies for a living. Caspar Babypants, aka Chris Ballew, best known as the former frontman of Seattle band The Presidents of the United States of America, sometimes does just that. He has put out 17 albums under the moniker, all of which contain some lullabies, and two of which are entirely slumber-based.

“My first thought was, I want to scientifically engineer a record that knocks a human out,” he says. Unfortunately his research led him to the conclusion that a record that did that would be fairly unpleasing aesthetically due to the sleeping patterns of young children, and involve repetitive loops for the first 20 minutes. Nonetheless, his lullaby records have become ingrained into the lives of thousands of parents and children.

“I wanted to make something that was useful,” he says. “I purposely mixed those records differently. Usually in my songs I mix the vocals high because I want the story to be there and for kids to grab on to the language, but in the lullabies, I turn the vocals way down.” Ballew found himself nodding off repeatedly during the mixing process, which seemed like a good sign.

The Presidents specialized in incredibly catchy rock songs — “Dune Buggy” was written 25 years ago and has been stuck in some people’s heads for that entire time — which seems like it would work against the goal of sending listeners to sleep. A super-catchy anthem gets you up and on your feet, so surely you want a lullaby to be as un-catchy as possible, right? No, says Ballew. “I don’t ratchet back the catchiness, but I might ratchet back the visual intensity of the lyrics, and allow them to be repetitious or simplified. There aren’t story arcs, they’re more like abstract snapshots of a scene.”

Both in terms of recorded output and live shows played, Caspar Babypants is a lot more prolific than the Presidents were — the band did 500ish concerts and six studio albums, while Babypants has played nearly 1,300 live shows and is working on albums 18 and 19 (which will be his last, as Ballew plans to switch his focus to visual art). Rather than being something he did after his band, he sees Caspar Babypants as his true voice, free of what he calls “the adult world of cool.” “I hear from families who use the lullaby records every night. My voice is woven into people’s core experience of going to sleep. I love that.”

Lie #4: If You’re Snoring Too Much, Just Stop Sleeping on Your Back, You Appalling Pig

When someone is properly snoring — really, really going for it — a lot of the time they’re slumped on their backs. Lying on your back lets your tongue and soft palate fall back into your throat, partly blocking your airways. So, just sleep differently, you hog, right?

“During sleep it’s very difficult to control your body position, so sleep position therapy isn’t held in high regard as a viable treatment for snoring,” says Danny McCamlie from Good Night Snoring. If you’re in that much control of your body, er, you’re awake.

Smoking, drinking and being overweight are all contributing factors to snoring like a farm animal (which sucks — drink to treat your exploding head syndrome and end up sounding like a warthog) that you, in theory at least, have some control over. Acupressure-based treatments — like the rings sold by McCamlie’s company — claim to stop snoring by pressing slightly on the little finger, and, uh, might be more likely to work the less you read about acupressure

Lie #5: Ah, I’m Nodding Off, This Will Be Nice

It might not, because you might have a hypnagogic jerk heading your way. It sounds like some sort of dickhead, but is in fact the involuntary spasm most people occasionally experience while falling asleep. Sometimes it’s paired with a brief feeling of falling, a moment of abject terror or breaking into a panicked sweat.

“I had about a decade where I had these every night,” says Simon, a British man in his 30s. “I used to fall asleep in lectures when I was at university, and I’d have one of these pretty much every time. I’d be sitting there struggling to keep my eyes open, then suddenly do a big spasm, go ‘BUH!’ incredibly loudly and wake up fucking terrified. I didn’t make a lot of friends in that course.”

Some 70 percent of people experience hypnagogic jerks from time to time, and up to 10 percent experience it constantly, but the good news is it doesn’t do any damage. There is no consensus on what causes the jerks, with everything from stress to caffeine being potentially blamed. Plus, if you ask a doctor why you jerk before you go to sleep, they look at you funny and suggest you have a chat with your mommy and daddy.