If your partner is prone to sleep talking, you may be asking ‘Why do people talk in their sleep?’
You wake up in the middle of the night to a strange voice in your room. Your first thought is that it's an intruder, until you realize that it’s your husband, and he’s fast asleep. Your second thought is "Why do people talk in their sleep?"
Sleep talking, officially called somniloquy, is a fairly common sleep disorder. Like stupidity, it's harmless to the person experiencing it, but it can have a massive impact on the people who sleep around the person.
Or, more accurately, the people trying to sleep!
Understanding the causes of sleep talking
Somniloquy includes any speech or sounds produced by a sleeping person without their awareness. It's considered a form of parasomnia, the broad category of abnormal behaviors that occur during sleep. Other forms of parasomnia include:
- Night terrors
- Confusional arousals
- Sleep apnea
- Sleep eating
- REM behavior disorder
An estimated 50 percent of children are likely to experience somniloquy, but the frequency tapers off to 5 percent of the population as age increases. In adults, sleep talking can sometimes be associated with psychiatric disorders or nocturnal seizures, and is more common in men than women.
While the actual causes of sleep talking aren’t known, the likelihood of episodes is increased by several factors such as:
- Sleep deprivation
- Drug use
- Some kinds of medications
While these external factors can stimulate instances of sleep talking, it does seem to run in families, indicating that there may be a genetic component to the disorder.
Typically, sleep talkers aren’t aware of their nocturnal conversations. To an outside observer the speech seems flat and unemotional. It can range from simple and unintelligible sounds all the way to full and coherent sentences.
The sleep talker will sometimes discuss completely random topics, but it isn’t unheard of for the content to be vulgar or offensive. Like a dream, the unconscious flow of conversation can contain a confusing jumble of real-life references from the past and present, and can be influenced by other people speaking.
Somniloquy episodes aren’t limited to specific stages of sleep, and will present differently at different stages. When the person is in deep sleep stages the speech patterns tend to be more incoherent, and in lighter sleep stages they will be easier to understand. During REM sleep, episodes are typically accompanied by dreams, though there is no indication that the dream is related to what the person is saying.
While most sleep talking episodes last less than a minute, they can be much longer. A sleep talker can have several episodes in a single night. The severity of the symptoms is measured by their frequency and duration:
- Frequency: Somniloquy symptoms are considered mild if episodes occur less than once a week, and moderate if they occur multiple times each week. In severe cases, the episodes occur nightly.
- Duration: If the symptoms last less than a month, they are considered acute. If they last over a month but less than a year they are referred to as subacute, and cases lasting over a year are called chronic.
While a person is experiencing episodes of sleep talking, they may also experience additional sleep disorders such as other forms parasomnia, psychiatric disorders and nocturnal seizures. Combined with REM sleep disorders and night terrors, sleep talking can sometimes result in loud outbursts.
Despite this, sleep talking isn’t considered to be dangerous until it is accompanied by other issues, and in its chronic form is sometimes seen as an indicator of other disorders. There is even discussion of using the presence of somniloquy to help differentiate Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB) from other types of dementia.
A pair of earplugs might help prevent a divorce... or attempted murder!
Although sleep talking isn’t dangerous, you should consider seeing a sleep specialist if the episodes are accompanied by other types parasomnia, or if they involve screaming or violence.
Sleep talking usually isn’t treated unless it creates problems for the people living around the somniloquist. Even then, somniloquy can’t be treated directly, but addressing the external factors that trigger episodes can help to alleviate the symptoms. Some of the things you can do to achieve this include:
- Get plenty of sleep each night.
- Lower stress and anxiety levels.
- Maintain a regular sleeping and waking schedule.
- Avoid heavy meals before sleeping.
- Exercise regularly.
- Keep a sleep diary, tracking sleep schedule, episodes, medications taken, exercise, food and alcohol intake, and any other factors that seem related.
Other people living with the sleep talker may want to consider using earplugs or white noise machines to help drown out the noise. In extreme cases, partners may want to sleep in another room. These measures can prevent many a sleepless night asking "Why do people talk in their sleep?"
Recognizing the significance of sleep talking
Because sleep talking can sometimes be personally significant and offensive, the partners of somniloquists are often hurt by the episodes. They are left wondering if the things that the sleep talker says represent subconscious or deep-seated opinions that are kept hidden when awake.
While this can make for an entertaining plot device in television shows, this simply isn’t the case. All evidence seems to indicate that comments made while talking in your sleep aren’t conscious or rational, and legally they aren’t considered to be admissible as evidence in court. If you're troubled by the implications of something your partner uttered in their sleep, you can set your mind to rest.
As if anyone other than the sleep talker can rest!
For answers to your health questions like ‘Why do people talk in their sleep’, the experts on JustAnswer can help put your mind at ease and let you get back to sleep – even in the middle of the night!
Do you have any sleep talking stories? Share them in the comments!