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Acting out dreams is pretty common, study finds

November 30, 2009 |  9:10 pm

Sleep About 30 years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to hear the male of the household I was visiting blundering about, shouting at the top of his lungs: "The socks! The socks! No, not the socks!"

He was fast asleep. He was apparently in the habit of doing things like this -- waking his partner up to tell her it was time to get off the bus, that kind of thing.

And about 40 years ago, I woke up to find myself asleep on the floor in someone else's bedroom. I  had no idea how I got there, but luckily I woke  before the occupant of the room did, and snuck back to my bed.

Acting out one's dreams is not uncommon, a  study finds. Conducted on that lab rat of human psychology -- the undergraduate student -- it found that as many as 98% of the more than 1,000 subjects reported some kind of dream enactment.

Some woke up crying, or laughing (I've done that) or talking (yep, done that too). The precise percentages depended on how the questions were framed, with a simple "Ever acted out your dreams?" kind of question eliciting the lowest percentage (35.9%) and very specific questions eliciting the highest (98.2%). (An example of the latter kind of question was "How often have you awakened from a happy dream to find that you are actually smiling or laughing?")

Other things people reported doing as they woke, things that fit with the dream they were having: pointing, clenching a fist, punching, kicking, feeling fear, feeling aroused and crying. (A friend of mine once told me she woke to find her husband, fast asleep, positioning himself to give her a karate chop.)

Women were more likely than males to report fear, crying, laughter, speaking and smiling. Males were more apt to report sexual arousal.

The study, by Canadian researchers and published in the journal Sleep, underscores the fact that such behaviors are quite common, the authors say, though far less common and less severe among the normal population than for people who suffer from so-called REM sleep behavior disorder. People with RBD can get up to such high jinks every night, whereas those in this study reported occurrences once every few months, tops.

The best sleep story I've heard was when a pal of mine visited some friends -- she woke up to find chocolate ice cream all over the front of her shirt. When she came downstairs and asked her hosts whether there had been, by any chance, a food fight the evening before, the pair (who had just cleared up a chocolate-y mess in the kitchen) looked at her and said, "We need to talk." But then, she was on Ambien.

Feel free to post your own experiences.

--Rosie Mestel

P.S. For a whole passel of articles on the science of sleep and dreaming, check out this recent special at Science News.

Photo Credit: Blasius Erlinger / Getty Images