Sophia and Gabby talk about twitching in their sleep, a nightmare featuring someone who looks like Joe Biden and the best way to take a nap.
Sophia: Hello hello and welcome to this year's first episode of Solved by Science. I'm your host Sophia, and I’m now on the managing team for North by Northwestern. So for new listeners, Solved by Science is a pretty basic podcast. I get a guest on, they asked me a question that science related, and I answer it, and today my guest is my roommate, Gabby.
Gabby: Hi, I'm Gabby. I'm Sophia's roommate. I'm also the marketing director for NBN, and I'm designing for the magazine this quarter.
Sophia: So today's question is why do we twitch when we fall asleep? I had this question because Gabby told me something when I woke up and I was like, okay, that's a weird way to start my morning. Hopefully, you're not listening to this in the morning. Gabby?
Gabby: Sophia, as I said before, is my roommate, which means that every morning, she has to suffer through me talking about my numerous, numerous sleep problems. One of which is I twitch in my sleep. I feel like a lot of people have this problem, you know where you get the feeling that you're falling and then you just sort of jerk a little bit. This specifically came up the other day. Because I was falling asleep, and I jerked so hard that I flew into the wall and bruised my arm. So that was not fun.
Sophia: I did not wake up, so this was not an issue for me, but I was still curious about this because like Gabby said, a lot of people do twitch when they fall asleep, and if you don't think you do, well, you probably do. According to Livescience, about 60 to 70% of people experience this as you're falling asleep, and they’re called hypnic jerks. So it's not really a huge problem unless it happens to you a lot or it prevents you from falling asleep in which case you should talk to a doctor. I am not a medical professional, I cannot help you. So hypnic jerks. Why do they happen? There are a few theories. For example, some people think they're caused by anxiety or stress or drinking a lot of caffeine. There are some people who believe that they are more common if you are exercising at night, and they might also be caused by sleep deprivation or an irregular sleep schedule. So tag yourself! All of them are me except for the exercise because who does that? There's not a ton of research about why this happens. So again, these are just ideas. There are also other ideas about why we have hypnic jerks. As Gabby mentioned earlier, sometimes you feel like you're falling. As you're falling asleep, your muscles are relaxing, and your brain can misinterpret this as you're falling. So it's just a response to you know, protecting yourself. Hopefully you aren't falling. Hopefully you're just wrapped up in a bunch of blankets. So yeah the answer to that. Why do we twitch when we fall asleep? Pretty basic answer: hypnic jerks, there's not too much about them, and hopefully they're not a problem for you, but as Gabby said, she does have other sleep problems.
Gabby: This is true. It's not fun for me or for Sophia.
Sophia: Not really fun for me, not because it affects my sleep, but every morning I wake up, and she usually tells me her nightmares.
Gabby: I have frequent nightmares. It's not great. But they're interesting stories. I feel like sometimes, they're pretty out there.
Sophia: Okay, tell me one of them.
Gabby: Yeah, so the other night I dreamt that I was in a research facility like a lab and this doctor came up to me and the doctor had Joe Biden's face. But I'm still convinced that it wasn't Joe Biden. He just happened to have Joe Biden's face, and he came up to me with a human heart that was drained of blood, and he said you need to go to all these specialists across the country and figure out why this person died like what's wrong with his heart and I was like, oh, okay. I guess that's my job. And he was like, but you also need to cut it up. Like break it apart and then give little samples of it to each person and I was like, okay cool. So I was running around the country, you know, holding my drained heart and cutting it up and handing pieces to people, and I kept freaking out every time I ran into a specialist because I'd be like, hey, look at this. The arteries are clear. They're not clogged. This person should be perfectly fine. Why did they die and just to be clear, I am not at all qualified to say whether that's true or not. But in this dream for some reason I was convinced that I was, and they wouldn't really respond. They just be sort of like, yeah, I don't know and then kind of trail off and not say anything for a while. And eventually I was standing there, and I started to get short of breath because I was freaking out so much, and then all of a sudden, Joe Biden comes out from behind a pillar, and I put my hand to my chest. It comes away sticky. I look down, and it's open like gone, and Joe Biden looks at me, and I look at him, and he goes it was your heart all along, and then I collapse and die.
Sophia: Imagine waking up to something like that every morning. On that note, why do we dream? Why do we have nightmares? Sleep science also has a lot of unanswered questions. Again, there are a lot of ideas about why we dream, similar to how there are a lot of ideas about why we have hypnic jerks. First, we're trying to process things that are happening throughout the day. Like Gabby said, she saw Joe Biden or someone that looked like Joe Biden during the day. Or during her dream and this could be something she was thinking about or maybe she saw a picture of him and that's her brain’s way of processing. You don't really dream of new faces. Another idea is that dreams reflect our emotions. Maybe she was thinking about death and being terrified of it. I don't know what you think about on a daily basis, or dreams could be for no reason at all.
Gabby: I understand that there is a difference between dreams and nightmares. Can you go a little more in detail in that?
Sophia: Bad dreams, nightmares, neither of them fun, but the main difference between them is that when you have a nightmare, you'll wake up. If it's a bad dream, if you just don't like what's going on, you're going to sleep through it whereas a nightmare, you wake up. I don't know, maybe you wake up violently, maybe you hit a wall.
Gabby: So that explains why I can't sleep through the night.
Sophia: Yeah, or maybe you have insomnia or other issues. I don't know. Again, not a doctor. So with dream recall, I never remember my dreams. So this is a very new experience for me that everyday, Gabby just talks about her dreams. It’s usually in the morning when it's fresh in her mind because after 10 minutes, we've usually forgotten about 90% of our dreams.
Gabby: But now you understand there's a psychological or physiological reasoning for why I'm telling you my dreams first thing in the morning, and you can't fault me for it because otherwise, I'll forget them. Regardless of what the real reason is for dreaming, if anyone has an idea of why I’ve had a nightmare like every night for the past several years, maybe you could help with that. If someone is one of those people who's dabbling in dream interpreting or like tarot cards or something. I don't know.
Sophia: Well onto your nightmares! Nightmares also can happen for a variety of reasons: anxiety, stress. We're at Northwestern. We're all stressed. We all have a midterm tomorrow. Another reason for nightmares is PTSD.
Gabby: Which I definitely don't have, so that that one's off the list.
Sophia: So we talked a little bit about nightmares, waking up and hitting the walls. That's not really fun. But I love sleep. I think sleep is great. Sleep is one of my favorite things. I'm going to talk a little bit about how to hack your naps because I think that's great information. And as a college student, napping is really what gets me through the day. Gabby, do you take naps?
Sophia: Well, you should take my advice and take some naps.
Gabby: I tried to the other day. I meant to sleep for three hours, but instead I slept for 15 minutes.
Sophia: 15 minutes or 3 hours are both pretty ideal times for naps. A sleep cycle is 90 minutes, so if you wake up in one of them, in the middle of the 90 minutes, sometimes you might feel kind of tired and not really refreshed, not how you'd want to wake up from a nap. That's called sleep inertia. You should take power naps instead, so about 15 to 20 minutes, so that's before you get into deep sleep and your sleep cycle starts. When you wake up, you still feel refreshed. Three hours is two sleep cycles. So after one sleep cycle, that's also a good time to wake up. I'm a huge fan of the power nap. I take 20-minute naps all the time. So far, I've taken three or four and it's only the start of Week 2, which is maybe not great. But also like I said, I like sleep.
Gabby: I just remember when you tried to take two 20-minute naps within a three-hour period. I was really concerned.
Sophia: I like to think that it's self care. But there's actually an even better way to take a nap. It combines two of my favorite things: sleep and coffee. Caffeine naps! According to a Vox article, there are several studies that show caffeine naps are even better for you than regular naps. When you take a caffeine app, basically you just drink a cup of coffee and then you go to sleep before the caffeine can kick in and then you wake up and you're riding off the high of caffeine and sleep. It's wonderful. So this is effective because caffeine molecules sort of look like adenosine molecules, and adenosine makes you sleepy. There are lots of adenosine receptors in the brain, and sleep clears out these adenosine molecules. So when you take a nap, the adenosine goes away, and the caffeine binds to the receptors, and it keeps you awake. It's great. Highly recommend. You should try it.
Gabby: I mean, I am a barista. So that seems accessible.
Sophia: You should grab some coffee after work, drink it, take a nap. So now that you know how to nap effectively, go to sleep. If you want more information, check out the transcript down below for sources, studies and other fun links, and subscribe for more weird science things.
Our intro and outro music is Eve by Dee Yan-Key, which we use under a Creative Commons attribution license.
Gabby: I’m Gabby.
Sophia: And I’m Sophia. Thank you so much for listening! This is NBN Audio.
Gabby: Sweet dreams.