Researchers have analysed the somniloquies of the world’s most prolific sleep talker

Album artwork for Dion McGregor Dreams Again

The “most extensive sleep talker ever recorded”, according to a new article in Imagination, Cognition and Personality, is the late American songwriter Dion McGregor. McGregor’s unusual sleeping behaviour – one commentator said he “sounds as if he were channeling Truman Capote on acid: flirtatious, slushy, disconnected from reality …” – first became public in the 1960s when McGregor shared a New York apartment with a posse of other artists and creative types. His song-writing partner and flat-mate, Mike Barr, became so fascinated by McGregor’s extensive somniloquies – most were over 100 words long – that he made more than 500 recordings of them, and they were released as a CD and book: The Dream World of Dion McGregor. Now a team of sleep experts led by Deirdre Barrett at Harvard Medical School have analysed 294 of these recordings to see how their content compares with typical dreams.

The researchers coded McGregor’s somniloquies for content using an established scale that is used for analysing dreams, and which includes checklists for characters, aggression, friendliness, sexual interaction, success, misfortune and good fortune. Then they used another scale that’s for coding the bizarreness of dreams, including elements of discontinuity (sudden changes in time and place or identity), incongruity (contradictions, such as saying a building has only one entrance, and then saying the building was entered a different way), and uncertainty and vagueness.

Compared with average dream scores on the scales, McGregor was more active in his somniloquies than most dreamers, while his sleep talk contained less aggression, less friendliness and less sex than usual dreams, fewer negative emotions, good fortune and success, but much more self-negativity and more female characters than is typical for men. His sleep talking was also less bizarre than the average dream, with fewer plot incongruities and contradictions.

The researchers provide this example to show a typical element in McGregor’s somniloquies, which while fantastical is not confused in plot or thought (unlike much typical dream content):

Oh, that doesn’t complete my collection at all! No! Oh no! Well let’s see, I have a dodo, and a rock, and a phoenix . . . oh dear! A pterodactyl, yes, the unicorn, the griffin, dear, oh yes, well a mermaid doesn’t count, she’s out in the pool! No . . . well, if she ever gets out I’m gonna mate her with the centaur! Yes! What do you think?! Certainly! Well, I don’t know. What do you think? Well, if you don’t mate them you know they’ll die off! (Tzadik Records, 1999, “The Collection”)

Album artwork for Dreaming Like Mad
With Dion McGregor

Other examples of content from McGregor’s sleep talking include him going door to door asking women if they have their favourite dress on, a roll call of people entering a hot air balloon for a moon trip (which ends after an encounter with sharp-beaked storks) and playing a game of “food roulette” with “a Lazy Susan of poisoned eclairs”.

The researchers think there are two explanations for the differences between McGregor’s somniloquies and typical dream content. One is that much sleep talking does not occur during dreams, and in fact people’s brain waves during sleep talking are distinct from those usually seen during dreaming, featuring fewer waves in the alpha frequency range, which they explained could be a sign of more frontal brain activity. The researchers further describe this as “an unusual state midway between waking and sleeping” (backing this up, there is a McGregor interview in which he says a sleep researcher recorded his brain activity during sleep talking and found a mix of sleep and waking brain wave patterns).

The other reason for the distinct content of McGregor’s somniloquies, the researchers believe, is simply to do with his personal characteristics: he was they say a quirky character with a self-deprecating sense of humour, he was likely homosexual, and he had an obsession with actresses (this last point could help explain the preponderance of female characters in his dreams). This perspective is consistent with the “continuity hypothesis” of dream content – the idea that “our actions and thoughts in everyday life also determine what we will dream about”.

Surprisingly little is known about the psychology and neuroscience of sleep talking and so this case study provides an intriguing addition to the literature. “Of course Dion McGregor is only one subject, so we can not generalise,” the researchers said, adding: “It would be interesting in future research to gather REM sleep-talking reports from a large sample of subjects to see if these differences from dream reports and continuities with waking traits consistently characterise talking from REM sleep.” For his part, McGregor was much more interested in his waking creative works (he sold songs to Barbara Streisand, among others) than his sleep talking: “it’s like being famous for wetting your bed,” he said.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Barrett, D., Grayson, M., Oh, A., & Sogolow, Z. (2015). A Content Analysis of Dion McGregor’s Sleep-Talking Episodes Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 35 (1), 72-83 DOI: 10.1177/0276236615574495

further reading
This guy turned surreal sleep talking into a cult album
Here’s a really simple trick that could help you enjoy more lucid dreams
Does dreaming of exam failure affect your real-life chances of success?
Older people have more black and white dreams

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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