What’s Sleep Got to Do With It?

For most of my life, I actively ignored sleep to get the most out of my “life.” I relished in my ability to burn the candle at both ends – although I never saw this as an “ability,” I saw it as a small sacrifice to pay (a few less hours of idle snoozing) to fulfill my many different aspirations of being a good student, athlete, friend, and family member. I thought I could do it all, and I pretty much did.

However, once I was diagnosed with narcolepsy, I began to learn a lot more about sleeping, dreaming and how it all works. It’s actually quite fascinating – both what’s “right” about normal sleep and what’s “wrong” with my sleep now.

Caution: this is a simplistic overview and not meant to be in-depth nor guaranteed to be 100% accurate. I am not a doctor. Quite the opposite, I received my lowest highschool grade in Honors Biology and never looked back. This is sleep science, watered down with a touch of sugar. If you’d like the real deal, I’d be happy to recommend sources that I read to reach my current understanding. Also, “the truth” in science is always evolving – especially in neurology where new discoveries still take place every day. So here’s my version of the story.

There are two basic forms of sleep: non-REM and REM sleep. Non-REM comes first – taking one from “light” sleep to “deep” sleep in about 90 minutes (from stage 1-4). During this time, the body gradually quiets down – as heart rate, breathing and brain-waves all slow considerably. After about 90 minutes of this deepening and quieting, the body switches into REM.
During REM sleep, heart rate and breathing are irregular; distinguishing rapid eye movements take place; and the brain becomes quite active. (In fact, the brain in REM sleep is as active, and sometimes even more active, than the brain during wakefulness.) Thoughts and emotions flow through the brain, believed to make up the basis of our dreams.
Significantly, it’s only in REM sleep that one loses control over one’s muscles – temporarily paralyzed. It is believed that this temporary paralysis protects us from acting out our dreams, which would be quite dangerous.

After about 10-20 minutes in REM, the body regains control over one’s muscles and re-enters non-REM sleep, beginning the cycle all over again. Although unconscious throughout the entire experience, one passes through this elaborate cycle of slowing down and speeding up, sleeping and dreaming, paralysis and non-paralysis, multiple times over the course of the night.

To this day, scientists are unable to pinpoint exactly why we need both this non-REM and REM sleep. For ages, people have asked  “why do we dream?” The jury’s still out. However, it is important to note that a lot of what we do know about the proper functioning of sleep was discovered through the study of narcolepsy.

Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder of the sleep/wake cycle, and it is believed that some (if not all) of the symptoms of narcolepsy are aspects of REM sleep being triggered at inappropriate times. For example, people with narcolepsy often enter REM sleep directly upon falling sleep, even though a “normal” sleeper doesn’t enter REM sleep until after 90 minutes of non-REM sleep.

Perhaps the most fascinating example of disassociated REM sleep is the symptom of “cataplexy.” As mentioned in a previous post, there are times when I cannot make it from one side of the room to the other without collapsing to the ground. This “collapsing” is the pathological equivalent to the temporary paralysis of REM sleep, only inappropriately taking place while I’m awake and conscious.

Cataplexy is often triggered by emotions such as laughter, humor, anger, or annoyance. Some scientists believe that the brain misinterprets these emotions for the emotions passing through the brain during REM/dream sleep and triggers the temporary paralysis. Although I may not be able to move for 15-20 seconds during “cataplexy,” my brain remains conscious and I’m fully aware of my surroundings. You could say, I am experiencing a strange version of being both “wide awake and dreaming.”

In a future post, I’ll discuss another fascinating experience of being both awake and dreaming, but I think this is enough science for one day. Please feel free to leave comments and questions below. As always, I love to hear from my readers and I’m happy to answer any questions!


  1. Melissa on March 24, 2010 at 10:48 am

    I enjoyed reading this "watered down with a touch of sugar" explanation. 🙂 As someone who is definitely guilty of burning the candle at both ends, it's really interesting to learn more about what happens when we sleep and how important it is to get enough of it! Thanks, Jules!

  2. Tricia on March 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Sleep is vitally important to health.
    We can stare at an infant for hours even while sleeping. Then we grow up and never even question the quantity of sleep we are getting, let alone the quantity of sleep.
    We are not really so smart after all.

  3. Amelia Swabb on March 26, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Sleep is a very interesting topic to study, I took a psych class at Brown about it! When I'm really exhausted and take a nap I often get into a state of sleep paralysis, where I think I'm dreaming but I'm also awake and want to move my muscles and get up but can't. It's kind of scary! Sometimes breathing is difficult too. Is cataplexy similar to that? Interesting stuff Julie! I didn't realize a lot of what we know about proper functioning of sleep was discovered through the study of narcolepsy.

  4. Sandy on January 25, 2015 at 8:07 pm

    Thank you for the explanation. My son’s doctor tries to explain what is going on, but I have never quite understood what he is talking about. You put it in clear terms that totally make sense now. Thank you. Love your book Wide Awake and Dreaming. I have recommended to several people.

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