The Science And Poetry Behind A Semi-Famous Sleep Talker

Drs. Deirdre Barrett and Robert Stickgold discuss the case of Dion McGregor, a sleep talker whose vivid and expansive somniloquies are the subject of the album, Dreaming Like Mad with Dion McGregor.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Listen to this.

DION MCGREGOR: The horse she grabbed came out and peeked. Only peeked and then winked.

SIEGEL: Would you say that this speaker is A, reading a poem, B, out of his mind or C, asleep.

MCGREGOR: How are those waves? Yes, those waves, dark waves, lowering clouds, horseshoe crabs. It was all very, very timorous.

SIEGEL: We're told that the answer is C, asleep. This is a recording of the late Dion McGregor a famed sleep talker.

MCGREGOR: (Unintelligible)

SIEGEL: This spring, a posthumous recording of Mr. McGregor will be released. Dion McGregor whose name is spelled like Dion, died in 1994. He was in his '70s, a man who was, by one description, a gay Bohemian drifter and endearing freeloader. He wrote song lyrics, most notably he and his roommate, Michael Barr, wrote a Barbra Streisand song called "Where Is The Wonder?".

(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG "WHERE IS THE WONDER?")

BARBRA STREISAND: (Singing) Where is the wonder I once felt?

SIEGEL: Dion McGregor also became an unusual if not unique recording artist. Michael Barr said that McGregor engaged in extensive somniloquies, bursts of sleep talking that sometimes went on for a few minutes at a stretch. Barr recorded them and 50 years ago, Decca released an LP of those recordings. The album was called "The Dream World of Dion McGregor (He Talks In His Sleep)." There was also a book.

MCGREGOR: Turn around, turn around. Spin that Lazy Susan and everybody takes what they want on it. All right. Turn it, grab it, grab, grab, grab. We're playing food roulette. Food roulette. We have a poisoned eclair on there and somebody's going to get it. We don't know which one is the poisoned eclair. Spin, spin, spin, spin the Lazy Susan. Spin it, spin it, spin it, spin it, spin it, spin it, spin it. Is everybody lined up? Everybody line up to get their eclair.

SIEGEL: Over the years, a couple of other McGregor's sleep-talk recordings have been released. The forthcoming one has an introduction by a Harvard Medical School psychologist and frankly, upon listening to several of these recordings, I was both surprised and skeptical so we ran them past a sleep researcher who happens to be another Harvard Med School psychologist and we asked what did he make of them.

So here we are joined by two Harvard Med School psychologists. First, Dr. Deirdre Barrett who is contributing the new introduction. Welcome to the program.

DEIRDRE BARRETT: Hi there.

SIEGEL: And Dr. Robert Stickgold.

ROBERT STICKGOLD: Pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: Let's hear from Dr. Barrett first. In a journal article that you wrote about this, you talked about sleep talk and observed that it ranges from simple monosyllabic utterances to episodes over a hundred words. The typical duration is a few seconds. These run on so much longer than that. What is going on here?

BARRETT: Well, it's at the high end ever recorded. Actually, A.M. Arkin did a lot of laboratory research on sleep talking and he had some talkers who went on as long as Dion McGregor, all of whom seemed to be talking in a sort of a hybrid almost REM sleep, but showing a bit more waking signs in their EEG so he assumed that Dion McGregor was in that category of sleep talkers.

SIEGEL: Dr. Stickgold, we asked you to listen to some of these. What do you hear?

STICKGOLD: I hear very entertaining monologues and I actually question whether they could be actual dream reports. I don't think they can be from REM sleep because we're paralyzed when we're in REM sleep and sleepwalking and sleep talking normally come from non-REM sleep. So they're also so much more coherent than dream reports usually are. And I clocked one of them going on for 10 minutes and I don't know, Deirdre, did you know dream reports that stay on topic that long?

BARRETT: I'm not calling them dream reports. I'm saying that they seemed to be sleep talking from a sort of atypical REM stage. And one of the most interesting things that Arkin found in his research was that when he would tape people sleep talking for a long time and then awaken them, when he did that in REM, you know, we'd, commonsense wise, want to think that they're recounting the dream. And if you wake them up and ask them what they were dreaming, it would be very, very similar. In some cases, it bore no detectable relationship to what they'd just been saying so it's not like their dream accounts, but I do suspect they're coming from this sort of atypical REM sleep.

SIEGEL: You would say, Dr. Stickgold, not just atypical. You would say impossible for REM sleep.

STICKGOLD: Not impossible, but very unlikely. It would require an atypical physiology. He's got more consistency and coherence than I've ever seen. He's got one that's called the scavenger hunt.

MCGREGOR: First one on there, a yellow robin's egg. Second one, a wolf's dream. Third, a Welsh shoelace. Fourth, a dirty napkin used by Garbo.

STICKGOLD: He lists 16 items that people are supposed to go out and find in a scavenger hunt. I've never heard - and I've listened to thousands of them. I've never heard a dream report that can go on for six for seven minutes in that case just listing things without drifting off topic.

SIEGEL: Dr. Barrett, what do you make of that phenomenon?

BARRETT: Well, we had the whole almost 600 transcripts and not surprisingly, Steve Venwright and the previous people to do these CDs have taken some of the most interesting story-like coherent of the narratives. It's still true that his sleep talking, in general, has more of a narrative sense than many sleep talkers, but the ones on the recordings, they're simply the most entertaining.

SIEGEL: How do you regard these recordings when obviously there's a limited amount of recording of people talking in their sleep out there. This was not done under scientific supervision. It's done by two guys in show business. How do you deal with that as scientific evidence?

BARRETT: Well, I think it's fascinating that we have this from back in the 1950s when it was recorded, but I think this is just changing overnight. There's at least one app for phones out there that activate when you speak during the night and record your sleep talking and websites for sharing, you know, people's favorite snippets of sleep talking. So I think we're in the process of having just infinitely more access to that, but it's nice to have some from 50 years ago.

STICKGOLD: I mean, at the risk being deluged with emails - so I was telling Robert to send them to you instead of me. You know, hello, are there people out there who have bed partners who sound like this in their sleep? Because if they do, we'd love to get them into the lab and turn it into science.

SIEGEL: Let me ask both of you just in a way to wrap up here, if you could put a single question to Dion McGregor, were he still alive, what would you ask him? What would you want to find out? First of all, Robert Stickgold.

STICKGOLD: I'd ask him if he'd spend the night with me, but in my sleep lab. I'd love to see what his sleep looks like if we recorded it, you know, with EEG electrodes and everything to monitor this sleep because if it's a real as it might be, and it might be, then it'd be a novel and important finding.

SIEGEL: Deirdre Barrett, what would you want to know?

BARRETT: I'd want to ask him things out of his sleep. I'd want to wake him up multiple times in the midst of it to get whether he was having a dreamlike experience that corresponded to it or whether two different parts of his brain were just doing parallel things at the same time.

SIEGEL: Well, alas, none of us will have that opportunity. But Dr. Stickgold, you've made a very interesting suggestion to our listeners, that if somebody can send us a recording of, as you say, a sleep partner whose sleep talk comes anything close to what they've heard from these Dion McGregor recordings, we'll listen to them.

STICKGOLD: That'd be great fun.

SIEGEL: Well, I'd like to thank both of you. Dr. Deirdre Barrett and Dr. Robert Stickgold, thanks for talking with us.

STICKGOLD: Great pleasure.

BARRETT: It's been fun.

SIEGEL: We've been talking about the somniloquies of the late Dion McGregor. The upcoming album of those somniloquies, which were originally released 50 years ago, is called "Dreaming Like Mad with Dion McGregor."

MCGREGOR: We have tongues wag in this town. Tongues wag. They do.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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