25 September 2014

Sleep in the Media || Movie Review || Sleepwalk With Me

Sleepwalk with Me
Directors: Mike Birbiglia and Seth Parrish
Writers: Mike Birbiglia, Ira Glass, Joe Birbiglia, Seth Parrish
Starring: Mike Birbiglia and Lauren Ambrose
Cameo performances: Ira Glass and Dr. William Dement
Year: 2012
Rating: PG-13


This independent film by comedian Mike Birbiglia is the intimate true story of his struggles with the progressive development of REM Behavior Disorder (RBD). Birbiglia's comedy career parallels, in many ways, the strange journey he has embarked on as a sufferer of this rare sleep disorder, in which he physically acts out his dreams while in REM sleep.

Sleepwalkers are not usually aware of their dreams, which happen during nonREM sleep, because their brains during these sleep stages are engaged in deep slow wave sleep which does not typically promote active mentation (mental activity like cognition or memory). In REM sleep, the brain switches into levels of high electroencephalographic activity; to prevent the body from acting out these active dream engagements, the brain literally paralyzes the body from the neck down until the REM sleep stage is complete (the exception: the brain continues to activate the phrenic nerve and diaphragm so that the respiratory system can function in default mode as we sleep). However, when RBD occurs, this critical paralysis doesn't occur, and the sleepwalking that results becomes a kind of entrance into two worlds at once: the world of reality blended with the world of dreams. It's like the dreamer is actively engaged in two worlds at once and can physically interact with both. The hallucinations are compelling and irresistible to the dreamer because they seem so utterly real to them.

This filmic experience of RBD definitely contributes a leaf to the comedic history of the brain, but Birbiglia's first-hand experience also shows a very dark side to the condition, which can lead to a dangerous outcome for both the sleeper and anyone the sleeper might encounter while acting out their dreams.

I highly recommend this movie because it's not only an entertaining and curious memoir, like nothing you've ever seen, but it's also a pretty accurate depiction of RBD. RBD is a rare condition, but some people can experience a handful of these strange nocturnal events without developing the condition (I should know, I can recall 3-4 incidents of RBD in my own personal history, which may actually be related to my mild narcolepsy). Also, if you want to glimpse a living legend in sleep medicine, you'll get a kick out of Dr. William Dement's cameo role as himself in one of Birbiglia's hallucinations.

Look for "Sleepwalk With Me" in movies on demand (we watched it free on Roku). It's available for rent and on satellite as well.