It’s often a time when our brains crank out strange mini-dramas.
Dear Matthew Alice: Why does my husband twitch so much when he's falling asleep? It drives me crazy because it wakes me up and then I’m insomniacal! (Is that a word? It sounds pretty good.) — Carolyn Fisher, Spring Valley
Old “Twitchy” Fisher is having attacks of what the terminally pompous might call hypnagogic myoclonus or sleep myoclonus. Myoclonus is a sudden jerking or contraction of a muscle; “hypnagogic” just refers to sleep, particularly that twilight period just before we are fully zonked.
It’s often a time when our brains crank out strange mini-dramas and fragmented pictures that are somewhat akin to daydreams (“hypnagogic images," they’re called). Once again, science doesn’t have all the answers, but the twitching is probably related to the fact that during this early stage of sleep, our brain-muscle connection is interrupted (presumably so we won’t dream of doing something like driving to Cleveland then actually get out of bed to try to do it). It’s not a real paralysis, just a “temporarily out of service” condition. During this time, a sudden noise or startling dream image might alert the drowsing Mr. Fisher and cause the brain-muscle connection to be reestablished with a jolt. The twitching might also be related to anxiety or tension, perhaps an unwillingness on the part of the sleeper to let go of the alertness of the waking state. Those are the theories; take your pick. There’s a chance that old Twitchy has these attacks throughout the night even though they don’t wake you, but they’re most common when falling asleep. They're just startling, not harmful, so don’t worry.
By the way, “insomniacal” is certainly a nifty descriptor, what with its hint of our crazed state when chronically unable to sleep. But of course, it’s wrong. The adjective form of “insomnia” is “insomnious" (literally, “full of sleeplessness”). And you’ll probably continue to be insomnious until you can reprogram your brain to ignore Mr. Jerky and drift off again. I’ll bet your anticipation of the twitching and the firm connection you’ve now made in your mind (“When he twitches, 1 won’t sleep”) is what’s keeping you awake. Pavlov’s dogs salivated, you stare at the ceiling and fume. Try changing that belief and you’ll be okay. No charge for the house call, Carolyn. Nighty-night.