Facial Cues Reveal How We Respond to Verbal Stimuli During Sleep

Summary: Researchers unearthed startling insights into the permeable boundary between wakefulness and sleep, demonstrating that individuals can respond to verbal stimuli by manipulating facial expressions during various sleep stages.

This interaction occurs like fleeting windows of connection to the external world, even during periods of sleep traditionally considered devoid of external awareness. The possibility of establishing standardized communication with sleeping individuals may offer a novel tool to delve into cognitive processes during sleep.

This exploration into consciousness during sleep might transform our understanding of sleep’s structure, activity, and perhaps even its definition.

Key Facts:

  1. Responding in Sleep: Sleepers, whether experiencing a lucid dream or not, can respond accurately to verbal stimuli through facial expressions across almost all sleep stages, including those not typically associated with high awareness.
  2. Predicting Responsiveness: An acceleration in brain activity and physiological indicators, traditionally linked to robust cognitive activity, can predict the “windows of connection” during which sleepers can respond to external stimuli.
  3. Potential Applications: The findings raise the possibility of developing communication protocols with sleepers and further exploration may unlock applications in treating sleep disorders, facilitating learning during sleep, and refining our definitions and understanding of sleep and consciousness.

Source: Paris Brain Institute

Sleep is generally defined as a period during which the body and mind are at rest—as if disconnected from the world. However, a new study led by Delphine Oudiette, Isabelle Arnulf, and Lionel Naccache at Paris Brain Institute shows that the frontier between wakefulness and sleep is much more porous than it seems.

The researchers have shown that ordinary sleepers can pick up verbal information transmitted by a human voice and respond to it by contracting their facial muscles. This astonishing ability occurs intermittently during almost all stages of sleep—like windows of connection with the outside world were temporarily opened on this occasion.

This shows a woman sleeping.
They were announced by an acceleration in brain activity and by physiological indicators usually associated with rich cognitive activity. Credit: Neuroscience News

These new findings suggest that it may be possible to develop standardized communication protocols with sleeping individuals to understand better how mental activity changes during sleep. On the horizon: a new tool to access the cognitive processes that underlie both normal and pathological sleep.

A Thousand and One Variations of Consciousness

“Even if it seems familiar because we indulge in it every night, sleep is a highly complex phenomenon. Our research has taught us that wakefulness and sleep are not stable states: on the contrary, we can describe them as a mosaic of conscious and seemingly unconscious moments”, Lionel Naccache, a neurologist at Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital and a neuroscientist, explains.

It is essential to decipher the brain mechanisms underlying these intermediate states between wakefulness and sleep.

“When they are dysregulated, they can be associated with disorders such as sleepwalking, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, the feeling of not sleeping all night, or on the contrary of being asleep with your eyes open,” Isabelle Arnulf, head of the Sleep Pathology Department at Pitié-Salpêtrière University Hospital, says.

To distinguish between wakefulness and the different stages of sleep, researchers usually use physiological indicators such as specific brain waves made visible through electroencephalography. Unfortunately, these indicators do not provide a detailed picture of what is happening in the minds of sleepers; sometimes, they even contradict their testimonies.

“We need finer physiological measurements that align with the sleepers’ experience. It would help us define their level of alertness during sleep”, Delphine Oudiette, a cognitive neuroscience researcher, adds.

A play between unconsciousness and lucidity

To explore this avenue, the researchers recruited 22 people without sleep disorders and 27 patients with narcolepsy—that is, people who experience uncontrollable episodes of daytime sleepiness. People with narcolepsy have the particularity of having many lucid dreams, in which they are aware of being asleep; some can sometimes even shape their dream scenario as they wish.

In addition, they easily and quickly enter REM sleep (the stage where lucid dreaming occurs) during the day, making them good candidates for studying consciousness during sleep under experimental conditions.

“One of our previous studies showed that two-way communication, from the experimenter to the dreamer and vice versa, is possible during lucid REM sleep,” Delphine Oudiette explains. 

“Now, we wanted to find out whether these results could be generalized to other stages of sleep and to individuals who do not experience lucid dreams.”

Participants in the study were asked to take a nap. The researchers gave them a “lexical decision” test, in which a human voice pronounced a series of real and made-up words. Participants had to react by smiling or frowning to categorize them into one or the other of these categories.

Throughout the experiment, they were monitored by polysomnography—a comprehensive recording of their brain and heart activity, eye movements, and muscle tone. Upon waking up, participants had to report whether they had or had not had a lucid dream during their nap and whether they remembered interacting with someone.

“Most of the participants, whether narcoleptic or not, responded correctly to verbal stimuli while remaining asleep. These events were certainly more frequent during lucid dreaming episodes, characterized by a high level of awareness. Still, we observed them occasionally in both groups during all phases of sleep”, Isabelle Arnulf says.

Challenging the dogma of disconnected sleep

By cross-referencing these physiological and behavioral data and the participants’ subjective reports, the researchers also showed that it is possible to predict the opening of these windows of connection with the environment, i.e., the moments when sleepers were able to respond to stimuli. They were announced by an acceleration in brain activity and by physiological indicators usually associated with rich cognitive activity.

“In people who had a lucid dream during their nap, the ability to respond to words and to report this experience upon waking up was also characterized by a specific electrophysiological signature. Our data suggests that lucid dreamers have privileged access to their inner world and that this heightened awareness extends to the outside world”, Lionel Naccache explains.

Further research is needed to determine whether the frequency of these windows is correlated with sleep quality and whether they could be exploited to improve certain sleep disorders or facilitate learning.

“Advanced neuroimaging techniques, such as magnetoencephalography and intracranial recording of brain activity, will help us better understand the brain mechanisms that orchestrate sleepers’ behavior,” Delphine Oudiette concludes.

Finally, these new data could help revise the definition of sleep, a state that is ultimately very active, perhaps more conscious than we imagined, and open to the world and to others.

About this consciousness research news

Author: Marie Simon
Source: Paris Brain Institute
Contact: Marie Simon – Paris Brain Institute
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Behavioral and brain responses to verbal stimuli reveal transient periods of cognitive integration of the external world during sleep” by Delphine Oudiette et al. Nature Neuroscience


Behavioral and brain responses to verbal stimuli reveal transient periods of cognitive integration of the external world during sleep

Sleep has long been considered as a state of behavioral disconnection from the environment, without reactivity to external stimuli.

Here we questioned this ‘sleep disconnection’ dogma by directly investigating behavioral responsiveness in 49 napping participants (27 with narcolepsy and 22 healthy volunteers) engaged in a lexical decision task. Participants were instructed to frown or smile depending on the stimulus type.

We found accurate behavioral responses, visible via contractions of the corrugator or zygomatic muscles, in most sleep stages in both groups (except slow-wave sleep in healthy volunteers).

Across sleep stages, responses occurred more frequently when stimuli were presented during high cognitive states than during low cognitive states, as indexed by prestimulus electroencephalography.

Our findings suggest that transient windows of reactivity to external stimuli exist during bona fide sleep, even in healthy individuals. Such windows of reactivity could pave the way for real-time communication with sleepers to probe sleep-related mental and cognitive processes.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.