Sleepwalking: A Mystery For Modern Science

Sarah Ng

Sleepwalking has fascinated humans throughout history. Captivating the minds of artists, the unsettling nature of somnambulism has cropped up in beloved works of literature such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As well, it has been portrayed by famous operas. Neurologists and psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud have also speculated on it.

And yet, even today, this particular disorder remains as mysterious as ever.


What Is Sleepwalking?

Before modern science, some believed that sleepwalkers simply acted out their dreams or their secret ambitions. Others, meanwhile, believed it to be linked to epilepsy, hysteria, or dissociation. But the hard truth of the matter is that even today, nobody is quite sure exactly why sleepwalking occurs. However, there are some researched possibilities.

John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist, 1871

Brainwaves are extremely slow during the deepest stages of sleep. This is when sleepwalking is most likely to occur. In NREM, the brain is in opposition to its rapid-fire daytime activity. It’s quiet and sleepy, and yet the body is still mobile. While in this state, an estimated 4% of the population will experience what mental health professionals call a “disorder of arousal.”

While in deep sleep, a trigger arouses the brain, causing the sleeper to enter a blurry transition state; they are neither sleeping nor waking, but somewhere in between.

Who Sleepwalks?

While the prevalence of sleepwalking is quite low in adults, a long-term study showed that children are at the greatest risk of experiencing an incident. There are a couple of proposed reasons for this. Some argue that the immaturity of a young brain might not have the capacity to fully grasp the cycles of sleeping and waking.

However, others believe that the rapid development of a child’s brain could cause an imbalance, with one area developing before another. And then there’s the matter of hormones. Because the body releases hormones during sleep, there’s a chance that a child’s intense release of growth hormones could trigger an arousal mid-sleep.

There are many things to take into consideration. However, it’s important to note that almost all adult sleepwalkers were also sleepwalkers as children. It’s actually quite rare for a person to develop the disorder as a fully-grown adult. Still, similar factors are likely to trigger an episode in both age groups. Two of these are over-tiredness and stress.

For adults alone, other triggers could include alcohol, some kinds of medicines, and fevers. In the end, though, sleepwalking is no laughing matter. In fact, it can be downright dangerous. Most sleepwalkers are at an elevated risk of injury and will hurt themselves at some point in their lives. Although these wounds are often minor cuts, burns, or bruises, they can also be terrifyingly life-threatening.

Think broken bones or fatal falls. These are not unheard of, and there are some infamous horror stories as evidence.

Real-Life Nightmares

Some people sleepwalk and eat entire meals. This disorder can cause people to consume things that aren’t food, such as cigarette butts, coffee grounds, and even bleach. Many have been known to chow down on frozen food or raw meat and even accidentally start fires. There are all kinds of risks here: weight gain, food poisoning, and even loss of life. But as chilling as this is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Most sleepwalkers have no memory of whatever shenanigans they get up to while experiencing an episode. In 2005, a 15-year-old girl—fast asleep—climbed up the arm of a crane. Rescuers were nervous to startle her awake, worried that she could tumble to her demise. Luckily, she escaped unscathed. Of course, when she awoke, she had no memory of her dangerous ascent.

Oh, but this isn’t even the worst case. Sometimes sleepwalking can even let you get away with murder. Enter: Kenneth Parks. In 1987, Kenneth Parks drove 14 miles to the next town over. He then brutally slew his own mother-in-law and severely injured his father-in-law. After, he drove to a police station, covered in the evidence of his crime.

While there, he told authorities that he “thought” he’d killed somebody. Because of his history of sleepwalking, he was not found guilty. Yup, Bram Stoker got it right. All kinds of horrible things can happen to you while suffering from somnambulism. In his fictional world, it was vampires. Yet in real life, it can be as disturbing as Kenneth Parks’ story.

However, despite the danger, it’s not all doom and gloom. Some very lucky sleepwalkers have been able to turn their disorder into their superpower.

The Silver Lining

Although he’s the exception and most certainly not the rule, the talented artist Lee Hadwin is worth mentioning. You see, since the age of four, Hadwin has never been a typical sleepwalker. He creates art in his sleep. In fact, he thrives off of his nighttime talents. But that’s not the weirdest part.

While awake, Lee Hadwin has no real artistic talent whatsoever. However, while asleep, he transforms into a downright genius. His styles vary from realism to abstraction, and everything in between. It may sound like a huge hoax, but Lee has undergone multiple sleep studies and researchers confirm his claim. What’s more? He’s made hundreds of thousands of dollars off of his work, with no memory of ever putting pen to paper.

Although most sleepwalkers aren’t all Lee Hadwins of the world, you can take comfort in knowing that, for most people, episodes are rare, decrease with age, and often resolve on their own. Usually, treatment isn’t required. Nonetheless, if a person is more at risk than usual, there are some ways to manage the disorder.

Staying Safe

The best way to avert a sleepwalking disaster is to reduce as many safety risks as possible. Some of these include: keeping doors and windows locked, placing harmful objects out of reach, and eliminating tripping hazards. But to go the extra mile, one can also install door alarms or motion sensors to help wake a sleepwalker when they get out of bed.

In addition, there are many ways to gain control over the disorder. These include improved sleep hygiene, behavioral therapy, and medication. As well, a person can try anticipatory awakening, that is, waking before an episode actually occurs. For frequent sleepwalkers, their episodes usually occur at around the same time every night. After all, they are closely linked to a particular sleep stage. This makes them easier to anticipate.

But for all the rational reasons and proposed treatments, one thing remains true. Mystery still shrouds the science of sleepwalking. Assuredly, its bizarre nature will continue to confuse, horrify, and amaze those that try to wrap their heads around it.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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