Sleepwalking. It is a term we hear often but don’t understand very much about. A lot of commentators have said that we might be sleepwalking towards a new Cold War with Russia, but clearly they didn’t realize that that could also involve having sleep sex, eating without knowing it and ending up in a river with our PJs on. It would make for a hell of a UN summit.
We asked Dr. Emerson Wickwire, Assistant Professor and Director of the Insomnia Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, for some background.
He told us that: “Sleepwalking emerges from what is called non-REM, or slow-wave sleep, when electrical rhythms are slowest in the brain. This is why sleepwalkers have no recall of the sleepwalking event. We see the same lack of recall in children who experience sleep terrors, even though they appear to be wide awake when the terrors are taking place.”
Sleepwalking is common, but most common in children
In fact, Dr. Wickwire explains, “Sleepwalking is common, occurring in up to 17 percent of children and 4 percent of adults. It’s important to realize that most people grow out of sleepwalking before they reach adulthood.”
In September 2014, the BBC reported that a four-year-old Norwegian girl sleepwalked over 3 miles (5km) to a nearby town on a stormy night, wearing just her underwear and a pair of thin boots. Fortunately, she was unharmed.
Interestingly, Dr. Wickwire also told us that sleepwalking tends to run in families.
So what causes it? “Genetics, insufficient sleep, and stress all appear to predict parasomnia events,” Dr. Wickwire says. “Sleepwalking is considered a parasomnia, a specific kind of sleep disorder that involves movement or acting out behaviors during sleep. Different parts of the brain can be more or less awake or asleep at any time, and parasomnias occur when a part of the brain that should be asleep is actually awake.”
I dreamed I was drowning, and I was
Unconscious activity while sleeping may only affect 4 percent of adults, but when it does it can have some serious consequences.
In 2012, ABC News reported that Alyson Bair of Idaho was having a nightmare that she was drowning, but that when she woke up, she was actually drowning. She was in a river near to her home.
“I thought I was dreaming, but then I realized I wasn’t and I was scared,” Bair said. “It was deep and I couldn’t touch anywhere and I was getting tired. I had to keep turning around and floating on my back.” She suffered a similar episode just two weeks later.
According to Wikipedia, “In 1907, Sigmund Freud spoke about sleepwalking to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (Nunberg and Federn). He believed that sleepwalking was connected to fulfilling sexual wishes.” What a surprise.
But although Fraud appears to blame sex for everything and all sleepwalking is not related to it, there can occasionally be a sexual element.
Michael Mangan, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and author of the e-published book, Sleepsex: Uncovered, writes on his site sleepsex.org that:
Sleepsex, “sleep sex” or “sexsomnia” or “SBS” is sexual behavior that occurs during sleep. Some people seem to enjoy it and view it with a sense of humor. However, it can be disturbing, annoying, embarrassing and is a potentially serious problem for some couples and individuals.
He estimates that sleep sex could affect 1 percent of the population.
WebMD says that although it is not as common as sleepwalking, nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder (NS-RED) can occur during sleepwalking. People with this disorder eat while they are asleep. They often walk into the kitchen and prepare food without a recollection for having done so, and if this happens often enough they put themselves at risk of weight gain and other health consequences.
Some people who sleep-eat even cook the food that they are preparing. This is not the only complex task that sleepwalkers perform, and it is worth bearing in mind that having the eyes open is a common feature.
In 2013, the BBC reported that: “New Zealand police are seeking an order to stop a woman from driving, amid concerns that she had driven hundreds of miles while asleep, even sending text messages along the way.”
She was found slumped at the wheel at a house she once lived in, and told police she had no memory of her trip. Police said most of the text messages she had sent were incoherent.
A sleep expert told the BBC that although her story stretched credulity to the limits, it was not impossible, and that while there had been cases of “sleep driving”, “sleep texting” is not so common.
Fortunately, most sleepwalkers do not get beyond the bedroom, and Dr. Wickwire told us that: “To protect the sleeper, the most important thing to do is ensure a safe bedroom environment.”
There are also treatments available for those who feel that the kinds of nocturnal behavior described above are problematic, and lifestyle changes can help. Finally, the consensus is that sleepwalkers should be guided back to bed, but not woken.