Somnambulism, commonly known as sleepwalking, remains a puzzling and sometimes frightening phenomenon to confused roommates, concerned parents, and many others. This mysterious occurrence leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings and disagreements on how to address and respond to the behavior of those affected.
From getting a glass of water to making a sandwich, or even driving a car, sleepwalkers can carry out a wide range of surprisingly complex tasks. Some have even been acquitted of serious crimes by proving that they were sleepwalking. In fact, in a 1987 murder trial, Ken Parks was acquitted of charges for murder and attempted murder of his in-laws. Physicians argued that he could not be held culpable because he was sleepwalking! Staying put while sleeping is advisable (source).
Sleepwalking is seen in somewhere between 1 to 15% of the population and is most commonly observed in children. The chances of exhibiting sleepwalking are influenced by genetic factors and environmental factors— such as sleep deprivation— and have been correlated with medical conditions such as asthma. Most factors that interrupt normal sleeping patterns can also increase the likelihood of sleepwalking.
What’s really happening?
Somnambulism is a type of parasomnia, a disorder consisting of abnormal behavior during sleep.
Our sleep cycles consist of four stages: three non-REM (rapid eye movement) stages, and the REM stage. Sleepwalking occurs in the third NREM stage, at which point the person is in a deep sleep, but their muscles are not yet immobilized. Sleepwalkers are completely unaware of their actions and will not remember their late-night adventures the next day, which poses issues of culpability in cases where others are put in harm’s way, like the aforementioned murder case.
Sleepwalkers aren’t dreaming, however. Vivid dreaming is typically restricted to the REM stage of sleep. In sleepwalkers, the brain’s normal processes during the sleep cycle are expressed as physical movements and actions. The disorder entails a hybrid and paradoxical state, both aroused and asleep at the same time.
Sleepwalking is a type of parasomnia that occurs in the NREM (non-rapid eye movement) stage of sleep. (Source)
To wake up the sleepwalker, or not to wake up the sleepwalker? That is the question.
The biggest question surrounding sleepwalking is whether or not we should wake up someone who is sleepwalking. Some claim that you should avoid it completely, and that waking a sleepwalker could potentially trigger a heart attack. Others claim that the sleepwalker should be woken up in order to prevent them from endangering themselves or others.
It seems that there is no clear-cut answer. Waking a sleepwalker can result in physiological responses like increased heart rate and blood pressure. If they are startled, it can also cause them to respond aggressively. One option is to calmly and quietly redirect the sleepwalker to their bed without waking them up. Other options include making a loud noise from far away, ensuring your own safety while still waking the other person.
The general consensus, however, is that one should absolutely intervene if they believe the person is in danger or will hurt someone else.
If your roommate is a sleepwalker, it’s probably not necessary to sleep with one eye open, but if you notice anything strange, do your best to keep them out of harm’s way. I definitely wouldn’t mind if my roomie got up to make me a midnight snack……