Sleepwalking: The Strange Phenomenon Researchers Don’t Fully Understand

In the middle of the night, Corey Manchester walked up three flights of stairs from the basement, entered his mother-in-law’s bedroom and asked how Aunt Nikki was doing. As a child back then, he wasn’t satisfied until he learned that Aunt Nikki was fine.

“There’s no Aunt Nikki,” Manchester, now 47, tells me from San Diego. “We don’t have an Aunt Nikki in our family at all, on either side.”

Manchester was a sleepwalker and his mother-in-law was the first person to witness the behavior that has followed him for decades.

Manchester is among the 3.6% of the population prone to sleepwalking. This figure comes from a groundbreaking 2012 study from Stanford University, which placed the number higher than previously thought. Until this research, it had been 30 years since researchers had published a prevalence rate of sleepwalking in the United States, and there has been no update since.

The sleep-related phenomenon, also called somnambulism, is part of a larger category of sleep disorders called parasomnias, which include behaviors like night terrors and sleep paralysis.

There is an inherent mystery in sleepwalking. Those who have been through it may not even know they have ever left their bed, except for the stories of the people they are with or for evidence the next morning. (Who peed on TV?) Perhaps there is a disturbing disconnect between your body and your consciousness, which seem to operate independently of each other.

While this parasomnia isn’t a completely solved mystery, it’s one that sleepwalkers and those who study them have grappled with for years – grappling with which bodies might be in trouble and how to get them back to bed safely. . .

Brain teaser

Within a few weeks around 7th or 8th grade, Jen Bennet started sleepwalking. Her mum caught her rummaging through her bathroom drawers at night, walking down the stairs in their home – sparking alarm that her daughter could fall and hurt herself on one of her late-night walks.

“I woke up [one] day and I just got a Ziploc bag with Goldfish [crackers] in bed with me,” the now 26-year-old Oakland, Calif. resident said.

Bennet’s experience is not unusual. In fact, sleepwalking is more common in children, and they tend to get rid of it when they reach adolescence, said Raj Dasgupta, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

Dasgupta himself has an 8-year-old daughter who sleepwalks. Him and his wife maybe watching Cobra Kai on Netflix and see her walk into the kitchen. It makes sense – sleepwalking most often occurs during non-REM sleep, so early in the sleep cycle. He will direct her to the bed.

“I always ask her in the morning, ‘Hey, do you remember going into the kitchen?'” To which she replies, “No, not at all.”

This lack of memory is a key signature of parasomnias. What else happens in the brain during an episode of sleepwalking is also unclear.

One idea has been that sleepwalking occurs when areas of the brain associated with emotion and motor activity are awake while areas controlling memory and rationality are not. Without the latter to control the former, things can get messy.

The result: “Behaviour is regulated by a sort of archaic survival system like the one that is activated during fight or flight,” Lino Nobili, a sleep researcher at Niguarda Hospital in Milan, told Aeon.

A 2021 study from the University of Montreal and Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal, published in the journal Frontiers in Neurology, examined the roles that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems play in sleepwalking and found that this perhaps was not the case.

Instead of exhibiting a high fight or flight response, sleepwalkers in a sleep study showed more of a rest and digest response, which is how the body calms down once the danger has passed.

“Although the causes of sleepwalking remain unclear, we know that while asleep, sleepwalkers may experience an abnormal interplay between wakefulness and deep sleep-related processes, even outside of their episodes,” write two of the authors. In the relationship between wakefulness and poorly regulated deep sleep, perhaps something is wrong.

Why do people sleepwalk

In 2001, Troy Maddox was nearing his final test to receive his black belt in kenpo karate. His instructor told him to visualize all the moves and techniques whenever he had the chance, whether it was online at the grocery store or while he was falling asleep.

It’s no wonder, then, that one night Maddox found himself in the middle of his room, in a position, fending off attackers that didn’t exist. This scared his then-wife, who woke up thinking someone had broken in.

“Once she knew there was no one in the house and I was struggling with air…she yelled at me and got me out of it enough that I come back to bed. But I never even woke up,” the 51-year-old Louisville, Kentucky resident said.

Needless to say, Maddox decided to stop mentally practicing karate before bed.

Researchers usually have ideas about the underlying causes that could lead to sleepwalking. There seems to be an element of genetics at work – those whose parents and siblings have parasomnias are more likely to experience parasomnias themselves.

A woman sleeping on her side in her bed in a dark room.

About 3.6% of the sleepwalking population.

Getty Images

According to Alcibiades Rodriguez, clinical director of the sleep disorders program at NYU Langone Health, sleep deprivation, anxiety, stress and the like have the potential to cause sleepwalking in those who might be prone to it. Another underlying cause could be obstructive sleep apnea.

Sometimes the act of sleepwalking itself can generate anxiety.

“You start to sleepwalk and get very anxious — the more anxious you are, the more sleepwalking you do,” Rodriguez said. “It turns into a vicious circle.”

Dasgupta also noted research that found people with daytime sleepiness, fatigue, insomnia, depression, and symptoms of anxiety may be more likely to become sleepwalkers.

Other triggers could be issues with circadian rhythms, such as severe jet lag. Emotional stress can be another trigger, as well as certain medications, such as sleeping pills, and especially mixing them with alcohol, Dasgupta said.

Coping with Sleepwalking

Thiery Sparks remembers mornings as a child when he woke up in a different place from where he was going to sleep. His parents even told him that they had seen him everywhere.

Now 30, Sparks, who lives in Salado, Texas, doesn’t sleepwalk as much anymore as he sometimes finds himself walking across the room after dreaming there was something, like a raccoon, in his bed .

He estimates that it happens maybe once every three months, which he remembers. It was never a big enough problem for him to consider going to see a doctor.

For many sleepwalkers, this is the case. Dasgupta said that for children with classic sleepwalking, they rely on waiting to get out of it. Some adults participate in sleep studies. The purpose of a sleep study, however, is not necessarily to catch a case of sleepwalking. Rather, it is to determine what the underlying causes may be. More rarely, a doctor may prescribe medication.

Sleepwalking can be dangerous if a person trips, falls, or collides with something. It’s not uncommon to come across scary headlines about people sleepwalking off cliff tops while camping or falling out of windows. There are also potential bed partners to consider, who might find themselves in the crosshairs of some sleepwalking activities.

And the conventional wisdom about not waking a sleepwalker holds true, Dasgupta said, mainly because it can cause anger, fear, confusion and disorientation. The best thing to do is try to get them back to bed.

“I don’t think if I wake up my 8-year-old daughter she’s going to punch me in the face,” Dasgupta said, “But…it’s not a nice feeling…I wouldn’t wake up [sleepwalkers] at the top.”

sleep state

Back in San Diego, Manchester isn’t sure how often he sleepwalks. He lived alone for about 12 years, so it’s hard to say without witnesses. He estimates that in the last five years this has happened twice.

“It’s not [so] rumored that I notify someone if we go on a trip,” he said.

Still, he has plenty of stories to tell – about the time his college roommate asked him what he was doing on the roof, or when he woke up in the car on the way to school. airport with her cousin (she told him he had been very grumpy before leaving the house). Another time, a friend saw him calling his dog Buddha when the puppy was already sitting right next to him.

” To say [about] those things that you have no connection to,” Manchester said, “it’s always been weird.”


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