The Science Of Sleepwalking
Updated: May 17
Ever wondered why we sleepwalk? Are we playing out our dreams in real life, or is it an inability to switch off from the day? I've even heard friends say it was caused by mental illnesses, or worse, brain tumors. Although I was sure these were just google searches gone wrong, I couldn't help but want to understand more.
How can our brains be both asleep and up and about at the same time?
To be honest, I've never known anyone to sleepwalk. Most of the time I've seen it in films, and it's shown as being almost comical! But sleepwalkers can be a real danger to themselves. It was reported that a guy from Toronto drove 23 kilometers, in his sleep, to brutally murder his mother-in-law - who he actually liked!
Sleepwalking affects up to 15% of us in the UK, but it's much more likely to happen when you're younger. With the most affected people being only 4-8years old.
So what is actually going on?
Sleepwalking is really just one of many so-called 'arousal disorders', which is where the body transitions from deep sleep to sort of awake, at the wrong time.
There are a lot of scientists who suggest they're all essentially different manifestations of the same phenomenon - some abnormal mechanism makes your body perform intricate actions, but not enough to fully wake you up.
Besides sleepwalking, there are also sleep-rested eating disorders, sleep terrors, and even sexsomnia, which is exactly what it sounds like and has been used to successfully defend against rape charges...
Most midnight sleepwalking incidents, come and go without anyone noticing as most of us will return to bed and wake up without ever knowing we left.
The ultimate causes of sleepwalking are still pretty unknown, and some researchers have even suggested that sleepwalking could be a pretty inconvenient side effect of a pretty advantageous process...
If our brain keeps working at night, we are more ready for taking part in a flight or fight response. Hardly necessary nowadays, but imagine your ancestors needed to avoid a late-night lion mauling... could be pretty useful. Although those who did sleepwalk in the past wouldn't have had a great chance of survival if they found themselves wandering out of their cave at night into the jaws of an animal, so it is a double-edged sword.
To be honest, sleepwalking retains a lot of mystery.
There are plenty of well-studied things that play a part in making the chances that you'll sleepwalk much more likely, such as stress, alcohol, certain medicines, sleep deprivation, and even sleep apnea.
Sleepwalking also seems to have some sort of genetic element as it runs in families, but as children generally grow out of sleepwalking as the brain matures, if you are an adult and are sleepwalking the best idea is to head to a specialist to ensure there aren't any other underlying reasons as to why it's happening.
But just know that sleepwalking is not something to fear, it's simply something to understand and manage!