What Happens When You Sleepwalk?

Why Do People Sleepwalk?

Sleepwalking is amazing when you think about it. How can your brain be asleep while animating your body and coordinating your muscles and nerves? What exactly happens when people sleepwalk?

How Common is Sleepwalking?

Have you ever walked in your sleep? If so, you’re not alone. 29% of Americans have walked in their sleep at least once in their lifetime, and 3.6%, or 8.4 million people, had at least one episode in the past year.

What Happens When We Sleepwalk?

Some sleepwalkers simply amble around for a brief period, but others can do some complicated actions while asleep.  Some people cook, clean, eat, walk long distances, mow the lawn (yep – it’s been done), or even drive a car.

As common as it is, though, scientists still don’t fully understand what causes it.

There are basically two kinds of sleep – REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. During REM sleep, your brain’s neuronal activity is nearly the same as it is when you’re awake. You would think, then, that sleepwalking occurs during REM sleep, but actually, it occurs during your non-REM sleep.

Sleepwalking episodes usually occur during the deepest stages of your non-REM sleep. These periods happen during the first 3 hours after you fall asleep. Normally, sleepwalking episodes last from about a minute to 30 minutes long.

During non-REM sleep, your brain’s delta waves are very active. When examining brain waves, you have alpha, beta, theta, and delta waves. The delta waves are the slowest ones, but they have the highest amplitude. This allows you to remain deeply asleep but also allows your body to be physically active.

One theory is that sleepwalking may be caused by a defect in the transmission of the neurotransmitter GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid). GABA dampens your brain’s motor control activities, so if there’s a shortage of GABA or the transmission pathway is faulty, you will be more active physically while still sleeping.

There is Another Kind of Sleepwalking

In addition to the normal, non-REM sleepwalking, there is a disorder that happens during REM sleep. Aptly enough, it’s called the REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, and people usually act out their dreams (usually unpleasant ones).

It can happen with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s Disease or Lewy Body Dementia (LBD). It’s rather strange because, during normal REM sleep, you are pretty much physically paralyzed. With this disorder, though, that paralysis is bypassed.

What Increases the Chances of Sleepwalking?

Some factors can increase the likelihood of sleepwalking, however. The longer your brain spends in that deep non-REM stage of sleep, the more likely you are to sleepwalk. Also, if you’re sick (i.e., feverish), sleep deprived, or super tired, you increase the chances of sleepwalking.

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Medications can increase the duration of that deep non-REM stage of sleep, too, which can increase the chances of sleepwalking. Anti-depressants and sleeping pills are known to do this, and studies show that people who take them tend to sleepwalk more than those who don’t. In fact, depressed people are 3 times more likely to sleepwalk, possibly because they often take SSRI anti-depressants.

Is Sleepwalking Genetic?

There may be a genetic factor involved in sleepwalking. 30% of sleepwalkers have family members who also walk in their sleep. And analysis shows that if a parent sleepwalks, their child has a 45% chance of sleepwalking. If both mom and dad are sleepwalkers, though, the child’s chance of sleepwalking is a whopping 60%.

Children tend to sleepwalk more than adults. It is often a long-term thing, though. 80% of sleepwalkers report that they have been experiencing sleepwalking episodes for at least 5 years.

Can You Commit Murder While Sleepwalking?

The earliest “sleepwalking defense” for murder was raised in 1846 when Albert Tirrell slit a prostitute’s throat and set fire to the brothel – all while sleepwalking. The jury bought the defense, and he was acquitted.

The jury doesn’t always buy it, though. Out of 7 famous murder trials where the defendant claimed they were sleepwalking and didn’t remember the murder, 4 were acquitted but 3 were convicted.

Check out this video of 10 strange things people have done while sleepwalking:

Should You Wake a Sleepwalker?

People often say you shouldn’t attempt to wake a sleepwalker, but is that true?

In the old days, people felt that your soul left your body when you went to sleep, so they thought that if they woke a sleepwalker, they would condemn the person to live without a soul forever.

However, current research shows that it’s not harmful to wake someone who is sleepwalking. Being able to do it, though, is another story. It is notoriously difficult to wake a sleepwalking person.

The best thing to do is to gently guide the sleepwalker back to their bed. They’re very perceptive to suggestion, like a hypnotized person.

If you do wake them, though, you could startle them, and often people jolted awake are confused. As a result, they may lash out and punch you.

Weird Sleepwalking Facts

  • The most common sleepwalking behavior is peeing. Many people will pee in a closet or a shoe or somewhere bizarre during an episode.
  • Sleepwalkers are usually sleepy and fatigued during the day.
  • Sleepwalkers can be incredibly adept at feats they couldn’t do while awake, like balancing on precarious ledges and experiencing heightened senses.
  • A person’s behavior while sleepwalking can be very bizarre and out-of-character for them. This may be because the subconscious mind stores a lot of thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that the conscious mind suppresses.
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You might also want to check out Can Your Sleep Position Determine Your Dreams?

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Michele Swensen is a writer and web designer who loves learning, animals, writing, reading, and playing the piano. She’s a member of Mensa and a college graduate.

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Michele Swensen is a writer and web designer who loves learning, animals, writing, reading, and playing the piano. She’s a member of Mensa and a college graduate.
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