Sleep’s darkest mystery | Sunday Observer

Sleep’s darkest mystery

A sleepwalker
A sleepwalker

Science has penetrated deep into the subconscious mind of man, but it still has much to learn about the intricate causes of a strange human malady - “sleepwalking” also known to us as somnambulism or noctambulism.

Although most of us are unaware of the occurrence of sleepwalking, millions of people walk in their sleep. What is strange is that some of these sleepwalkers or somnambulists read books, write letters, engage in many other activities such as travelling on a bus or train or even driving a car. In extreme cases, some sleepwalkers have committed robbery, murder and suicide.

According to a well-known story, two school teachers returning home through a lonely country road at midnight had seen a ‘ghost’ gliding along the road. The white-clad figure disappeared suddenly. The teachers informed the police about the strange incident. A police patrol car later spotted the apparition on another road. On closer examination they found that the apparition was really a beautiful woman in her nightgown! Surprisingly, the police found her fast asleep. Police investigations revealed that she had walked about two kilometres from home. Although science has unravelled the mystery of sleepwalking to a great extent, certain phases of somnambulism baffle the experts. One fact is that a sleepwalker’s body is controlled by his subconscious mind which is the reservoir of our hopes, fears, and frustrations. Psychologists have found that in certain instances the sleepwalker uses some faculties of his conscious mind as well.


Some people suffering from kleptomania, a mental illness in which you have a desire to steal things, may fight his urge to steal during his waking hours. However, at night he is sure to steal something while sleepwalking. A US army psychiatrist found a young soldier sleepwalking across the country looking for somebody. Later, the psychiatrist found that he was looking for his uncle who had adopted him when his parents died. When he joined the army he lost contact with his uncle. Then he was overcome by a feeling of insecurity. It was a clear case of the soldier’s subconscious mind using his body to search for the missing uncle.

A common cause for sleepwalking is a subconscious urge to flee from reality. This usually happens when a person is living under stress or when his freedom of movement is restricted. Sometimes, young girls are not allowed to socialize fearing they would get into unnecessary troubles. On such occasions the victims resort to sleepwalking as a form of liberation from undue restrictions.

Sleepwalkers are capable of opening locked doors, windows or even fire escapes to find their way into the outside world. Sometimes, they act somewhat irrationally because the subconscious uses only a fraction of their intelligence. One day, a writer was found seated perilously on a window ledge outside his hotel room. Knowing that he was a sleepwalker he had secured himself in bed with a chain around his ankle and hid the key under the carpet. However, while sleepwalking he had found the key, unchained himself and gone out as usual. On some occasions parents lay wet doormats near the bed to prevent their children who tend to walk in their sleep. However, such devices have been proved to be futile attempts.

Subconscious mind

On rare occasions, sleepwalkers’ subconscious dominates the conscious mind. The British Medical Journal reported a case in which a woman who used to get up at dead of night, write letters and do an intricate type of crochet work in total darkness. Psychiatrists found that she could not perform such tasks in her waking life.

Sleepwalkers are active during their Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or deep sleep which usually occurs after two hours of retiring to bed. The duration of deep sleep depends on the individual or his personality. However, it may last for a few minutes or a few hours. Some sleepwalkers have travelled to distant places and even got married. Psychiatrists believe that most of the amnesia cases we hear are related to sleepwalking.

The noted French psychologist, Dr. Pierre Janet, cites a case in which a man left his home on February 3, to meet a friend. On his way he felt a slight headache. When he woke up he found himself in a meadow in a faraway country, on the 12th of February. But he could not remember what happened to him. Psychiatrists found that the man wanted to escape from his problems. When they became unbearable, the subconscious mind took over.


Psychiatrists believe, sleepwalking would not lead to insanity. The abnormality can be cured by discovering the underlying causes and removing them through psychotherapy.

The prevalence of sleepwalking in the general population is between 1 per cent and 15 per cent. The onset or persistence of sleepwalking in adulthood is common and is usually not associated with any significant underlying psychiatric or psychological problems. Common triggers for sleepwalking include sleep deprivation, sedative agents (including alcohol), febrile illnesses, and certain medications.

According to the National Sleep Foundation in the United States, the prevalence of sleepwalking is much higher for children, especially, those between the ages of three and seven, and occurs more often in children with sleep apnea. There is also a higher instance of sleepwalking among children who experience bedwetting. Sleep terrors are a related disorder and both tend to run in families.

Fantastical artworks

Lee Hadwin is a nurse by day, a sleepwalking artist at night. He has produced strange and fantastical artwork which he has no recollection of drawing when he wakes up the next morning. Major galleries are now asking for his artwork to be displayed. Kenneth Parks, a 23-year-old Toronto man drove 23 kilometres to his in-laws’ house and stabbed his mother-in-law to death and assaulted his father-in-law. When he woke up he could not remember anything about the murder or the assault. He had committed the offences while sleepwalking. In 2004, sleep medicine experts successfully treated a woman who had sex with strangers while sleepwalking. Timothy Brueggeman, a 51-year-old electrician from Wisconsin, sleepwalked out of his home and froze to death.

William Shakespeare’s tragic play “Macbeth” has a sleepwalking scene which is well known in literary circles. In Oulton’s two-act farce, “The Sleepwalker or Which is the Lady” (1812) a histrionic failed actor-turned manservant relives his wished-for roles when sleepwalking.

Thus sleepwalking is a phenomenon of combined sleep and wakefulness. Those suffering from severe bouts of sleepwalking have sought psychiatric and pharmacological treatment successfully.

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