Sleepwalkers’ twilight world | Sunday Observer

Sleepwalkers’ twilight world

20 September, 2020

Psychologists claim that they know relatively little about sleepwalking, a disturbance that is usually harmless. It occurs during stage four of sleep and is more common in children than in adults. Sleepwalkers usually have a vague consciousness of the world around them. Sometimes, they may be able to walk with agility around obstructions in a crowded room. Unless a sleepwalker wanders into a dangerous environment, sleepwalking typically poses little risk. However, according to “Today’s Health,” published by the American Medical Association, there is new light on the mystery of this strange behaviour and what causes it.

A long time ago, I had to spend the night at a friend’s place in a remote village. After a sumptuous dinner, we were about to retire to bed. I saw my friend’s mother placing a wet doormat and basin full of water at the doorstep of the room occupied by her young daughter. On inquiry, she said her daughter was a sleepwalker. According to her, the wet doormat and the basin full of water will bring her back to consciousness when she steps on them. Although I was curious to see the sleepwalker, nothing happened during the night. The girl’s parents later told me that they did not know what to do with her abnormal condition.

The phenomenon of walking in one’s sleep has confounded the medical profession and psychologists. According to them, no other creature, except man, can walk and do various activities while being in a state of sleep. When sleepwalkers move in the real world, their consciousness remains in the shadowy realm of sleep. Foreign newspapers have reported about sleepwalkers driving cars, buying tickets and boarding planes. In fact, some of them have crossed from one rooftop to another building easily. However, I have not seen any such incidents reported in local newspapers.


There are many myths surrounding somnambulism. According to one such myth, sleepwalkers do not hurt themselves. The myth has been disproved by 14-year-old Donald Elliot who got up from his bed, looked in the refrigerator and walked out of the back door in a state of deep sleep. The story did not end there. He found himself in a camper-truck travelling 50 miles an hour on the San Diego Freeway. Although he was not seriously injured, Donald received some cuts and bruises.

Although somnambulism is not a serious problem in Sri Lanka, more than four million Americans have sought medical help for sleepwalking. On the other hand, there may be more sleepwalkers in many parts of the world without seeking professional help. Some children will outgrow the problem in their adulthood. Most adults I interviewed said somnambulism would never happen to them.

Dr John Sours, a psychiatrist at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center claims that a young man on a hunting trip while in sleep donned his hunting clothes, collected his shotgun and walked several miles and sat for an hour. Luckily, his father came there and awakened him.

Tall story

An episode reported by Dr Nathaniel Kleitman is shocking indeed. According to him, a college student got up from his bed, dressed himself and walked about a mile to reach a river. There he stripped himself, swam and got dressed and returned to his dormitory. All the activities had been performed while in a state of sleep. This appears like a tall story except for the fact that it was reported by an international expert on sleep. He has done many experiments at the University of Chicago. The student was questioned on the following day, but he said he had no recollection of the incident.

Most doctors and psychiatrists interviewed via email, said sleepwalkers simply act out their dreams. As we know, a sleeping person’s eyes invariably move rapidly beneath his closed eyelids during dreams. Recent brain-wave experiments show that almost all of us dream every night. According to the researchers, we dream during periods of light sleep. This is contrary to the generally accepted view that we dream during deep sleep.

I do not know whether any experiments on sleepwalking have been conducted in Sri Lanka. However, a series of laboratory and brain-wave tests done in the United States have helped researchers to reach certain conclusions. According to such experiments, sleepwalkers are not acting out dreams. Those who walked in their sleep were in a deep sleep and there were no rapid eye movements. That means they were not dreaming.

Young children

Recent studies show that sleepwalking affects mainly young children. Sleepwalking is less frequent in older children. Researchers have found that the nervous system of a young child is immature. When the child grows up, his nervous system also develops. As a result, he will not be subject to sleepwalking.

In an experiment conducted in France, researchers found that sleepwalking usually occurs along with two other sleep disorders. They are “enuresis” (bed-wetting) and “pavornocturnus” (sleep terror). In other words, a child may experience a sleep terror, or wet his bed, and then walk in his sleep. According to them, sleepwalking occurs in non-dreaming sleep.

Sleep researchers have reported some startling facts about sleepwalkers. According to one authority, some women have been sleepwalking in the nude outside their homes. One husband reportedly found his wife in a tree. She was not wearing any clothes. Meanwhile, some sleepwalking men have tried to get into bed with women.


Science has still not answered all the questions related to sleepwalking. For instance, people have asked whether somnambulism is hereditary. An Italian doctor has reported that all the members of a certain family – numbering six – were subject to sleepwalking. According to him, one night, all of them got up, walked downstairs and went to a table in the servants’ quarters. They sat there until something aroused one of them.

Although the last word has not been spoken about sleepwalking, researchers believe that there are certain triggers. For instance, a child will start sleepwalking if his parents always quarrel with each other. Even the death of a parent or even a pet can trigger the sleepwalking habit. In the case of adults, certain psychological pressures can act as triggers to sleepwalking. However, when the pressure subsides, the subject becomes normal.

What are you going to do if you see a sleepwalker? Doctors have advised that you should not try to wake him up unless he is potentially dangerous to himself or others. There is a possibility that a sleepwalker can turn violent. Therefore, it is best to leave the sleepwalker alone until his mission is accomplished.

The good news is that if your child walks in his sleep, do not panic and consider it as a symptom of epilepsy or brain damage. However, only if you worry about the child’s condition, consult a physician. In most cases, the sleepwalker grows out of his habit quite naturally.

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