How Does Sleepwalking Work?

Author: BrainStuff - HowStuffWorks

(classical music) - Hi I'm Cristen Conger, and this is Brain Stuff. Have you ever seen someone sleepwalking? It's a little bit creepy, right? They might have glassy eyes or a blank, bland expression, and when they wake up, they won't remember what happened. So what the heck is going on with sleepwalking? How does it work? Who does it affect? And what are the common misconceptions about it? Well first, let's define sleepwalking.

If you want to get all fancy about it, you can call it somnambulism. It's a type of parasomnia, or abnormal disruptive behavior that occurs during sleep. Sleepwalkers may also act out a number of activities during this process.

These could be simple things, like eating, to more complex processes like driving a car. Now for centuries, people have been trying to figure out what's going on with sleepwalking. While scientists haven't fully cracked the case, we do know more and more about this phenomenon and it's helping us bust some myths, which is great for former sleepwalkers like myself. Now, first myth, sleepwalkers probably aren't acting out their dreams.

We know this because most sleepwalking occurs during the first third of the night when your body is in NREM, or non-REM sleep. This is the deepest part of your sleep cycle. It's a time when your body repairs itself and releases hormones. You are not dreaming while this goes on, and because your brain will resist awakening in this state, it may also be difficult to snap a sleepwalker out of it. But don't be afraid to try, because here's another fact. You can safely wake sleepwalkers. Don't do it violently, of course! But, you're not going to kill them either.

How Does Sleepwalking Work?

So now that we know some of the facts, it's time to figure out who's taking these midnight rambles. First of all, me. But who else? Well, weirdly enough, children tend to have a higher likelihood of sleepwalking.

This parasomnia also tends to run in families, and it more often occurs in boys than girls. And sleepwalking in general is more common than you might think. A study out of the Stanford University School of Medicine found that one in 25 U.S. Adults are prone to sleepwalking and that 29.2% report some form of it since childhood.

Parasomnias have been called errors in timing and balance in the brain. More technically, it could be called a disorder of arousal, meaning that something triggers the brain into awakening from that deep NREM sleep stage, so the person is in a transitional state between sleeping and waking. So why do kids experience it more often, and why do they grow out of it? Some researchers argue that kids' brains aren't mature enough to fully comprehend sleep cycles or that areas of their brains don't develop at the same pace. And, since that NREM sleep is a period of hormone release, it's possible that hormone releases may have something to do with sleepwalking. There's one last myth to bust here. Sleepwalking really can be dangerous.

It's been linked to seizures, as well as disorders like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Some people throughout history have even argued successfully that they killed someone while they were sleepwalking. So there you have it, an episode of Law and Order just waiting to happen. I'm kidding of course. It was already mentioned in a 2004 episode of Criminal Intent.

Oh, and as for me and my sleepwalking, I don't do it anymore. Stopped sleepwalking as a kid. At least I think I did. (harp music) This episode of Brain Stuff is brought to you by Harrys.com where $15 gets you a shaving kit filled with a handle, blades, and shaving cream.

And that's not all! Go to harrys.com right now, use the promo code BRAINSTUFF and get five dollars off. This deal isn't too good to be true! It's true! - [Voiceover] Kale. - So are you a fellow sleepwalker like me? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to like this video and subscribe to all of Brain Stuff.

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