Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

Sleepwalking: Dangerously innocent


Sleepwalking (or scientifically - somnambulism) is a disease so mysterious that it has acquired a mass of myths and legends. Professor Antonio Zadra and his fellow researchers from the University of Montreal in Canada try to debunk several popular myths about sleepwalking. For example, some people wrongfully believe that sleepwalking occurs only in children and adolescents. It is also wrong to think that sleepwalkers often cause harm to themselves and others (even though it can be true at times). So, what is the "true face" of somnambulism?

"They will outgrow it." With these words, doctors usually calm the parents of the children, who suddenly show signs of somnambulism. The basis of these views is the knowledge of the proportion of deep slow-wave sleep reducing with age. Sleepwalking episodes may occur during this very stage of sleep. However, the belief that somnambulism comes during puberty is nothing more than a myth. Statistics is encouraging, but it does not guarantee that a person can be 100% cured of sleepwalking as he or she grows older. A quarter of sleepwalkers are still somnambulant in maturity.

"I do not remember." This myth says that sleepwalkers can not remember anything of their nocturnal adventures. This is not always the case. Somnambulism has similar characteristics both in children and adults: a part of the brain is asleep while the other part is awake. The waking part is responsible for appropriate behavior. A sleepwalking person thus opens and closes doors, washes their hands, goes up or down the stairs. Their eyes can be open and they can even recognize people. 

The consciousness of a sleepwalking person is changed during the process; their reactions to the environment around them are unusual and illogical. However, since a part of the brain is awake, a sleepwalker sometimes may recall what was happening. Some may even remember the things that they were thinking or feeling at that moment, although the sleepwalking memory may improve with age.

A sleepwalker automatically repeats the actions that are familiar to them in the waking state. This is not true to fact. The study's authors, Professor Antonio Zadra and his fellow researchers from the University of Montreal in Canada believe that the essence of somnambulism is about partial sleep, when the brain falls asleep partially. Therefore, there is logic in the actions of sleepwalkers , but this is a special kind of logic.

"I do not suffer from somnambulism now, but in my childhood and adolescence, my relatives had seen me walking in my sleep. One night, my mother found me pouring water out of the flower vase on the floor. She did not realize that I was sleeping at first. When she asked what I was doing, I did not respond. But when she told me to bring a rag and wipe the floor dry, I leaned over and began to "mop up" the floor just with my hand. Actually, I was dreaming that I was watering the plants and then wiping the floor," a 28-year-old man said.

The actions of a sleepwalker can be dangerous both to themselves and to others. Usually, episodes of somnambulism are so short that a sleepwalker does not have time to do something really dangerous, as it can be described in books or films: open the window and get out onto the ledge, or grab a gun or a knife ... However, the ideas of somnambulism as a dangerous disorder are not far from the truth. If the man in the above-mentioned example had dropped the vase, he could have easily cut his feet.

One of the most impressive examples of dangerous sleepwalking can be found in the story of Kenneth Parks, a Canadian national. In May 1987, the 23-year-old man left his house while sleeping, started the car and drove for over 20 miles to the house of his father and mother-in-law. He got out of the car, he opened the door with the key that he had in his pocket. Once inside, he strangled his father-in-law, Dennis Woods, beat his mother-in-law, Barbara Ann Woods and then stabbed the woman with her own kitchen knife. Afterwards, Parks returned to the car, drove to the nearest police station and said, "I think I killed somebody." It is amazing that Kenneth Parks was asleep during that time.

Investigators initially showed deep skepticism to Parks' testimony. Nobody believed the man that he had committed a double murder while sleeping. The man had his eyes open and was able to drive a car. However, further investigation, as well as psychiatric examination, confirmed that he was indeed one of the most dangerous sleepwalkers of his day.

Medical studies showed that Parks had symptoms of unusually deep sleep. The analysis of his brain waves testified that his sleep phases were changing more often than in most other people. He also did not experience physical pain during the attack. He broke several tendons, when killing his relatives, and had to receive surgery afterwards.

His family told the police that when a child, he used to speak and walk in his sleep, and he would very often urinate while sleeping (an earlier study from 1974, conducted among 50 adult sleepwalkers, aggressive in their sleep, showed that many of them would urinate in bed and walk while sleeping). One night, one of Parks' brothers grabbed him by the leg at the last moment before he was about to jump out of the window.

Noteworthy, some other details of Parks' life unveiled a different side of him. Almost a year before the attack, he became addicted to gambling. The habit affected his marriage, and in the end he stole $30,000 from work to pay the debt. Two months before the attack Parks was fired. He had the strength not to gamble for a few weeks and then he started it again. He once even forged his wife's signature to get money. Three days before the attack, he decided to change something for the better, visited the anonymous players club and decided to come to terms with his wife's parents, with whom he was, apparently, quite close. Parks was so nervous before the meeting that he even lost sleep because he was preparing for the upcoming conversation.

Despite his seemingly "far-fetched" alibi, Parks was acquitted.

Sleepwalkers are indistinguishable from ordinary people, until they walk while sleeping. This is not true to fact. Since only one part of the brain sleeps during somnambulism, somnambulists feel tired and sleepy during the day.

Sleepwalking appears from nowhere and vanishes into nowhere. The mystery of somnambulism is exaggerated. In fact, the propensity for sleepwalking is hereditary. As many as 80 percent of somnambulists have relatives, who walk in their sleep. To activate the genes, an additional factor is needed, for example, stress, or chronic sleep deprivation.

Yana Filimonova


Read the original in Russian