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A True Health Nightmare: Somnambulism and its Accompanying Dangers
21 February 2011
Somnambulism, known informally as sleepwalking, is a disorder that affects the motor, verbal, or experiential occurances that take part during sleep stages (Ackroyd). People do not sleep walk with their arms extended out in front of them like zombies or with their eyes closed. An ill-informed person might mistake this commonly portrayed image from movies or cartoons for how the motor-skills of a sleepwalker actually operate while under these unconscious spells of sleep. The eyelids do not need to close completely—or at all for that matter—in order for someone to drift off into deep sleep. Typically, an affected sleepwalker’s eyes remain open in a glossy stare (Nat’l Sleeping Foundation).
Sleepwalking usually occurs when the brain fails to send an important chemical component into the nervous system, which prohibits the body from moving significantly during sleep in order to avoid any self-inflicted bodily harm. Direct causes of sleepwalking include sleep deprivation, chaotic sleep schedules, stress, or alcohol intoxication; however, many chronic sleepwalkers relate their problems with sleepwalking to psychological issues (Nat’l Sleeping Foundation).
A small percentage of affected persons experience sleepwalking on a consistent basis, but it is most likely that any given person will have experienced some type of sleepwalking activity in their life—perhaps not even to their knowledge. Sleepwalking is more prevalent in children than in adults, as 5-15% of children are reported to experience some type of confusional sleep arousals with an approximate incidence of 1% (Ackroyd). Interestingly enough, there exists a common difficulty in remembering these occurrences after waking, and therefore, there exists a small population of sleepers that unknowingly enters a nocturnal world of unconscious behavior on a nightly basis.
Sufferers of sleepwalking disorders may behave on three different levels. Level number one includes annoying but harmless behavior under which one may get up to walk around briefly and return to bed shortly thereafter. Second level behavior involves annoying, but also potentially harmful behavior to one’s health. These second level sleepwalkers may scream loudly or walk outside of their home, thereby putting themselves in danger. The third and most concerning level of sleepwalking corresponds to violent actions and harmful effects. With the difficulty in waking this type of sleepwalker, the affected person can become very defensive or violent when disturbed. These violent turns have caused serious yet unintentional harm to sleep disorder victims and others.
Several reports of unnerving sleepwalking incidents have surfaced far and wide. One of these horrific incidents, a man who had accidentally fallen to his death from a third story balcony, and another, a non-swimmer dropping herself into the deep end of her pool—both during somnambulistic phases of sleep.
Evaluation of risks and treatment:
Rather than recharging the body with a peaceful night’s rest, a sleepwalking victim instead drains his or her energy by unwillingly participating in semi-conscious or completely unconscious nocturnal perambulations (Schneck). Somnambulistic behavior follows a logic not bound by natural human responses apt to react appropriately to realistic situations experienced while awake. After awakening, the victim usually will not recall tasks performed during the slumber, however, images that trigger sensory memory—such as seeing something during a state of consciousness that one also pictured while asleep—sometimes resolve confusion regarding sleep activity (Boucher).
The basis of somnambulism and its accompanying threats to human health are derived from a wide range of reasons. Sleep disorder experts claim that sleepwalkers sometimes act out dream situations or past memories, causing them to perform senseless acts while having minimal to no control over their actions. An involuntary act performed during sleepwalking is referred to as automatism (Schneck). Experts argue whether or not an act committed while sleepwalking counts as a legitimate one since an act is considered as an action that contains a will. Often times these activities endanger both the sleep disorder victim and those in their surrounding. Under a state of deep sleep, sleepwalkers fail to produce intention or will. For instance, Scott Falater. Extreme lack of sleep led to his wife’s tragic death.
Scott Falater led a normal life working as a product engineer at Motorolla and providing for his loving wife and two teenage children. Under a large amount of stress from his demanding job, Falater only slept two to three hours a night. In January 1997, the 43 year old man stabbed his wife to death forty four times. A concerned neighbor called the police after witnessing Falater drag his wife's lifeless body outside and hold her head underneath the water in their backyard pool. Police arrived promptly at the scene to detain Falater; he complied willingly with the officers who arrested him. When the police force began interrogating Falatar on the heinous crime, Falatar was reported to have acted uninformed of the circumstances. His defense for his unknown activities was released shortly thereafter: sleepwalking.
Falater claimed to not recall any details from the night. During the court trial, attorneys defended Falater by explaining that he had no awareness of what actions he performed and no motive to kill his wife. Evidence from tests conducted on Falater supported his claim to suffer from somnambulism. The exams showed he fit the profile of a sleepwalker and that he had a long history of sleep disorders. Sleep expert, Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, explained the unfortunate possibility of a situation like this one while reporting to CNN, "Sometimes they hurt themselves, sometimes other people. But this is a state in which they are confused. They're not conscious so they think something terrible is happening and they should defend themselves."
Many dangers accompany the varying loss of control over the mind and body during sleepwalking, which has led to many intriguing stories in the media. “They can harm themselves and others—even kill—or engage in highly complex behaviors such as driving long distances, and hurt others with sleep aggression and violence,” said sleep expert Carlos Schenck. While still able to perform complicated tasks, sleep walkers lack the discretion to recognize immediate danger. Failure to recognize and react to such threats has led to serious injury and even death.
A young man once drove ten miles to his parents’ home in his sleep, only to be awoken abruptly by the sound of his own fists pounding on his parents’ front door at 5 o’clock in the morning. Another peculiar account involved a middle-aged man found climbing a crane in his sleep. He suffered no injuries, but with the potential danger involved, his account was disturbing to those victimized by sleepwalking disorders.
Those who are aware of persisting sleepwalking problems have to worry about their ability to use physical strength to inflict self harm or risk the health of others. Schenck exemplified the danger in his quote by claiming, “There are a number of ways that sleepwalkers can be dangerous to themselves and others during sleepwalking episodes.” For example, he noted, “A slender female in her teens, tore her bedroom door off the hinges one night, yet was unable to replicate that strength when awake.” In a less serious situation, Tim Boucher told of a half an hour phone conversation he had with a sleepwalking friend. The friend responded only to subjects that he seemed to dream about at the time though, and recalled nothing from the event the next day (Boucher).
The dream world allows for experiences not attainable in reality. However, the memory of these experiences does not always carry over into the conscious part of the human mind. In order to understand the most direct reasons for sleepwalking, scientists must continue their attempts to map and study more of the complexities of brain activity during its subconscious state. After all, the scariest health problems are the ones that lack control.
Ackroyd, Gregory MD. “Somnambulism (Sleep Walking)”. Jan. 2011. <http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1188854-overview>.
Boucher, Tim. "Sleepwalking." Jan. 2011 <http://www.timboucher.com/journal/2006/07/13/sleepwalking/>.
Carter, Ken. "Disorders that make sleep scary." CNN. Jan. 2011<http://www.cnn.com/2007/living/personal/09/17/grim.sleeper/index.html?ir ef=newssearch>.
Haran, Christine. "Eyes Wide Open: Sleepwalking Story." Jan. 2011<http://drgreene.healthology.com/sleep-disorders/article1264.htm>.
LaMotte, Greg. "Sleepwalking defense in Arizona murder trial." 25 May 1999. CNN. Jan. 2011 <http://www.cnn.com/us/9905/25/sleepwalk.defense/>.
Robinson, Bryan. "Friends and relatives of convicted sleepwalking murderer plead for his life." Court TV Online. Jan. 2011 <http://http://www.courttv.com/archive/trials/falater/121099_ctv.html>.
Schneck, Carlos H. "Violent Behavior during Sleep: Prevalence, Comorbidity, and Consequences." Sleep Medicine 11.7 (2010): 941-46. Science Direct. Web. Jan. 2011.
"Sleepwalking: Symptoms." National Sleeping Foundation. Jan. 2011<http://www.sleepfoundation.org/site/c.huixkjm0ixf/b.2464481/apps/nl/cont ent3.asp?content_id=%7b3afb9b60-ce32-4341-8459- 78cac9572f0a%7d¬oc=1>.