On Sleepwalking #SSAWeek

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My sleeping habits have been rather uneven recently. Some of the stress has me worried that I might start sleepwalking again. Since I just got news via Coturnix of ‘A Blog Around The Clock’, of the site – ‘DSPS, A Sleep Disorder‘ and some links to bloggers on the topic (including investigations of chronotypes and ‘The Human Circadian Clock’s Seasonal Adjustment Is Disrupted by Daylight Saving Time‘)…

So, I thought I might take some time to describe what my sleep habits sometimes entail. I would suggest you add ‘DSPS‘ to your blogroll if you find sleep an interesting topic!

My first recollection of a distinct sleepwalking episode was taking my pillow, walking to a wardrobe at the other end of the house, throwing the pillow in and claiming that ‘Fat Cat deserved it’. Then going back to sleep in my room. I vaguely recall walking, but that’s about it.

Sleepwalking is defined as a sleep disorder. Like insomnia (which I also sometimes have) and narcolepsy and sleep apnea, they disrupt sleep patterns. What I’ve discovered about sleepwalking is that there’s a wide variety of behaviours that can be associated with it, some of which I’ve experienced and some of which I hope I never do!

Some of the ‘adventures’ I’ve had include writing notes to myself. In one case, it was a detailed map across a series of post-it notes (apparently it’s ‘all about the Leprechauns’). There was the time that I stayed for about two hours in front of a radio-alarm clock, waiting for the broadcast of the news that the Martians were invading; I remember the distinct lack of Tripods wrangling their way over the horizon, either H.G Wells‘ originals or John Christopher’s version, as being rather depressing. Watching Spielberg’s ‘War Of The Worlds‘ was oddly satisfying many years later – ‘that’s what should have been happening! That’s it!

I’ve walked down stairs in my sleep and questioned relatives about ‘where did all the people go?’ I’ve woken up in the kitchen wearing a different shirt to the one I went to bed in, and the last time I took all the bedclothes with the intention of settling down in the bath for the night, because of ‘chocolate’.

Don’t expect me to figure out what all those were about. It’s just what happens. I know of one parent who was also a sleepwalker, but their responses were more aggressive than mine. I would describe my experiences as more ‘puzzling’ than anything else. Unusually, sleepwalking has continued on into my adult life.

Sleepwalking does vary in its severity. Sometimes you may just talk – which I have had happen. Sometimes it can get more extreme and it was the extreme behaviours which intrigue me. Sleepwalkers ‘have been described to be involved in complex motor activities like cooking, eating, driving a car, playing an instrument, stabbing and even murder’. One such case is that reflected in the title of this blog post – is it true that someone could in fact have sex when they were asleep? I should point out that no, I have not experienced this, but it always made me wonder when it was mentioned in an episode of House (“Role Model“). I would recommend a summary presented in the study review ‘Sexsomnia: Abnormal sexual behavior during sleep‘ by Andersen, Poyares, Alves, Skomro and Tufik (2007):

All cases of suspected sexsomnia should be thoroughly evaluated with particular attention to the high-risk behaviors known to precipitate sleepwalking, such as sleep deprivation, drug abuse, alcohol, and stress. This report is in agreement with previous literature showing that violent behavior during sleep is more frequent in males (Moldofsky et al., 1995],[Mahowald and Schenck, 1995][Ohayon et al., 1997] and [Schenck et al., 2007]).

…In summary, this sleep disorder should receive more attention. This condition appears to be underrecognized and it is suggested that questions about sleep and sex be included in the clinical evaluation of suspected parasomnias. Physicians assessing these cases should have a complete understanding of sleep physiology, behavior, and disorders. This unfortunate condition brings about not only personal, marital, and familiar turmoil, but frequently results in medico-legal consequences.

Sometimes medication can induce sleepwalking – a study on the effect of a drug that is meant to help with insomnia has had recorded side-effects – ‘Zolpidem, somnambulism, and nocturnal eating‘ (Sansone & Sansone, 2008):

While taking zolpidem [Ambien], she had experienced two episodes of somnambulism with amnesia. (The patient had no prior history of somnambulism.) During these episodes, Mrs. A walked down the steps from her second-story bedroom to the kitchen and ingested normal amounts of food (e.g., a turkey club sandwich). The following morning, the patient queried her husband, the only other household inhabitant, about the empty food-packaging materials on the countertop. He denied ingesting the food and the patient concluded that she had been sleepwalking and “eating in my sleep.” Mrs. A had no prior history of nocturnal eating and recalled during both episodes all events after zolpidem ingestion and prior to falling asleep (e.g., the ingestion of her usual bedtime medications). Because Mrs. A had been recently taking zolpidem, she sensed a possible association between the medication and her nocturnal experiences, and discontinued the medication with no further incidents.

There was also a case of writing emails to have a party! ‘Writing emails as part of sleepwalking after increase in Zolpidem‘ by Siddiqui, Osuna and Chokroverty (2009):

… After increasing the dose, she began to have episodes of sleepwalking. During one such episode, she went to bed around 10 p.m., she woke up two hours later, and walked to the next room on the same floor. She turned on the computer and connected to the internet. She logged in by typing her user ID and password to her email account. She sent three emails to her friend inviting her to come over for dinner and drinks. Her friend called her the next day to accept the invitation. She said that the emails had strange language. The patient was not aware of these emails. She checked her sent folder and found three emails sent at 11:47 p.m., 11:50 p.m. and 11:53 p.m. They were in upper and lower cases, not well formatted and had strange language. She was shocked when she saw these emails, as she did not recall writing them.

Now, I’ve written complaints on Twitter about being awake and unable to sleep, but thankfully, I haven’t sleep-emailed. I think that there’s a lock-down feature on Google-mail that can help prevent that kind of thing happening though! Hopefully, I’ll never have to use it. Wish me unskeptical-luck.

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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