Sleepwalking Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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Sleepwalking, or to use the posh medical term, somnambulism, is a common disorder which many people face, especially children. Sleepwalkers, or somnambulists, are aroused out of their deep sleep and commence a physical activity of some sort. This may include simply sitting up and appearing awake while actually asleep, getting up and walking around, or more complex activities such as moving furniture, going to the bathroom, dressing and undressing, and similar activities. Some people are even capable of driving a car while asleep. The episode can be very brief, a few seconds or minutes, or longer, more than 30 minutes, even. A sleepwalker can go back to sleep some place other than (their) bed, depending on how far they have walked.

Strangely, sleepwalkers are usually unaware of their activities, although they often remark that they were enacting in real life what they were dreaming of in their sleep.

What causes sleepwalking is currently not known, but factors which are known to lead to it happening include fatigue, prior sleep loss and anxiety. It can also be triggered by medication, alcohol or drug use.


  • Medical reports show that about 18% of the population are prone to sleepwalking.

  • It is more common in children than in adolescents and adults.

  • Boys are more likely to sleepwalk than girls.

  • The highest rate of sleepwalking was 16.7% at age 11 - 12 years.

  • Sleepwalking can have a genetic tendency.

  • If a child begins to sleepwalk at the age of nine, it often lasts into adulthood.

Most people have sleepwalked on at least one occasion.


Many myths surround sleepwalking, such as it being very dangerous to wake up a sleepwalker. One of the strangest of these myths is if a sleepwalker is dreaming they are being executed and are then touched on the neck to wake them up, their head will fall off: how the person waking the sleepwalker is supposed to know whether this is what the sleepwalker is dreaming at the time is not entirely clear...

The Dark Side

More alarmingly, there have been some cases where sleepwalkers have committed murder and other crimes. This raises the question of whether the perpetrator can have the defence of insanity and be detained indefinitely in a psychiatric hospital, or be acquitted on the grounds that it was an 'automatism' - meaning 'an act which is done by the muscles without any control by the mind, such as a spasm, a reflex action or a convulsion; or an act done while suffering from concussion or whilst sleep-walking'.

One such case is the Steven Steinberg case. In 1981 in the USA, a man named Steven Steinberg went to court to be tried for murdering his wife. He confirmed that he had indeed committed the murder, but claimed that he did it while sleepwalking - and was therefore temporarily insane at the time. A psychiatrist testified that the murder was committed under a scenario of 'dissociative reaction'.

The jury found Steinberg innocent, on the grounds that he was not in control of his own body when he killed his wife. He left court as a free man.

While there are no known cures for sleepwalking, it can be treated with drugs and hypnosis has also proven to be successful on a short-term basis.

Back to the Light

But let's not forget the fun side of sleepwalking - this Researcher experienced a particularly memorable episode:

When I was young [I had] a dream in which I climbed a pirate ship's rigging, dived off the crows nest and swam for shore. I awoke to find myself clambering [on] my bed [and] looked around at the devastation and realised I had been up and down my chest of drawers and into the wardrobe.

Sleepwalking can certainly present you with many hilarious events, such as the time this Researcher awoke in the middle of the night to find a friend sitting on the sofa, blankly watching television while attempting to eat a clock! One can only imagine what they must have been dreaming about.

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