For a lot of people, sleeping is a time of rest, and the most movement you do is the usual tossing and turning. But for others, sleep can be a time to aimlessly walk around the house, drive a car, or cook a meal, all without them being consciously aware. This is called sleepwalking, or somnambulism and scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why it occurs. But what they do know is that it most frequently happens to children and occurs during the deepest stages of sleep (stages 3 and 4). This is your deepest sleep when your brain waves are the slowest.
In contrast, during REM sleep, or rapid-eye-movement, your brain activity is much active, and this is the stage in which most of your dreams occur. And to keep you from acting out those dreams, your body’s muscles become temporarily paralyzed. So it makes sense that most sleep walking occurs in a stage other than REM sleep since you can’t walk when your muscles are not able to move. And by the same logic, sleep talking also occurs mostly during deeper stages of sleep. Since the sleepwalker is in a deep stage of sleep, it will be quite difficult to wake them up if you try and they probably will be baffled about why they’re not in their bed. It’s not dangerous to do this, but be prepared to explain the situation if you do.
But all that said, why does sleepwalking occur in the first place? One hypothesis is that people rise from their beds when their brain attempts to go straight from non-REM sleep to being awake, rather than going through the rest of the sleep cycle. And it’s thought that something triggered this transition. This is the part that scientists are still not sure on, but they have a few ideas.
As mentioned before, sleepwalking mostly occurs in children. So some scientists think that children are more prone to sleepwalking because their brains aren’t yet fully developed. It may be that all the growth hormones are triggering the kid to rise. But it may also have to do with inhibitory neurotransmitters. There is a neurotransmitter called GABA that stifles the brain’s motor system. For adults, this neurotransmitter usually does a good job to inhibit the body’s motion. But for the neurons that release that neurotransmitter aren’t fully developed yet so their motor systems may still be active. This can then lead to that kid walking around the house in their sleep.
Now don’t worry for children usually grow out of sleepwalking as they age and their brains fully develop in time. But if sleepwalking persists into adulthood, it may be linked to a mental disorder like alcoholism or clinical depression. Most of the time it’s not dangerous, but if it gets to be, you may want to seek out a doctor for help.
So have you ever sleepwalked before? And if so, what did you end up doing?