In this post we’re going to look at the reasons for sleepwalking. But first, has either of these things ever happened to you?
It’s late in the evening, and you’re reading a book or watching TV. You look up, and see a member of your household walking towards you. Their eyes are open, but they have a glassy, vacant look in them. You call out to the person, but they ignore your greeting, gliding past you with an eerie, shuffling gait. A chill runs down your spine as you wonder what’s going on.
You’re getting into bed after a long, active day. Your head hits the pillow and soon you’re asleep. Then, the next thing you know, you’re awakened by someone in your household, shaking you and calling your name. You look around, and realize to your shock that you’re no longer in bed. Instead you’re standing somewhere in your home, with no idea how you got there.
A Common Phenomenon
Does one of the two scenes sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. As much as 40% of the US population has sleepwalked, and millions of others have watched someone else do it. It occurs most commonly in children aged 4 to 8, although it can happen at any point in life. While it can be creepy to see or to experience, in almost all cases it’s harmless.
Sleepwalkers Don’t Just Walk
In a small number of cases, the somnambulist (medical term for the person sleepwalking) engages in other activities. Some run around the house. Others go into their kitchen and start preparing a meal. There have even been instances of persons going online and chatting with others while asleep. And in extremely rare cases, sleepwalkers have driven cars, gone shopping, or even become violent.
For centuries, philosophers and scientists have wondered what makes people sleepwalk. In earlier times people thought fairies or other magical creatures were to blame. Since the 19th century, researchers have sought more scientific reasons for the phenomenon.
Freud thought that sleepwalkers are acting out their dreams. The medical establishment accepted this explanation as late as the 1950s. But by the 1960s this idea was abandoned, as studies showed that sleepwalking usually occurs before rapid eye movement (REM) sleep begins, which is the period during which we dream.
Today many scientists believe that since most sleepwalkers are young children, the cause has something to do with the fact that their brains are still developing. Because of this, their minds aren’t fully able to tell the difference between waking and sleeping states.
Should Anything Be Done?
In the vast majority of cases, the answer is no. Sleepwalking is a natural part of maturing for many children, and they will outgrow it as their brains develop. Parents may want to move furniture, power cords, and other obstructions out of the way, to prevent their kids from tripping or bruising themselves during episodes.
Experts are divided on whether sleepwalkers should be wakened. Some say that the person should be left alone or guided back to bed, but left asleep. Others say that rousing them by speaking loudly or shaking them gently causes no harm and may help the person grow out of the habit.
When There’s Cause for Concern
In some cases, such as with adult sleepwalking, the practice can be a symptom of physical or psychological problems. This is especially true if a sleepwalker becomes hysterical or aggressive, or engages in risky or dangerous activities. In such cases a medical professional should be consulted. Treatment options include counseling, medication, and avoiding drugs or alcohol before bed.
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