Strange Facts About Sleepwalking (Mar, 1949)
Strange Facts About Sleepwalking
By Carlton Brown
Like the man who awoke to find himself drowning in a river, you may roam the dark with 4 million other somnambulists—and never know it.
THE pretty young woman was the strangest case Dr. Dyce of Aberdeen, Scotland, ever saw. She was straddling a stool in the kitchen and riding it around the floor like a hobby horse. As she galloped the stool, she urged it on with frantic cries and whipped the wooden legs with one hand, just as though she were on a live mount.
By day, she was quiet, shy and painfully prim, the doctor learned. But almost every night there was a weird change in her modest behavior. Suddenly she would get out of bed in the dark, find her way to the
kitchen and start dashing madly about the room astride the stool.
“What are you doing?” Dr. Dyce asked the young woman as she rode past on the stool.
“Racing at Epsom Downs—of course!” she replied.
This was not insanity. What was it? Dr. Dyce diagnosed the case immediately. It was sleepwalking or somnambulism— and a galloping case at that, but not a cause for serious alarm.
The young woman did other odd things in her sleep, too. She dressed her children, set the table for breakfast and put everything in its proper place—without once opening her eyes!
Her family took her to church once while she was in this sleepwalking state. She gave every indication that she heard the minister and understood the sermon he was preaching. But, when she was awakened, she did not even remember that she had gone to church. Then, later on, when she was sleepwalking again, she repeated the sermon word for word!
Dr. Dyce’s patient showed some of the peculiar quirks of a mysterious disturbance of sleep that affects about one out of every 50 adults and a higher proportion of children. Families that have a sleepwalker in their midst usually try to keep the sleepwalking a secret, though that’s difficult to hide from the neighbors in some families where everybody prowls about at night in a trance.
Because of the attempted secrecy about somnambulism, there are no exact figures but estimates indicate there are more than 4,000,000 sleepwalkers in the United States alone. If you never walked in your sleep while you were a child, chances are you never will. But if you ever suffered the “night terrors” of childhood, you may wake up some night to discover that you are a sleepwalker. For, some people have no idea that they walk in their sleep.
A few years ago a man woke up to find himself drowning in the Bronx River in New York without knowing how he got there. He told the rescue party that he had never before known that he did any sleepwalking—much less sleepswimming.
Sleepwalkers never have any memory of their nocturnal rambles when they wake up—although they may recall a dream like the one they have been acting out. So, you see, you may walk in your sleep and never know it.
Night terrors are fairly common and usually not serious. The child sits up or jumps out of bed with a cry and does not recognize his parents or surroundings. This form of sleepwalking may be brought on by problems in the home or school, undue excitement before going to bed or an upset stomach. Such sleepwalking will stop if the cause is found and corrected. But it does indicate a reaction to dreams that may show up again in adult life.
In the great majority of cases, somnambulism isn’t dangerous. After a brief stroll, the sleeper generally returns to bed within 10 or 15 minutes. He often finds his way around in darkness that would baffle him if he were awake. If he comes to an obstacle, he moves it to one side or walks around it.
Most often, his features are expressionless, his eyes open and staring. The pupils are somewhat dilated but contract quickly on meeting light. Sometimes the eyes are partly or entirely shut, and flicker open only briefly, to register the sleeper’s surroundings on his mind with photographic clarity. Then, with eyes closed again, he can make his way around in a room whose landmarks he has memorized in that brief flash. Usually sleepwalkers can’t hear ordinary sounds and have no sense of taste or smell. But they do have remarkable control over their muscles and can do many things that would seem impossible for them were they awake.
You’ve heard incredible stories about people who have walked on rooftops in their sleep without ever making a false step. Well, many of them are true! Sleepwalkers have a heightened sense of balance and touch that enables them to perform feats they would never attempt if awake. Because they do not have their waking awareness of the situation, they may also show unusual courage.
You’ve heard, too, that it’s dangerous to awaken a sleepwalker. It isn’t, unless, of course, he is perched on a window ledge or some other high place. If he were suddenly awakened, then he might be startled when he realized his precarious position and lose his balance.
Sleepwalkers, like hypnotized people, are very receptive to suggestion. It’s usually easy to lead them back to bed with a few quiet words. The reason is that the subconscious mind is accustomed to being governed by the conscious mind. In hypnotism, the hypnotizer lulls the subject’s conscious mind to sleep and takes over its position of authority. In somnambulism, the conscious mind is already asleep. The subconscious is willing to take orders from a wide-awake guide, if they’re gently but firmly delivered and don’t conflict too strongly with the sleepwalker’s own desires.
Though it’s ordinarily not dangerous to awaken the average sleepwalker, it’s sometimes extremely difficult. A man named Matthew Lukaszewski fell from a second-story window, rolled off the awning that broke his fall and broke his wrist. Relatives in the house woke up and went after Matthew. He was five blocks away before they caught up with him. Only then, after they had shaken him and called to him, did he return to consciousness.
Every year, our newspapers report some half-dozen sleepwalking accidents—three or four of them fatal. But psychologists question whether all these cases may properly be called accidents. The subconscious mind, which rules the body in sleepwalking, has powerful urges which are not always known to the conscious mind. Some fatal sleepwalking accidents may be suicides, committed without conscious intent but under the strong dictates of the subconscious.
The question of the sleepwalker’s responsibility for his actions is a difficult legal point.
In a famous Italian case of the last century, a husband dreamed of finding his wife, who was lying by his side, in an act of infidelity. He wounded her gravely with a dagger. His lawyer successfully defended him by arguing that no one could be held accountable for acts committed in his sleep.
This defense was not admitted, however, in a case a few years ago in which a young American woman killed her illegitimate child during an attack of sleepwalking. She was sentenced for murder on the grounds that she could not have committed the act without having premeditated it while she was awake.
Dr. Maurice Chideckel cites a case that points out a sleepwalker’s curious awareness. A patient got up in his sleep and carefully wrote a batch of checks to pay for current bills. But when his wife put a blank check before him and urged him to sign it, he refused to notice the check or pay any attention to her suggestion.
A hypnotized person cannot be made to do anything against his moral code. In the same way, the sleepwalker—considered by many psychologists to be an example of self-hypnosis—acts only within the limits of his basic desires. But often these desires are revealed only when the subconscious takes over.
Dr. Chideckel tells of a 16-year-old girl whose sleepwalking clearly revealed a suppressed emotional conflict. She got up in her sleep, went to her desk and began to write a letter to a boy she secretly loved. She put the letter in the desk drawer. Then, as her parents watched anxiously, she walked to another room and fell exhausted on a cot. On awakening, she had no idea how she got into that room. The next night she got up again, found the letter in the desk and started writing where she had left off.
Sleepwalkers often take on a strange night personality quite foreign to their waking nature. At Camp Lee, Va., Lieutenant Colonel Samuel A. Sandler studied 22 Army men who walked in their sleep.
“The night personalities of these men were in marked contrast to their gentle dispositions during the day,” he reports. “They were argumentative and hostile, which was probably indicative of their basic character. . . . One man started a fight with a guard, knocked him down and thereby risked being shot.”
Most neurotics have a broken home as one of the factors in their personality troubles. Surprisingly, these Army sleepwalkers had no such history in their background. Their fathers were feared but idolized. Their mothers may have been domineering but were held inferior to the fathers and were called “nervous.” Eleven of the men were the youngest of large families and showed a terrific need for the personal attention and affection they had lacked because of the size of their families.
A significant discovery was that these Army sleepwalkers showed little or no interest in women. Nine were single, five divorced, but all apparently had difficulty in working out normal sexual adjustments. One case may indicate the nature of this sexual problem. When this man’s sleepwalking suddenly ceased, he developed marked homosexual traits.
One soldier frequently beat his wife while he was sleepwalking. After one of these attacks, he revealed that he had been dreaming about trying to plow a field with a balky mule.
‘That mule made me so darn mad I socked it,” he said.
When he awoke, he found that he had hit his wife in the face and broken her eardrum.
Many of the men recalled other nightmares they were living out during their sleepwalking. One man made a habit of picking up his wife in his arms and running out of the house, because he feared something was about to fall on her.
One soldier kept dreaming of a snake 25 feet long and 4 feet thick. He tossed and fought in a frenzy to prevent this monster snake from squeezing him to death.
From his studies of this group, Colonel Sandler concluded: “The personality structure of the somnambulist is that of the overprotected, babied adult. . . . Somnambulism, in its essence, represents to the sleepwalker an attempt to escape from threatening dangers.”
The group responded favorably to psychiatric treatment, which is the only approach that medicine has so far devised for tackling the problem.
Sleepwalking may be outgrown or suddenly stop when the secret personality problem or anxiety fades away. When it does not. doctors look for emotional conflicts in the background, or in the immediate situation of the sufferer, and try to eliminate them. Unusual stress is often the obvious cause.
This was true of many of the 117 male patients studied in 1947 at the Mill Hill Emergency Hospital in London. They were men who had been under intense enemy fire at Dunkerque and in Normandy, Belgium and Holland. They jumped from their beds, seized imaginary weapons and rushed to meet their phantom enemies. Gradually, as the threat of combat was removed from their minds, the attacks ceased.
The Mill Hill doctors agree with other authorities that behind most sleepwalking cases is some acute, temporary stress, or a deep-seated psychological problem. Still unanswered is the question of why some people react in this fashion while others, under equal pressure, do not.
Sleepwalking is particularly puzzling to psychologists because it goes contrary to accepted theories about sleep and dreams. Dreams are supposed to have the function of prolonging sleep quietly, by taking problems which might disturb sleep and “solving” them in symbolic terms. The sleepwalker usually gets up from bed an hour or two after retiring, when sleep is most profound. Why doesn’t he, like the rest of us, lie quietly and work out the worries of his subconscious in dreams of action, instead of acting out his dreams?
Some psychologists call sleepwalking an extreme form of absent-mindedness. According to them, there’s a strong subconscious urge to follow only one line of action and ignore any diverting details. This might explain the conduct of a charming Pennsylvania maiden who took a sleepwalk at midnight through her home town—but forgot to put on any clothes.
The sleep scientists frankly admit that they don’t know, but they believe that sleepwalking may be hereditary. The most startling bit of evidence to this effect is contributed by Dr. A. Clerici, an Italian. He tells of a family of six who were all given to walking by night. One night they all got up from their separate beds at three o’clock and gathered in the servants’ hall around the tea table. How they behaved or what they talked about, nobody knows, for everyone in the weird gathering was fast asleep. Then one of the children tripped over a chair, and they all woke up and went back to bed.
Sleepwalking is as ancient an activity as dreaming. Shakespeare portrayed Lady Macbeth, the most famous somnambulist in literature, so accurately that some scientists think he must have been a sleepwalker himself. At any rate, her fictional doctor’s remark, ‘This disease is beyond my practice,” is a statement our modern medical profession might still make today.
As yet, we have penetrated only the outer edges of this sleepwalking mystery—the strangest quirk of that everyday but unknown state called sleep.