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Sleepwalking and Sleeptalking

Automatic activity during sleep is called sleepwalking or somnambulism Typically sleepwalking involves simple, goal-directed activity of the type one could do automaticly or absent-mindedly. The activity is carried out without normal awareness, and the sleepwalker usually has no memory of the activity later. Sleepwalking is more likely to occur under the following conditions:

What are typical characteristics of sleepwalking? When is sleepwalking likely to occur?

1. During childhood

2. To males

3. If a person is under stress

4. During non-REM sleep (stages 3 and 4)

5. After a person drinks alcohol

Sleepwalking is probably associated with non-REM sleep because this is the time when there is no muscle inhibition and the sleeper is able to move. However, a sleepwalker is not necessarily acting out a dream. Jacobson and Kales (1967) found the dreams of sleepwalkers bore no resemblance to activities they carried out while sleepwalking. That is a strange finding. It implies a radical split between two trains of activity in the nervous system.... one controlling movement, the other having a dream.

What is supposedly the best way to deal with a sleepwalker?

The sleepwalker is sufficiently aware of the environment to avoid obstacles, respond to verbal questions or commands, and perform complex activities. Many students have heard it is "dangerous" to awaken a sleepwalker. That is not necessarily true, although it is true that sleepwalking takes place during deep phases of non-REM sleep when a sleeper is difficult to awaken. A person awakened during sleepwalking may be disoriented and groggy for up to twenty minutes. He or she may resent being awakened, like any other person who is deeply asleep. The person might also be confused or frightened by unexpected surroundings. Therefore experts say it is better simply to lead a sleepwalker back to bed.

How can you "get through" to a sleeptalking person?

Sleeptalking is less oriented to events in the environment than sleepwalking. If you attempt to converse with a sleeptalker, the sleeptalker will usually respond with nonsense. However, one student discovered a simple way to get a coherent response from a sleeptalking person: call the person's name before you make your statement. The dreamer may respond to you directly or may incorporate your voice into the dream, responding to you as if you were somebody else. Ask the wrong questions, however, and you may be playing with fire!

I had a good observation of a sleep talker one morning. My wife, who is a long sleeper, had a tendency to talk in her sleep the first year of our marriage. Although she had done it several times, there is one experience that sticks in my mind.

During a trip to Disney World, I awoke one morning to find my wife mumbling. Knowing that she talks in her sleep, I began to ask her simple questions. I received no response until I said her name first, and then asked her the same question. I mixed up the questions, sometimes stating her name first, sometimes not. I found that she answered questions only when I stated her name. Of all the questions, my favorite answer was to the question, "What did you like best about Disney World?" The answer was, "Dumbo."

But something strange happened a short time later. I asked her if she loved me, but she would not answer the question. So I spent about two minutes telling her who I was and then asked the question again. This time I got a yes answer. I took a break for a few minutes. I followed the break with this question: "Have you loved anyone else but Steve (my name)?" and the answer was, "No, you'll tell Steve." This shocked me, because she would not answer questions with more than one word before. I tried to convince her that I would not tell, but she never answered the question. So I ended the questioning there.

This experience is hard to explain, but if you could ever experience it yourself, you would find it quite entertaining. (However, my wife tells me even today that I made the whole thing up.) [Author's files]

Unlike sleepwalking, sleeptalking is only randomly related to sleep stages. Perhaps this is because sleeptalking uses muscles located above the neck. These muscles are not inhibited during REM sleep as are lower body muscles, so sleeptalking (unlike sleepwalking) can occur in normal people during REM or non-REM sleep.

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