Somnambulism, or sleepwalking as it’s more commonly known, is something that affects around 2-4% of the population, and while common in children, most will grow out of it by the time they hit their teens. Originally, sleepwalking was thought to be the sleeper acting out their dreams, but it was then discovered that sleepwalking actually occurs when you are in the deepest part of sleep, which generally doesn’t induce dreaming.
Freud speculated that sleepwalking was the unconscious brain trying to fulfil desires imagined during wakefulness, however, this does not appear to be the case. Most sleepwalking tends to involve rather basic tasks and when the sleeper is questioned after the event, these tasks don’t even match their dreams. There have been other more serious occurrences during periods of sleepwalking including driving, sexual encounters and in very rare cases, even murder…
A study was carried out recently on some sleepwalkers and non-sleepwalkers to see how they performed walking through a room in full motion-capture suits, using virtual-reality headsets. During the first test, they simply asked them to walk through the virtual room towards a virtual object; they were shown an avatar in front of them that could mimic the movements of the subject perfectly or deviate from the true trajectory, deceiving the subject into walking along a false path.
Interestingly, neither the sleepwalkers nor the non-sleepwalkers outperformed one another and both reached the target at similar times. They then gave them the task of counting back from 200 in decrements of seven whilst completing the same walking task. During this portion of the experiment, the sleepwalkers surpassed their non-sleepwalking counterparts and were able to stay on track at the same pace whilst counting and the non-sleepwalkers struggled to hold the same pace.
Scientists said this is because of the autonomous nature of sleepwalking, as those affected can continue to do everyday activities such as walking around, getting dressed and even driving! As their bodies are able to carry out these functions whilst sleeping, perhaps to do with muscle memory, they do not need to focus so much on the task of moving. This frees their mind to focus on the mental challenge of counting.
You may be more adept at multi-tasking if you are a sleepwalker, perhaps do some experiments to try the theory! If you have ever experienced sleepwalking, we would love to hear from you! Please tell us your sleepwalking stories below.