Definition: a sleep disorder characterized by walking or other activity while seemingly still asleep- Psychology Today

Synonyms: somnambulism, parasomnia

Sleep walking usually occurs when a person is in deep sleep and most sleep walking episodes last for less than ten minutes. 30% of all adults are thought to have sleep walked at least once in their lives. Sleep walking itself is only one of the complex behaviours carried out while a person is asleep like sitting up in bed and looking around, some even drive! Why does this happen?

Sleep walking happens near the end of the NREM phases (non-rapid eye movement phases) –which is strange since it’s in the REM phase that the brain’s neuronal activity is most similar to when we’re awake- when the body is only semi- unconscious as suggested by scientists that believe that sleep walking is caused by the brain trying to transition from a deep sleep to being awake.

The most common thought at the moment is associated with the functioning of Gamma- Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) which is an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter. It inhibits the activity of the brain’s motor system GABA is an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system therefore allowing us to have a normal sleep due to muscle movement being regulated.

Due to children having neurons that are still developing, the neurons that release GABA haven’t familiarised themselves with a network of connections to control motor activity. This is why children (1 in 10 six to twelve year olds) sleepwalk more than adults (1 in 50) and the adults that do sleepwalk had a poor maturation of the brain leading to regular muscle tension allowing automatic actions like walking to be carried out. However, if GABA isn’t matured in children, then why don’t more children sleep walk? 10% doesn’t seem to account fully for this theory.

Sleepwalking is also something that is passed down from parent to child with there being a 45% chance of a child being a sleepwalker if a parent is and 60% if both parents are. There is currently no explanation of this though genetics is assumed.

Those that are depressed are three times more likely to sleepwalk. Other triggers include sleep deprivation, stress and anxiety, infection, drinking, recreational drugs and certain medication types but fundamentally there is no psychological or psychiatric cause for sleep walking. It can be argued that many of these triggers are linked to depression in a general sense.

What do you know anyone who sleep walks, what do you think of the theories covered? Let me know in the comments!


We are Our Brains by Dick Swabb pg 182-184


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