Remember Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene in Shakespeare’s 1606 tragedy when she scrubs her hands feverishly mumbling, “Out damned spot”? Or the sheer idiocy of the Stepbrothers’ (2008) take on somnambulism—movement while asleep—and midnight snacking? Some of the best-documented and dramatic sleepwalking incidents have come down to us through the ages via literature, theater, television, and films.
That’s because no matter how you slice it, sleepwalking is as old as human history. Of course, what people think about sleepwalkers and how they’ve been treated has evolved since ancient times. Modern portrayals of sleepwalking usually end with another individual stepping in to wake up the sleepwalker.
It just seems like the natural thing to do, right? Or will jolting a sleepwalker back into consciousness condemn them to a soulless existence?
Sleepwalking episodes come on without warning and leave the participant unaware of their actions while asleep. As a result, many ancient cultures concluded that strange metaphysical powers were at work, whether through divine or demonic possession. A bewildering disorder, people historically associated sleepwalking with the sacred, supernatural, and scary.
During the Middle Ages, somnambulism earned an additional, contagious reputation. Communities shunned sleepwalkers and their families in sad attempts to stop its “spread.” They saw the phenomenon as a malevolent curse, mark of evil, plague, or punishment for unconfessed sins. In this context, Lady Macbeth’s frantic attempts to wash her hands clean while lost in a dream state hearken back to her guilt-ridden conscience.
Since ancient and medieval beliefs taught that the human soul left the body during sleep, waking a somnambulist came with dire consequences. Namely, dooming them to wander the earth, soullessly, for the rest of their existence.
Modern Views Emerge
By the Renaissance, however, some natural philosophers (a.k.a. proto-scientists) started taking a closer look at sleepwalking and its causes. By the mid-1800s, a new theory emerged of sleepwalking as a common condition rather than a neuropsychiatric one rooted in guilt and shame. The superstitions about possession faded over time.
Of course, as sleepwalking transformed from an inexplicable and terrifying taboo into an accepted part of human existence, people started interacting differently with sleepwalkers. Waking them up became the norm and remains a common practice to this day.
As scientists continue to gain a better understanding of how sleepwalking works, though, many have concluded that the best thing you can do for a somnambulist is tuck them back in.
What We Know Today
More than 8.4 million Americans sleepwalk each year. As for kids, you’d be hard-pressed to find any who haven’t experienced at least one episode of sleepwalking. We now know it’s a part of the human condition, not a manifestation of a psychiatric disorder.
So, why don’t sleepwalkers retain any memories of an episode? Because their behaviors take place without conscious awareness. Their behavior comes from the brain’s central pattern generator. This area of the brain contains neural pathways associated with heavily practiced and learned movements, basically a typical or repeated schedule.
That’s why you’ll notice sleepwalkers partaking in behavior from daily life, but you won’t see them doing something new or unlearned, like speaking a language they don’t know or playing an instrument they’re unfamiliar with. You also won’t observe sleepwalkers acting out in complex ways. The region of the brain that stores memories remains asleep, too, which leads to zero recall later.
How to Handle Sleepwalkers
So, what should you do when you encounter a sleepwalker? Researchers warn that it’s very tough to rouse somebody from this state. Unless the sleepwalker’s partaking in a dangerous activity—like getting ready to dive down the stairs, head outside, or go for a drive—it’s best to just steer them back to bed.
That said, if you do manage to wake them, don’t worry. Interrupting a sleepwalker won’t harm them. Or lead to a soulless existence. Whew!
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com