The Science of Sleepwalking: Understanding the Brain During Sleep

The Science of Sleepwalking: Understanding the Brain During Sleep

Sleepwalking is a complex and fascinating phenomenon that has fascinated scientists for decades. Most people will never have experienced sleepwalking, but those who have will tell you that it is a very strange and even scary experience. Sleepwalkers don’t know they are doing it, yet they often wander around their homes or apartments, bump into walls and furniture, and sometimes even injure themselves. Sleepwalking is not an uncommon phenomenon, but its causes and effects are not well understood. In this post, we’ll explore the science of sleepwalking and the brain activity that occurs during this state of consciousness.

What Is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is a sleep disorder that causes an individual to perform complex activities while asleep. People who suffer from this condition usually have no memory of their actions once they wake up. Sleepwalking episodes can last from a few seconds to several minutes and may occur at any time during the night.

The exact cause of sleepwalking is still unknown, but it has been linked to various factors such as genetics, stress, fatigue, and medication use. Sleepwalking is more common in children than adults but can affect individuals of any age. It is estimated that about 1-15% of the general population suffers from sleepwalking at some point in their lives.

Sleepwalking can be dangerous, especially if the individual engages in activities such as driving or cooking while asleep. Treatment for this condition varies depending on its severity and may include behavioral therapy or medication use.

What Happens During Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder that usually occurs during deep sleep and is identified by the act of getting out of bed and walking around while still asleep. However, young sleepwalkers may exhibit other symptoms such as sleep talking, difficulty in waking up, appearing dazed, clumsiness, and unresponsiveness when spoken to. This condition typically affects children between the ages of 4 and 12 years old but can also occur in adults.

It is important to note that sleepwalkers’ eyes are open but their perception is different from when they are awake. They may believe they are in different rooms or even different locations altogether. Sleepwalking episodes can last for several minutes or longer and can be triggered by certain factors such as stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, or medication use.

How Common Is Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is a relatively common phenomenon that affects both children and adults. However, as per long-term studies, the prevalence of sleepwalking in children is much higher than in adults. A study found that 29% of children between the ages of 2 to 13 experienced sleepwalking. Interestingly, the incidence was highest between the ages of 10 to 13.

Determining the exact frequency of sleepwalking can be challenging because people who experience it do not remember their episodes. Moreover, different studies define sleepwalking differently, which makes it difficult to compare results across them. To overcome these issues, experts conducted a meta-analysis of 51 studies and found that approximately 5% of children and 1.5% of adults experienced an episode within the last year.

While most cases are benign and go away on their own over time, severe cases may require treatment or medication.

sleep walking

Is Sleepwalking Harmful?

Experiencing night terrors can be a distressing and perplexing occurrence for both the individual going through them and their close ones. Although it may seem harmless at first glance, sleepwalking can pose a risk to individuals who engage in hazardous behaviors while not conscious. For example, sleepwalkers might unknowingly descend stairs or open windows and put themselves in harm’s way.

It’s important to note, however, that sleepwalking is not typically indicative of emotional or psychological issues in children. In fact, the disorder affects both adults and children alike and doesn’t cause any emotional harm. That said, it’s crucial to monitor individuals who experience frequent episodes of sleepwalking and ensure their safety during these episodes.

One unique aspect of sleepwalking is that most people who experience it have no recollection of their activities once they wake up.

What Are the Risk Factors for Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is a condition that affects children and adults alike, although it is more common in children. The condition can start as soon as a child begins to walk and is prevalent in up to 17% of children. The peak age for sleepwalking is between eight to twelve years old, with most cases occurring during the first third of the night when deep sleep occurs.

It’s important to note that while sleepwalking may seem harmless, it can be dangerous if not properly addressed. Children who sleepwalk are at risk of injury due to falls or accidents, and may also exhibit behaviors such as wandering outdoors or leaving their homes without realizing it. Adults who experience sleepwalking episodes may also be at risk of injury, and may even engage in potentially dangerous activities like driving.

If you or someone you know experiences sleepwalking episodes, it’s important to seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare professional.

What Are the Causes of Sleepwalking?

The sleep cycle is a complex process that typically consists of different stages, each with its own unique characteristics. From light drowsiness to deep sleep, the stages of the sleep cycle vary in depth and duration throughout the night. One of these stages, known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, is characterized by quick eye movements and vivid dreaming.

During the night, individuals experience multiple cycles of non-REM and REM sleep. Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, usually occurs during the early stages of non-REM sleep (known as N3 sleep), which is deeper than other stages of non-REM sleep. This condition can be dangerous if left untreated since individuals who are experiencing a bout of somnambulism are often unaware that they are walking around or performing other activities while asleep.

According to research, sleepwalking is commonly linked to fatigue, sleep deprivation, and anxiety. These factors may disrupt the normal sleeping patterns of an individual, leading to unintended actions like walking or even driving.

In adults, there are various triggers that may cause sleepwalking. One of the most common causes is the consumption of alcohol, sedatives, or certain medications such as sleeping pills before bedtime. Medical conditions like seizures and mental disorders can also contribute to sleepwalking in adults. Patients with psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety are at a higher risk of developing this condition due to their underlying psychological issues.

For older adults, sleepwalking may indicate an underlying medical issue that affects cognitive function and causes neurocognitive disorders.

sleep walking

What Are the Symptoms of Sleepwalking?

Sleepwalking is a condition that affects some individuals during their sleep. While asleep, these people may appear to be awake and can engage in various activities such as walking around or even performing complex tasks like rearranging furniture. Sleepwalking episodes can last for just a few seconds or up to 30 minutes or longer. However, the majority of episodes last less than 10 minutes.

Typically, sleepwalking occurs during the first part of an individual’s sleep cycle when they are in deep non-REM sleep. During this stage, the brain is not fully alert, which can cause confusion between wakefulness and sleep. In some cases, factors such as stress, anxiety, alcohol consumption, or certain medications could trigger an episode of sleepwalking.

Although it may seem harmless at first glance, sleepwalking can pose significant risks to affected individuals and those around them.

Sleepwalking can be triggered by various factors such as stress, anxiety, certain medications, and even genetic predisposition. One of the most notable symptoms of sleepwalking is acting confused or disoriented when waking up from a sleepwalking episode. This can include feeling groggy or having difficulty remembering what happened during the episode.

Another symptom of sleepwalking is aggressive behavior when woken up by someone else. In some cases, individuals may lash out and become violent when they are awakened during a sleepwalking episode. This behavior can be extremely concerning for both the individual who is experiencing it and those around them. Similarly, individuals with sleep disorders may have a blank look on their faces while they are in a state of deep sleep.

How to Diagnose Sleepwalking?

Diagnosing sleepwalking is usually straightforward and involves a thorough examination of your symptoms and medical history. Your doctor may ask about your sleep habits, such as how often you sleepwalk and what triggers your episodes.

In some cases, testing may be necessary to determine the cause of your sleepwalking. A physical exam can help rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to your symptoms. Your doctor may also recommend a polysomnography or EEG test to monitor your brain activity while sleeping.

A polysomnography test involves spending the night in a specialized lab where experts will measure various aspects of your sleeping pattern. These measurements include heart rate, breathing patterns, eye movements, and brain waves.

How Is Sleepwalking Treated?

Sleepwalking is a common condition that affects people of all ages, although it is more prevalent in children. It is a disorder that occurs when an individual gets up and walks or performs other activities while still asleep, typically during the first few hours of deep sleep. The causes of sleepwalking vary from person to person but often include hereditary factors, stress, anxiety, or certain medications.

The treatment of sleepwalking depends on several factors such as the patient’s age, how frequently they experience episodes, and the level of disruption or danger caused by them. If you are concerned about your sleepwalking behavior, it’s important to consult with your doctor. They can perform tests to determine any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to your episodes and develop a personalized treatment plan tailored specifically to you.

Eliminate the risk of injury

For individuals who experience sleepwalking, prioritizing harm reduction is crucial. Sleepwalking can be a dangerous condition that can lead to injuries or accidents, and it is important to take preventative measures to keep oneself safe. One way to reduce safety risks is by securing sharp objects or weapons in a locked location and out of reach. This will prevent the individual from inadvertently hurting themselves or others while sleepwalking.

Another step towards reducing harm involves closing and latching doors and windows. By doing so, one can prevent the possibility of wandering outside during sleepwalking episodes. Additionally, it’s essential to eliminate potential tripping hazards from the floor and install motion sensor lights in areas where one may walk while asleep. And in case needed, door alarms or bed alarms that sound when a person gets out of bed can also be used as added precautions.

Anticipated Awakening

Anticipatory awakening is a technique that has been developed to help individuals who suffer from sleepwalking. Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is a parasomnia condition that causes people to walk or perform complex behaviors while they are asleep. It usually occurs during the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stage of sleep and can be triggered by various factors such as stress, anxiety, medication use, or substance abuse.

The technique of anticipatory awakening involves waking up an individual just before they enter the NREM stage of sleep where they would typically experience episodes of sleepwalking. This method aims to prevent them from experiencing partial awakenings that often lead to sleepwalking episodes. Anticipatory awakening has been found to be particularly effective in treating children who suffer from this condition. However, there is limited research on its effectiveness in treating adult patients suffering from sleepwalking habits.

sleep hygiene

Focus on Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene is a term used to describe an individual’s sleep practices and the environment they create for sleeping. It includes everything from consistent sleep schedules, comfortable mattresses, and pillows to controlling external factors such as light and noise in the bedroom. Maintaining good sleep hygiene is essential for overall health and well-being as it promotes better physical, emotional, and mental health.

Inadequate sleep hygiene can have detrimental effects on an individual’s health leading to fatigue, mood swings, decreased productivity, poor concentration levels & memory retention issues. The most common culprits of poor sleep hygiene include irregular sleeping patterns or consuming caffeine or alcohol before bedtime. Selecting the appropriate mattress that suits your body type and preferred sleeping position also plays a crucial role in establishing healthy sleep habits.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy that aims to address negative patterns of thinking and behavior. It is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected and that changing one aspect can lead to improvements in others. CBT has been found to be effective in treating a range of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

CBT for insomnia (CBT-I) focuses specifically on improving sleep by addressing the underlying psychological factors that contribute to poor sleep habits. This may involve challenging negative beliefs about sleep and establishing healthy sleep routines through relaxation techniques and other strategies. Studies have shown that CBT-I can be an effective treatment for chronic insomnia, with some individuals experiencing significant improvements in their sleep quality after just a few sessions.

Try Medications

Sleepwalking can be a frustrating and potentially dangerous condition, especially when other treatments have failed to provide relief. In such cases, medication may be considered as an option to help combat sleepwalking. Benzodiazepines and antidepressants are two common examples of medications that have been used for this purpose. These drugs work by altering brain chemicals that regulate sleep and wakefulness, helping to reduce the frequency and severity of sleepwalking episodes.

Recent studies have also shown that melatonin may be an effective treatment for sleepwalking. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the body that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. It’s available in supplement form over-the-counter at most drug stores. However, it’s important to note that while melatonin is generally considered safe, it can cause side effects such as headache, dizziness, and nausea in some individuals.

Is it safe to wake someone who is sleepwalking?

While it may seem natural to wake up someone who is sleepwalking, experts advise against doing so abruptly. This is because waking them up suddenly may cause confusion and disorientation, leading to unpredictable behavior.
Experts recommend gently guiding the sleepwalker back to bed instead of waking them up abruptly. If possible, it’s best to avoid engaging in conversation or asking questions that might confuse or startle them further. Instead, use a calm and reassuring tone of voice when communicating with the person and try to direct them back towards their bed without creating any sudden movements or noises.


Sleepwalking, medically known as somnambulism, is a behavioral disorder that affects people of all ages. It occurs when the individual is in a deep sleep and starts to walk or engage in other complex activities while remaining asleep. Although it may seem harmless, sleepwalking can cause serious injuries such as falls, fractures, and even accidents. In fact, studies suggest that certain factors can trigger or worsen sleepwalking episodes.

One of the most common triggers of sleepwalking is not getting enough sleep. When an individual fails to get adequate rest, their body becomes overly exhausted and restless at night. This can lead to disrupted patterns of sleep and increase the likelihood of experiencing a sleepwalking episode.

When startled, a sleepwalker can react in an unexpected way. The person waking them up could be injured if they fall or lashes out. It’s best to gently encourage or lead a sleepwalker back to bed and let them get on with their night’s rest. This approach helps reduce the likelihood of injury, particularly if they are disoriented when woken up. Sleepwalkers tend to be in a deep stage of sleep during episodes and may not remember their actions upon awakening.
It’s important to note that not all sleepwalkers exhibit violent behavior during episodes; some just walk around aimlessly before returning to bed without any issues.

Stress and anxiety have been known to interfere with a good night’s rest, disrupting the natural sleep pattern and leaving you feeling restless. Sleep disorders such as somnambulism, commonly referred to as sleepwalking, can also be triggered by stress during the day. According to research conducted on 193 patients in a sleep clinic, stressful events experienced during the day were identified as one of the main triggers for sleepwalking episodes.


In conclusion, the results of our study indicate that sleepwalking is a neurological condition and that it is associated with alterations in the neural mechanisms that control motor behavior. These findings are consistent with previous studies that have demonstrated that sleepwalking is a disorder of arousal that can be precipitated by sleep-related factors, such as sleep deprivation, and that it is characterized by an impaired ability to inhibit motor behavior.

 more about different sleep-related disorders check out here.

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