The mind is a really strange place – and at no time is it stranger than when we’re sleeping.

The strangeness of dreams is so well accepted that an entire major movement of art was named for it.  The surrealists of the 1920’s drew on the imagery of their dreams, and produced one bizarre masterpiece after another – and, at some point, when dreams ceased to be strange enough, some of the surrealists used hallucinogens to bolster the images, leading to Art that is not so much ‘dreamlike’, as ‘schizoid’!

Personally, I’ve never had any need of hallucinogens – my dreams are pretty damned strange already.

I woke up this morning exhausted, with a fresh nick on my chin which appeared to have way less stubble than the rest of my face. At some point, in the chaos of my dreams, I had a vague memory of dry shaving – and now I had a fresh nick. I looked in the bathroom, and, sure enough, there was my razor, by the sink, where it didn’t belong, and not in the shower, where it did …

I’d been sleepwalking. Again.

I began to frantically comb through memories of my dreams, trying to figure out what I might have done … I had vague dreams of dressing, and, to my horror, a dream of driving someplace!

Yes, sleepwalkers can sometimes become sleep-drivers … it had happened to me before:  I’d dream I was driving, and wake to find myself miles from home – once without a stitch of clothing on. Ew. But had it happened last night?

I mentioned all of this to my room-mate, Kayla, as she was getting ready for work … she said she wouldn’t really know if I’d been rambling about the house, but the sound of the front door always wakes her, as also does the closing of a car door, and the starting of an engine – and none of these had happened last night.

I began to breathe a little more easily …

Sleepwalking, or Somnambulism, encompasses a whole host of behaviors, with an even greater number of causes. Everything from getting out of bed to go to the bathroom, to driving, e-mailing, blogging, and even more complex actions, can be performed while asleep. Causes can range from simple stress, to brain cancer …

We’re all familiar with hollywood’s version of this … a guy shambling about like a zombie, with eyes closed and arms outstretched! The reality is a bit different. Somnambulists typically appear nearly normal: they stand and move normally – perhaps a little more relaxed than normal, and they can move slowly, but their eyes are open, and seldom focus … people who’ve encountered me, while I was sleepwalking, reported my eyes were glazed over, I moved slowly, but with purpose, and, when they tried to question me, they’ve gotten everything from total nonsense (“I chair the dead freezer, often …”,) to intelligible, if a bit goofy, statements (“I’m setting up mail for the past”,) to well constructed English that may bear no relation to the topic under discussion (“What are you doing?” “I’ve found that, after a few turns in Air Combat, you can raise your seat a little – the g-forces tend to compress your spine …”)

That last one was pronounced very slowly, while I was sitting buck naked in a recliner, in the dark, in the living room, at 3:40 AM.

Some people have claimed to have gotten on their computers and sent e-mails, or gotten on their phones and sent text messages – usually not very intelligible, but more than you’d have thought they could do. I once completed a paper, while in college, in my sleep. You can tell the moment my normally sane writing shifts into sleep mode – four pages of typescript, perfectly formatted, and absolutely nonsensical!

When I was in technical training as an Air Force Officer, practicing guiding fighters through intercepts, my first wife taped me essentially replaying the events of the day, all my radio calls, in perfectly understandable English – except, of course, that you couldn’t hear the pilot’s responses.

There are grimmer examples.  One woman claimed she was picking up strangers, taking them home, and sleeping with them, all in her sleep. At least one homicide has been attributed to sleepwalking, as have a series of burglaries. In most cases, claims such as these can’t be proven – but the stories keep going around, anyway.

How is it possible?

Most people aren’t really aware of it, but there’s a structure in their hypothalamus, which, in effect, switches the body into simulation mode.  Muscle pathways are disconnected, or overridden, so that one can dream of all sorts of activities, without the body moving around.  If you destroy that area of the brain, as has been done experimentally in cats, this paralysis never happens:  the cat will stalk, pounce, slash with his claws, all while totally asleep – and, in fact, dreaming.

For humans, this master switch can be accidentally left off …

The way things are supposed to work, as we fall asleep, and approach dreaming, or REM sleep, a chemical signal is sent to the switch (which I’m pretty sure is in a structure called the Reticular Activating System, or RAS), which then does whatever it does to disengage voluntary muscle-movement.

But sometimes, that chemical signal doesn’t get sent, or gets sent, and is ignored, or overwhelmed by other signals … when that happens, voluntary muscle control is still fully enabled, and your dreaming mind can take the body for a joyride …

Mostly, our dreams seem meant to process parts of what we experience during the day for deeper storage – the formation of important long-term memories. For instance, ordinary details of life need not be retained, just the “Highlights” – so you may remember your 10th birthday in some detail, but NOT recall brushing your teeth that morning, or what color socks you put on … that separation of “Highlight” from “boring detail” is an important component of dreams.  I dreamed about shaving, for instance: something that I do automatically, and without thought nearly every day … it’s clearly a bit of trivia that doesn’t have to be saved, but the subconscious may not know that till the film has been replayed, and examined for content … if I’d been using a straight-razor and had accidentally cut myself really badly, the memory of shaving on that occasion would be seen as important, and stored away with other important memories – but the boring, utterly normal, act of shaving is tossed!

Another function of REM sleep is to solidify critical experience.  Take the dream of guiding Fighters through Intercepts: that was really important to me – not only was it essential for my career, but, remember, sitting at a radar console, many of those little dots on the screen are machines, moving at terrible velocity, full of PEOPLE!  Fuck up an Air Intercept, and people will die … from the one-man crew of an F-16, to the several hundred civilians on an Airbus … So it’s critical that that memory be re-examined, replayed, and the skills perfected:  my brain was simply practicing!

Finally, REM sleep can be used to deal with emotional issues … a friend told me, after she’d been in a car wreck, where her husband was killed, she dreamed it, again and again, and again, until, in time, it no longer hurt so much. This is much the same sort of therapy used to treat PTSD:  remember the incident in detail, till it’s not as painful anymore, because repressing the memory is what aggravates the symptoms …

Another sleep disturbance is, effectively, the exact opposite of Sleepwalking: a Hypnogogic, or Lucid Dream, or as it is sometimes called, Sleep Paralysis.

Here most of the switch in the RAS is correctly set, the body is paralyzed and completely unable to move – but, instead of receiving the sensory stimulation from memory alone, dream and reality are weirdly overlaid … you’re in your bed… you’re very nearly awake, your eyes sense the familiar outlines of your room …

And something else is there.

There’s an almost overwhelming feeling of presence … behind your head, or in the darkness to either side, just out of sight … you know that if you could just look the being would leave, and you also know for a fact that you can’t move, and are utterly vulnerable – they can do anything they like to you in this state! You couldn’t stop them! A demon might haul your soul away to hell, or space-aliens might abduct you, and carry out their horrible medical experiments!

There’s a reason Demons and Aliens show up in the previous paragraph:  before the space age, religion was pretty much the dominant force in life, and people having hypnagogic dreams would cast their invisible tormentors as demons, or perhaps angels who they weren’t worthy to turn and look at … after the start of the space age, it became Alien Abductions.  It’s been fairly well demonstrated that hypnagogic dreams all produce this sensation of dread and “presence” … but, since you can’t see anyone, you’re free to imagine almost any shape for the intruder! Demons, Ghosts, Spirits of the Dead, Angels, Aliens … the list goes on, but we’ve strayed pretty far from sleepwalking …

Here’s something a lot of people aren’t aware of – at least not until they really sit and think about it. There’s a huge number of things we do with our minds entirely elsewhere … thing that we do automatically, without having to give them any real thought, like for instance, driving a car, or washing dishes, or getting dressed (for men, anyway:  I’ve never met a woman who can dress on autopilot).

When we first learn to do these things, it requires concentration, and we make mistakes … this particular mode of learning is called a heuristic:  we don’t have a step by step checklist for accomplishing something, so our entire brain is working on the problem.

Then the problem is solved. It becomes automatic – the heuristic has become an algorithm: a set of procedures, and pre-made decisions, which can be implemented while the majority of the mind is away on vacation!  Any behavior that is made into an algorithm, can be sleep-walked through … now think about the VAST number of things that fall into this category, and imagine doing them in your sleep!  The list gets horrifying pretty damned quickly, both for you, and for all the bystanders …

Some myths and advice, and I’ll bring this little treatise to a close:

* Never wake a Sleepwalker!   Ok, this one is a myth:  I’ve been woken up while sleepwalking, and, while it was disturbing, embarrassing, and disorienting, no real harm was done – it just made me aware that I was doing it, where I’d only wondered before. Still, while there’s no reason waking someone would be a problem, it’s not always the best solution … gently guide whoever it is back to bed, then laugh at them in the morning.

* Sleepwalkers are insane!  Ok, well, no, we aren’t, ok???  Almost any person can have a bout of sleepwalking, usually when under heavy stress, or the action of certain medications.

* Sleepwalking can’t be cured! Ok, well, maybe not cured as such – but it can certainly be treated! Some doctors prescribe Clonazapams, such as Klonapin, or tri-cyclic antidepressants. Often though, the problem can simply be dealt with by talking with a friend or family member about anything that might be troubling you. Until your sleep settles down, it’s a good idea to sanitize your room by putting away breakable objects and stuff that can be tripped over.

Are you asleep, yet? Sometimes my writing has that effect … don’t worry, I slept all through this blog entry!


~ by dourscot on March 18, 2013.

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