Why Can’t You Wake a Sleepwalker? The Science Behind It

Sleepwalking is a common sleep disorder that involves a person walking or performing complex behaviors while asleep. The condition is also known as somnambulism, and it usually occurs during the deep stage of sleep. Sleepwalkers may seem like they are awake, but they are actually unconscious and not aware of their surroundings. One of the most fascinating aspects of sleepwalking is that it is difficult to wake up a person who is sleepwalking. In this article, we will explore the science behind why you can’t wake a sleepwalker.

The Causes of Sleepwalking

The exact cause of sleepwalking is still unknown, but there are certain factors that are believed to contribute to the condition. Some of the causes of sleepwalking include:

  • Genetics: Sleepwalking tends to run in families, suggesting a genetic component to the disorder.
  • Stress and anxiety: Sleepwalking is more common in people who are stressed or anxious.
  • Sleep deprivation: Lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can increase the likelihood of sleepwalking.
  • Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, may also contribute to sleepwalking.

The Science Behind Sleepwalking

The Stages of Sleep

Understanding the stages of sleep is important to understand why you can’t wake a sleepwalker. There are two main categories of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. NREM sleep can be further subdivided into three stages:

Stage Brain Waves Characteristics
Stage N1 Theta waves Light sleep, easily awakened
Stage N2 Sleep spindle and K-complexes Deeper sleep, less responsive to stimuli
Stage N3 Delta waves Deep sleep, difficult to awaken

In the deepest stage of sleep, stage N3, brain activity slows down, making it difficult to arouse an individual from this state. Sleepwalking usually occurs during this stage.

The Role of the Brain

The brain also plays a significant role in sleepwalking. During NREM sleep, many of the brain circuits responsible for regulating behavior are turned off or suppressed. This is why sleepwalkers may perform complex behaviors without being aware of their actions. The brain’s inability to respond to external stimuli is also why it is difficult to wake up a sleepwalker.

The Sleepwalking Episode

During a sleepwalking episode, the sleepwalker’s brain is still in a state of deep sleep, and their ability to respond to external stimuli is limited. If you try to wake up a sleepwalker, it may be difficult to rouse them from this state, and they may not recognize your voice or respond to your touch. If a sleepwalker wakes up abruptly, they may feel disoriented and confused.

What Should You Do if You Encounter a Sleepwalker?

If you encounter a sleepwalker, it’s important to keep them safe and prevent them from harming themselves. Here are some tips on what you should do:

  • Stay calm and speak in a soothing voice.
  • Guide the sleepwalker back to bed, gently and without force.
  • Avoid waking the sleepwalker abruptly.
  • Remove any objects that could cause harm, such as sharp or heavy objects.
  • Ensure that the sleepwalker is safe and comfortable in bed.
  • Consult a doctor if the sleepwalking episodes are frequent or troublesome.

Conclusion

Sleepwalking is a fascinating condition caused by a complex interaction of factors. The inability to wake up a sleepwalker is due to the deep stage of sleep and the suppression of brain activity during this period. If you encounter a sleepwalker, it’s important to keep them safe and prevent them from harming themselves. If sleepwalking episodes are frequent or troublesome, consult a doctor.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you wake a sleepwalker?
    It is difficult to wake up a sleepwalker because their brain activity is suppressed during the deep stage of sleep.
  • Is sleepwalking dangerous?
    Sleepwalking can be dangerous if the sleepwalker encounters hazards or loses their balance and falls. It’s important to keep sleepwalkers safe and prevent them from harming themselves.
  • What should you do if you encounter a sleepwalker?
    If you encounter a sleepwalker, it’s important to keep them safe and prevent them from harming themselves. Guide them back to bed gently and remove any objects that could cause harm.
  • Is sleepwalking hereditary?
    Sleepwalking tends to run in families, suggesting a genetic component to the disorder.
  • Can stress cause sleepwalking?
    Yes, stress and anxiety are factors that may contribute to sleepwalking.

References

  • American Sleep Association. (n.d.). Sleepwalking. Retrieved May 12, 2021, from https://www.sleepassociation.org/sleep-disorders/sleepwalking/
  • National Sleep Foundation. (2021, March 25). Sleepwalking. Retrieved May 12, 2021, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders/sleepwalking
  • Palagini, L., Baglioni, C., Ciapparelli, A., Gemignani, A., & Riemann, D. (2013). REM sleep dysregulation in depression: State of the art. Sleep medicine reviews, 17(5), 377-390.

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