Up to 30% of the population may sleepwalk at least once in a lifetime and in the US, it’s increasingly being used as a defence in criminal trials, writes Rita de Brun

The male sleepwalking figure in underpants stops pedestrians in their tracks. Just recently moved to Manhattan in New York City, the Tony Matelli sculpture is a realistic and thought-provoking piece of art, albeit one that’s no stranger to controversy.

The artwork has been the subject of a petition by hundreds of female students who, upset by the prominence of its display on the grounds of US college campus, unsuccessfully sought its removal to a less conspicuous space. In their view it was a trigger for survivors of sexual assault.

Art aside, sexsomnia — a medical condition which involves acting out sexually while asleep — is an emotive subject. A British army sergeant was recently convicted by Birmingham Crown Court of raping one woman and sexually assaulting another.

In 2011 the same man was charged in connection with the alleged rape of another female. At the time, agreement among medics that he suffered from that sleeping disorder led to it being decided not to proceed with his prosecution.

This case is just one of an ever- increasing number in which sleep disorders have been put forward as a defence to crime. In March, a San Francisco jury rejected the sleepwalking defence put forward by a 60-year-old man who sexually assaulted his 13-year-old stepdaughter, then claimed he had not been aware of his actions.

The Tony Matelli, Sleepwalker, 2014. Part of Wanderlust, a High Line Commission. On view April 2016 – March 2017. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.
The Tony Matelli, Sleepwalker, 2014. Part of Wanderlust, a High Line Commission. On view April 2016 – March 2017. Photo by Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

Interestingly, the belief that sleepwalkers absolutely never remember their episodes was debunked by University of Montreal researchers who said that because sleepwalkers operate in a state of dissociated arousal, with part of the brain in an awake state and part in an asleep state, some recall their actions.

While most sleepwalkers don’t cause harm to others, a minority do. In research carried out in Montpellier, 57% of those polled reported violent, sleep-related behaviours, while 17% said those behaviours resulted in a hospital visit. The high figures reflect the fact that the study took place at a sleep disorder clinic.

According to Stanford University research, as many as 30% of the population may sleepwalk at least once in a lifetime. People sleepwalk because they’re sleep deprived, on a chaotic sleep schedule, stressed, drunk, taking drugs which promote relaxation, drugs used to treat psychosis, and also even antihistamine drugs.

Genes also play a role. Some 80% of those polled in a University of Montreal study had a family history of the disorder.

Because sleepwalking is linked with sleep deprivation, tackling restless leg syndrome and sleep apnoea are popular methods of treatment. Anti-depressants and sedatives have also been known to help.

Hypnotherapy also works. In Mayo Clinic research, sleepwalkers treated this way ‘improved’ by 50% after 18 months and by 67% after five years.

Sleepwalking is increasingly being used as a defence in criminal trials

Dr Joe Keaney, director of the Cork-based Institute of Clinical Hypnotherapy and Psychotherapy, says what happens when somebody is under hypnosis may help explain why they wander while asleep.

“In hypnosis, we go into the REM state as that’s where most dreaming is done. It’s my belief that the subconscious mind creates the dream. Everything in a dream is about the person who’s dreaming. It’s the same with sleepwalking. So, only when the sleepwalker is put into that state can what happens be interpreted.”

As for what happens after the patient goes into a trance, Larry McMahon, a Killarney-based hypnotherapist says: “I ask the unconscious to pay attention to what was going on in the brain during the sleepwalking episode, then to compare that with what’s going on when the patient sleeps without sleepwalking.

“When the unconscious sends me the signal that this has been done — via a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response from the patient — I ask it to build in that difference, so as to eliminate the triggers for sleepwalking in the future.”

Signs of somnambulism


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