Are we responsible for actions we are not even aware we committed? This question is highly debated, and the answer can determine whether a person spends their life behind bars or gets away with murder. Parasomnia is a sleep disorder that involves a sleeping individual’s abnormal behaviors to appear conscious and deliberate despite the person being asleep. While these actions can be as harmless as walking around the house or sleep-eating, other instances can result in heinous acts of violence and require the law to resolve the situation (Popat & Winslade, 2015).
These cases of somnambulism, or sleepwalking, are rare but extreme. Research has shown that in sleepwalkers, the cerebellum and brainstem are active while the cerebrum and cerebral cortex show little activity (Geddes, 2009). The cerebral cortex is responsible for much of human consciousness, meaning sleepwalkers behave with little to no sensory perception, awareness, or memory of their actions (Popat & Winslade, 2015). Somnambulism is thought of as a mix between NREM and wakefulness, and occurs most often in the first part of the sleep cycle. This disorder can result in detrimental scenarios with puzzling legal consequences, like Kenneth Parks claiming to have murdered his in-laws while asleep in 1987. The legality of somnambulism crimes is tricky because, if the perpetrator was indeed asleep at the time of the crime, he or she was not aware of and had no intent for the incriminating actions. Do we lock up a person who had no awareness or memory of his or her actions, or do we let a potential cold-blooded murderer roam free?
This legal dilemma surrounds a concept referred to as automatism, which is defined as “a condition in which activity is carried out without conscious knowledge on the part of the subject” (Fenwick, 1987). Automatisms are classified into sane or insane automatisms, but there are so many exceptions to these two divisions that there is no clear precedent on which to deal with these cases. Sleepwalkers are not mentally ill and their actions should not be classified as insane automatisms, but it also seems unjust to let them walk away from their crimes without any responsibility.
The next logical question is: if sleepwalkers are neither sane or insane automatisms, what should be the consequences of their actions? Popat and Winslade (2015) suggest many ways for which to deal with this predicament. Their main proposition is that there must be a sort of gradient scale in terms of punishment. If one’s parasomnia is known to be exacerbated by external voluntary behaviors like drinking alcohol or partaking in drugs, the perpetrator should be punished. As Matthew Walker (2017) mentions in his book Why We Sleep, alcohol consumption can have various effects on sleep. Specifically, Walker (2017) discusses how “alcohol will often suppress REM sleep, especially during the first half or two-thirds of the night.” Somnambulism mainly occurs during the first part of sleep, thus alcohol use increases the likelihood of these unusual behaviors.
It all comes down to whether or not the individual had the control and decision-making ability to avoid the violent behavior. Popat and Winslade (2015) believe that if a person with somnambulism was unaware of factors that would trigger violence, instead of criminal punishment there should be accountability for seeking treatment to manage the sleep disorder. For example, a person prescribed Ambien by a doctor probably does not know that this drug can induce unusual sleep behaviors. In the case that this person then commits an act of violence in his or her sleep, it would not have been preventable by voluntary factors. Popat and Winslade (2015) suggest that in cases like this, there should be an initial pardon. If there is a second offense, a punishment is in order.
Although sleepwalking is not typically dangerous, there are treatments for when intervention is necessary. There is not yet enough evidence to confidently suggest one sure way of eliminating somnambulism, but there have been successful case studies with encouraging results. One study showed that a combination of a low dose benzodiazepine as well as behavioral management like scheduled awakenings and a positive bedtime routine reduced somnambulism in eight year old and 13 year old boys (Kumar & Bharadwaj 2007). Another study’s results showed reduction or remission of somnambulism after treatment of an antiparkinsonian drug, biperiden (Hodoba & Schmidt, 2012). Additionally, reducing stressors may be a difficult yet effective prevention method of sleepwalking. In the case of Kenneth Parks, we know he was under a lot of mental stress as he was soon going to be taken to court on account of an embezzlement accusation. Stress is known to be an exacerbating factor in somnambulism (Popat & Winslade, 2015), which is just one more reason we should all strive to manage our stress in a healthy way.
So to answer my initial question of whether or not we should be held responsible for actions we are not aware we committed, there is not really a clear answer. The truth of the matter is, sleep disorders are complicated and even more so when the law is involved. The general consensus is that we should not let cold-blooded murderers walk freely throughout society, but the line between innocent and guilty can sometimes be ambiguous. When it comes down to it, the seemingly most important factor in deciding whether or not someone who commits a crime while asleep should be punished or not is intent. Sleep deprived drivers who cause deaths from falling asleep at the wheel are usually charged for manslaughter. There should be similar procedures to deal with those who commit crimes due to somnambulism. Rather than a black and white situation, this is one that should be assessed on a sliding scale. More research on sleep disorders like somnambulism is necessary, but for now it is only appropriate to use the science we have to judge whether or not a person is guilty.
Hodoba, D., & Schmidt, D. (2012). Biperiden for treatment Of somnambulism in adolescents and adults with or without epilepsy: Clinical observations. Epilepsy & Behavior, 25(4), 517-528. doi:10.1016/j.yebeh.2012.09.009
Popat, S., & Winslade, W. (2015). While you were sleepwalking: Science and neurobiology of sleep disorders & the enigma of legal responsibility of violence during parasomnia. Neuroethics, 8(2), 203-214. doi:10.1007/s12152-015-9229-4
Kumar, S., & Bharadwaj, R. (2007). Somnambulism: Diagnosis and treatment. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(2), 123. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.33261
Walker, M. P. (2018). Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. London, UK: Penguin Books.
Geddes, Linda. (2009). Can you be blamed for crimes in your sleep? New Scientist 204(2736): 12.