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When Sleeping Turns Deadly and Other Strange Tales from Scientific American MIND

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The July/August issue of Scientific American Mind made its debut online late last week. Here I divulge some of the more surprising and useful lessons from its pages.

Dozing Dangerously

Sleepwalking is one of the strangest phenomena I have ever witnessed. Despite its name, it doesn’t resemble any other kind of sleep I’ve seen. To me, it appears as if an odd imposter has temporarily inhabited the body of someone I know. The person’s eyes are open. He or she gets up, strolls or scampers around, and can hug me or grab a drinking glass. He may even talk to me. The slumbering human really seems awake—until it dawns on me that his behavior is distinctly erratic. The person may respond to me—say, take a drink when I give him a glass of juice—but in an odd manner, say, gulping the liquid as if in a huge hurry. His eyes might open wide as if he’s panic-stricken, but the cause of the panic is nowhere to be seen. And he may do nonsensical things such as pouring liquid from a cup into the trashcan.

In 1846, Albert Tirrell was acquitted of the murder of Maria Bickford because he was sleepwalking. By National Police Gazette via Wikimedia Commons.

When a person is sleepwalking, as we report in the current issue of the magazine, the brain is kind of half awake. Some parts, those involved in talking and walking, are operational. But other parts, those involved in reasoning and self-control, are pretty much in lala land, explaining why the person’s actions make no sense. Sleepwalking is apparently common (and usually benign) in children. But in some adults it turns violent (see “Are Sleepwalking Killers Conscious?” by Francesca Siclari, Guilio Tononi and Claudio Bassetti). In rare cases, sleepwalkers have committed murder, and at least half of those with sleep disorders exhibit less serious forms of unintentional violence. In some instances, the murderous sleeper has been acquitted (see illustration). But questions of culpability remain. Was it a strange imposter’s fault? Probably, but the loss of control is frightening for all concerned.

On the plus side, researchers are uncovering the biological roots of such odd actions in hopes of developing treatments. In the process, they are also gleaning clues to the origins of consciousness.

Microbial Madness

Speaking of brains subverted by demons, consider the influence of gut microbes. One parasite co-opts the intentions of mice such that they are drawn to cats, which, of course, then consume the brainwashed rodents (see “Microbes Manipulate Your Mind,” by Moheb Costandi). In humans, gut microbes can subtly change our moods and emotional states. The “brains” in our guts—a combination of 500 microorganisms that seems to vary from one person to the next—may even explain differences between people in personality as well as disparities between us in symptoms of psychiatric illnesses.

Notably, our bodies’ microbial inhabitants might make us more or less able to withstand stress. Colicky babies, we report, seem to have a less diverse array of germs in their gut, and seem to be predisposed to stress later on. But as adults, we might also be able to deliberately colonize ourselves for better mental health. Early data suggest that probiotics might be able to quell anxiety. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I am going to make a point of indulging in live-culture yogurt, and not just for the calcium. Taking stress down a notch, after all, can improve productivity.

Inspiring Ingenuity

Research unraveling the roots of creativity might be even more beneficial to my performance, however. An article in this issue suggests that creativity is not unique to unusually gifted individuals such as Einstein, Picasso or Mozart (see “Put Your Creative Brain to Work,” by Evangelia G. Chrysikou). Instead, its roots lie in mental processes such as decision making, language and memory that all of us possess. In the first stage of the creative process, the generation of ideas, it is best to keep an open mind. In the brain, this translates into lower activity in the cognitive control regions of the prefrontal cortex. But later in the process, when you have to evaluate your options, the brain’s cognitive filter needs to go online again. So different brain states are optimal for different parts of a creative endeavor.

guy doing one handed handstand in front of software mural

Taking a break at the office can spur creativity. Courtesy of Robert Gaal via Flickr.

Putting yourself into an innovative mindset can be as simple as doing something backwards–or engaging in any exercise that shakes up your typical way of thinking. Prepare a sandwich by using the bread to scoop up the insides (or some other crazy method). Think of nonstandard uses for a roll of toilet paper. (Can its cardboard innards be used to protect something?) Describe an object in terms of its parts rather than its use. My tape dispenser at the office is a piece of hard plastic that curves up at the ends with a hole in the middle that can accommodate a plastic circular piece that spins around. It also has a serrated metal piece at one end. Having revised my definition of that object, I should be able to generate more creative thoughts about other things.

If I am still short on ideas, I can try enlisting my subconscious. To do that, I need to put my conscious mind out of commission by not thinking about the problem. Instead, I can sleep on it, let my mind wander or just do something completely different for a while.

If I really want to break boundaries, I will also need to do something that is hard for most people: let go of my fear. Being brave enough to dismiss safe and proven paths or solutions is a basic requirement for innovation. Those of us who trod down well-worn avenues may find success in our own limited way. But the folks willing to whack a trail through the bush in uncharted territory are the ones with a real chance at reinventing the world.

Ingrid Wickelgren About the Author: Ingrid Wickelgren is an editor at Scientific American Mind, but this is her personal blog at which, at random intervals, she shares the latest reports, hearsay and speculation on the mind, brain and behavior. Follow on Twitter @iwickelgren.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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