Researchers Study Case of Woman E-Mailing in her Sleep

December 19, 2008 11:02 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
What some are calling “zzz-mailing” is just the latest incident to be blamed on sleepwalking in the night, in a list of behaviors that includes sexual assault and homicide.

Woman Writes Garbled E-Mails in Her Sleep

The 44-year-old woman wrote and sent three e-mails two hours after going to bed, in a case detailed by University of Toledo researchers in the current edition of the medical journal Sleep Medicine.

The e-mails are described as being ill-formatted and in a random mix of upper and lower case letters. One of them read: “come tomorrow and sort this hell hole out. Dinner and drinks, 4 p.m. Bring wine and caviar only.” It was only when the recipient of the invitation called the woman the next day that she discovered what she had done.

Some sleep researchers say that the incident, which is the first case study on sleep e-mailing, is unique because of the complex behavior and coordination required in turning on a computer, getting on the Internet, logging onto an e-mail account, remembering a username and password, and typing and composing an e-mail message.

But Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Minnesota, says that he had heard of people sending e-mails and purchasing items on the Web while sleepwalking before, and that the action is not that different from other sleepwalking behaviors.

“This is no surprise, as sleepwalking is due to the mixture of wakefulness and non-REM sleep—resulting in enough wakefulness to result in complex behaviors [such as] sex, driving, walking, e-mailing and telephoning,” Mahowald said to ABC News.

The woman had no history of sleepwalking prior to that, but doctors say that her case may be linked to her use of the sleeping aid zolpidem, or Ambien, which she was prescribed in 2004 for severe insomnia.

Sleepwalking is linked to fatigue, stress, anxiety, alcohol consumption, seizures, and a variety of medications, according to the Daily Telegraph. Some researchers posit that it is linked to genetics.

Stress over economic woes has caused Britain to see a sharp rise in sleepwalking incidents over the past year, according to recent research conducted by Travelodge. It found that sleepwalking increased nearly fourfold in 2008, compared to last year, and 23 percent of British individuals reported sleepwalking more than once a week.

“The credit crunch is not just depriving us of cash, it’s also debiting our sleep bank account. In 2007, there were three million sleepwalkers in the UK, but now this has risen to over 11 million … a phenomenal increase,” said Travelodge sleep director Leigh McCarron to the Sunday Sun.

Related Topics: The sleepwalking defense; sleepwalking accidents; mail goggles

There have been reports in the past of sleepwalkers driving cars, cooking, playing musical instruments, and painting. Some sleepwalkers’ actions can also be repetitive, bizarre, or even violent.

Sleepwalking has been used as a defense in numerous violent crimes by suspects who say that they can’t be held responsible for actions committed while asleep, such as one man who murdered his wife with a hammer, or another who sexually abused a child and claimed to have what some call sexsomnia.

Legal Affairs noted in 2005 that the success of the sleepwalking defense depends on the prosecution’s ability to prove mens rea, “a criminal state of mind” and on the strength of expert witnesses who can prove that the defendant’s behavior fits the profile of a somnambulist. The magazine highlights the case of Jonathan Hutchinson, who molested his girlfriend’s daughter in 2001 and claimed to have been asleep. “He couldn’t have been acting in a knowing and purposeful manner,” said his defense attorney, John Morris. “You need a voluntary act and you need mens rea. You’ve got neither here.” Hutchinson was eventually convicted on three counts of second-degree child endangerment.

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this month that a British teen died after sleepwalking off a hotel balcony in Minorca, Spain. In a similar incident last year, a German teenager stepped out of his fourth-floor window while asleep and broke his arm and leg. In 2005, another teenager in London had to be rescued after being discovered asleep on a 130 foot crane.

For those who are susceptible to sleep e-mailing and the embarrassing late-night messages that could result, a Google program called Mail Goggles has the answer. The app makes it a requirement that the user solve math problems in order to test the mental capability of the person before sending the e-mail.

Reference: Parasomnias


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines