Term derived from Latin somnus (sleep) and ambulare (to
walk). A state of sleep, or half-waking trance, spontaneously or
artificially induced, in which subconscious faculties take the
place of normal consciousness and direct the body in the performance
of various actions from the erratic (sleep walking) to
the highly intellectual (solving problems). Somnambulism may
start as an exaggerated dream and lead to the development of
what resembles a secondary personality with a chain of memory
of its own. This chain of memory will often be found as part of
the hypnotic memory. The personality itself, in some cases,
may exhibit wisdom beyond that of the waking subject and perform
The somnambulist may have his or her eyes closed, and ears
deaf to auditory impressions or sense impressions, without
awakening any gleam of consciousness. This lack of attention
to sensory impressions may have some effect in rousing new
trains of association and suggesting a new line of action. It is
suggested that the sleepwalker may see only a mental picture
of what he or she is doing as in a dream instead of objective reality,
and certain experimental tests have suggested that this
occurs in some cases.
The somnambulic state was the discovery of the Marquis
Chastenet de Puysègur in 1784 in the context of mesmerism
and animal magnetism. He induced it by passes, and finally,
by a simple act of will. The Abbé Faria brought it on by shouting;
Chevalier de Barbarin by praying; and James Braid by
staring at a bright object, usually his lancet case.
The nineteenth-century physician Alexandre Bertrand assigned
somnambulism to four causes (1) A particular nervous
temperament that predisposes individuals otherwise in good
health to paroxysm of somnambulism during their ordinary
sleep. (2) It is sometimes produced in the course of certain diseases
of which it may be considered a symptom of a crisis. (3)
It is often seen in the course of the proceedings necessary to
bring on the condition known as animal magnetism. (4) It may
result as a consequence of a high degree of mental exaltation.
Accordingly, he distinguished four kinds of somnambulism
the natural, the symptomatic, the artificial, and ecstatic. Hypnotism
would fall under the artificial category, and trance
under the ecstatic.
Physiologically, somnambulism differs from sleep in that
the muscles retain the ordinary tension of the waking life. The
eyeballs are usually in an unnatural position, drawn upward
and inward so that the vision is directed to the top of the forehead.
There is an insensibility to pain; taste and smell are paralyzed.
The external senses are perfectly sealed. No memory is
carried into the waking state.
There are various degrees of somnambulism. Charles Richet
spoke of semi-somnambulism, the state in which the medium
retains consciousness while automatic manifestations take
place. Catalepsy is a deep stage of somnambulism. The fakirs
and yogis of India induced it by an effort of will.
The mildest form of somnambulism is typified in the inarticulate
murmurings or vague gestures of a dreaming child, while
in the most extreme cases where all the senses are active and
the actions apparently as purposive as in the normal waking
state, it borders on the condition of spontaneous hypnotism.
Its affinity with hypnosis was recognized early, when the
hypnotic subjects of the animal magnetists were designated
somnambules. It is remarkable that somnambulists may walk
in dangerous paths with perfect safety, but if they are suddenly
awakened they are liable to fall. Spontaneous somnambulism
generally indicates some tendency of the nervous system, since
as a rule, only in some abnormal state could the dream ideas
exercise so exciting an influence on the brain as to rouse to activity
centers normally controlling voluntary movements.
Somatography Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
Sylvan J. Muldoon (with Hereward Carrington) in The Projection
of the Astral Body (1929) writes of astral somnambulism,
a state of unconscious astral projection that, according to Muldoon,
was far more common than generally supposed. It mostly
occurred in the dream state.
It should be noted that in the wake of contemporary language
concerning altered states of consciousness, somnambulism
has dropped out of the language of psychology and parapsychology.
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