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What Sleep Crime Tells Us About Consciousness

In the neurological netherworld between sleep and wakefulness, the mind's delirium can turn tragically real

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There was nothing outwardly unusual about the man who showed up at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center on June 27, 2005. Like thousands of other clinic patients, Benjamin Adoyo (not his real name) was a sleepwalker. A 26-year-old college student, originally from Kenya, Adoyo had been wandering at night since childhood. Lately, though, the behavior had been getting worse. Adoyo had gotten married in February, and his wife would wake to him shaking her while looming over their bed and babbling unintelligibly. Scared, she would simply do her best to rouse Adoyo, who, once awakened, never remembered a thing. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Plymouth, a suburb of Minneapolis, and the sleepwalking was straining their young marriage. The referral form from Adoyo's primary care doctor noted that the patient's wife was “sometimes startled by his behavior, but no injury, per se.”

After evaluating Adoyo, the sleep center's clinicians directed him to return on August 10 for an overnight electroencephalography (EEG) study of the electrical waves generated by his brain during sleep. In the middle of the night, Adoyo began thrashing about and yanking at the wires connected to the electrodes, pulling out tufts of hair as he ripped them off. But he did not wake up. The next morning Michel Cramer Bornemann, director of the center, told Adoyo that the study supported a diagnosis of a sleep disorder known as a non-REM parasomnia. Recounting when Adoyo ripped off the sensors, Bornemann asked, “Do you recall feeling any pain or pulling?”

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