While you were sleepwalking: Science and neurobiology of sleep disorders & the enigma of legal responsibility of violence during parasomnia

Shreeya Popat, William Winslade

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


In terms of medical science and legal responsibility, the sleep disorder category of parasomnias, chiefly REM sleep behavior disorder and somnambulism, pose an enigmatic dilemma. During an episode of parasomnia, individuals are neither awake nor aware, but their actions appear conscious. As these actions move beyond the innocuous, such as eating and blurting out embarrassing information, and enter the realm of rape and homicide, their degree of importance and relevance increases exponentially. Parasomnias that result in illegal activity, particularly violence, are puzzling phenomena for medicine and the law. Via a review of the pertinent medical literature, a general overview of the current scientific knowledge of parasomnias will be provided. Though this knowledge is far from complete, it can provide some neurobiological information about the nature of parasomnia, including conclusions about a sleepwalker’s level of intention as well as factors that predispose one to such episodes. Although a parasomniac’s complete lack of consciousness warrants acquittal from criminal liability, it does not exclude responsibility for subjecting oneself to exacerbating factors that result in these violent parasomnias. Individuals should be held accountable if they could be expected to control these factors. In addition, they should undergo appropriate treatment and management in order to prevent future parasomnia behaviors. Establishing a legal defense for parasomnia will prove difficult due to the strong potential for malingering, so specific criteria will be outlined in order to distinguish between true and fraudulent claims of crimes committed during parasomniac states.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)203-214
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 28 2015


  • Crime
  • Parasomnias
  • Sleep arousal disorders
  • Somnambulism
  • Violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Neurology
  • Health Policy
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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