Sleepwalking and Recall: A psychological study (translation)

(original Italian)

In the study of animals’ sleep, the safety of the sleeping place is considered an important parameter to determine the duration and frequency of sleep occurrences. In humans, such risk factors have been reduced, allowing them the capacity to develop a pleasant feeling connected to sleep.

To force sleep during daytime in an environment like a forest, which has become paradoxically unnatural for a human being, means exposing oneself to unusual stimuli, getting used to them in order to force a mainly involuntary state such as sleep, to go against our body’s normal reaction to danger, as well as to light, which influences our biological rhythms.

During Sleepwalking and Recall Emilia Telese tried to alter her normal sleep-alertness rhythm, imposing un-natural sleep on herself, in the attempt to recreate her father’s experience of being in a continuous alternating between alertness and sleep, while suffering of liver failure, during his trip to the New Forest. Alterations of the normal biological and hormonal rhythms are common symptoms of liver illnesses. Some studies showed a change in the secretion of Melatonin, usually distributed throughout daytime by the circadian daily biorhythm.

Melatonin is still a rather mysterious hormone, associated to sleep because its secretion is suppressed by light and coincides with sleeplessness. Melatonin regulates hormonal balance and manages the seasonal and reproductive rhythms. It is normally released from the pineal gland during the night, but in liver patients it appears to be released throughout the day. High levels of this hormone provoke sleep imbalances and cause patients to sleep during the day. An excessive activity of the pineal gland is full of fascination: because of its unique structure, the philosopher Descartes thought it was the place where the soul resides.

During Sleepwalking, Emilia Telese constantly maintained her cerebral activity as similar as possible to the first phases of sleep. She was troubled by an anomalous environmental stimulation, therefore she had to raise her own sensorial thresholds, in order to concentrate on her memories to explore and re-elaborate emotional responses connected to her father.

In some cognitive theories, dreams are considered like products of “cleaning up” and “organising” tasks that are necessary to the brain for the correct functioning of memory. The recollection of emotionally intense memories represented a further obstacle to Emilia Telese’s forced sleep, opposing a state of unrest to the search for calm necessary to sleep, creating a hybrid condition between mourning and sleep, that generated a change in the management of emotions, a new psychological state in which the painful events in our lives co-exist with the need to live in a positive way.

Luca Becherini

Faculty of Experimental Psychology, University of Florence, February 2003

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