When the Associated Press reported on an unusual murder case out of England, it soon got lots of attention and raised more than a few intrigued eyebrows. Brian Thomas, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, was accused of killing his wife of nearly 40 years. He'd strangled her during a nightmare about fighting off an intruder. Prosecutors withdrew the case after experts explained that he wasn't insane at all. Rather, he suffered from a rare, long-term sleep disorder that put him in a state of "automatism," in which his mind had no control over his body. So he strangled her without knowing it.
Mr. Thomas will not have to be sent to a psychiatric hospital, though I can't imagine how he explained himself to his two daughters, who lost their mother in the incident. This is not the first time I have heard of a case like this. I think this has occurred in the US, in my own town of Scottsdale no less. I have seen people do some pretty complicated behaviors in their sleep, and the culprit here apparently is a sleep disorder.
Could this happen to you? Not so fast. What should be pointed out is that not only is this kind of sleep disorder very rare, but it doesn't usually stand on its own. In other words, people who suffer from brief periods of unconscious behaviors during which they are unaware of their actions typically have an underlying condition. Automatic behavior (the type of behavior apparently exhibited by Mr. Thomas) often occurs in certain types of epilepsy, seizure disorders, Narcolepsy, or REM Behavior Disorder or as a side effect of certain medications.
Mr. Thomas would do well to check into a sleep lab, if he hasn't already.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep DoctorTM