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Bed-ly serious: A brief look at ‘sleeping addiction’

As a life-long insomniac, I’ve always been interest in sleep at a personal level. In 1984, when I was studying for my psychology degree, the first ever research seminar I attended was one on the psychology of sleep by Dr. Jim Horne (who was, and I think still is, at Loughborough University). I found the lecture really interesting and although I never pursued a career in sleep research it was at that point that I started to take an interest more professionally. In my blog I’ve written a number of articles on various aspects of sleep including sexsomnia (engaging in sexual acts while sleeping, for instance, while sleepwalking), somnophilia (engaging in sexual acts while individuals are sleeping), Sleeping Beauty paraphilia (a sub-type of somnophilia in which individuals are sexually aroused by watching other people sleep), and lucid dreaming (where individuals are aware they are dreaming and exert some kind of control over the content of the dream),

More recently, I’ve been a co-author on a number of research papers in journals such as Sleep Medicine Reviews, Journal of Sleep Research, and Sleep and Biological Rhythms (see ‘Further reading below) but these have all involved either the effects of internet addiction on sleep or the psychometric evaluation of insomnia screening instruments rather than being about the psychology of sleep.

In a previous A-Z article on “strange and bizarre addictions” I included ‘sleep addiction’ as one of the entries. Obviously I don’t believe that sleeping can be an addiction (at least not by my own criteria) but the term ‘sleep addiction’ is sometimes used to describe the behaviour of individuals who sleep too much. Conditions such as hypersomnia (the opposite of insomnia) has been referred to ‘sleeping addiction’ (in the populist literature at least). In a 2010 issue of the Rhode Island Medical Journal, Stanley Aronson wrote a short article entitled ‘Those esoteric, exoteric and fantabulous diagnoses’ and listed clinomania as the compulsion to stay in bed. Given the use of the word ‘compulsive’ in this definition, there is an argument to consider clinomania as an addiction or at least a behaviour with addictive type elements.

In an online article entitled ‘Sleep addiction’, Amber Merton also mentioned clinomania in relation to an addiction to sleep:

“If you are obsessed with sleeping or have an intense desire to stay in bed, you could be suffering from a condition called clinomania. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who can experience symptoms similar to addiction and even withdrawal in association with sleep, or lack thereof”.

The reference to ‘addiction-like’ symptoms appears to have some validity based on these self-report accounts I found online. All of these individuals mention various similarities between their constant need for sleep and addiction. I have highlighted these to emphasize my assertions that some of the consequences are at the very least addiction-like:

  • Extract 1: “I believe someone can become psychologically dependent on sleep. I am 47 and have used sleep for 40 years to escape from life…I typically sleep 4-6 hours too much each day. Sleep feels like an addiction to me because I crave it several times a day and am looking forward to how I can sneak it in. I don’t seem to be able to control it with will power for very long…I only have short periods when this isn’t a problem. When I am under stress it is at its worse. If I have any free or unstructured time, I can’t control how much I sleep excessively. When my time is heavily scheduled, I really struggle with keeping a full schedule and crave the time off when I can sleep for hours. If I know I’ll have a few hours in between activities free, I will find ways to sneak in some sleep. I am embarrassed about this, don’t tell the people around me the extent of the problems and devise ways to sneak in sleep without people knowing”.
  • Extract 2: “I love sleeping. It feels so good I think I could even become addicted if I didn’t HAVE to wake up. I sleep about 12 hours every day and could sleep more if I didn’t have to do daily necessities. I am aware of the fact that people who generally sleep more than they are supposed to, die sooner and have other various health problems. To be honest I would rather sleep than do most things. I even choose sleep over sex a lot”.
  • Extract 3: “I often sleep for 12-20 hours at a time. I have depression and am on anti-depressants. I just love sleeping. It’s so safe and comfy. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s just amazing”.
  • Extract 4: “I sleep AT LEAST 12 hours a day. But on days off I’ve been known to sleep for about 15-20 hours. [I am] addicted to sleep. I’ve cancelled social outings with friends pretending to be sick when really I just wanted to sleep in. I love sleep and I can’t get enough of it. I’ve slept through the entire weekend multiple times before, only waking up Monday morning when my alarm rang. And even after that much wonderful sleep I was still tired. The second I come home from work every day I eat, shower, and then crawl into bed and sleep the entire evening and night away. My alarm’s the only thing that can wake me up anymore…As for why I love sleep so much, I see a lot of people saying it’s an escape for them. For me it’s more, I don’t like people or going out or socializing, so sleep is my drug of choice. Is it bad? Maybe. Do I care? Not really…I more than love it, and it’s not hurting anyone if we’re being honest”.
  • Extract 5: “I feel like I’m addicted to sleep. Here’s why I think though. I suffered for 13 years with depression and while I know I am still getting over it I don’t feel that’s the reason I’m addicted. During those 13 years I would have serious bouts of chronic insomnia. The doctors tried to many different sleeping medications, meditation, clinics to help me find a routine for natural sleep without meds. Nothing worked. Now I live in Thailand and my doctor here recommended melatonin tablets, all natural as your brain is supposed to produce it anyway to tell you when it’s dark it’s time to sleep and when it’s like light it’s time to wake up. She thinks my brain fails to produce certain chemicals as such with serotonin and now figured melatonin. Since I have been taking a melatonin supplement, I sleep so well, I fall asleep within 20 minutes and I sleep for AT LEAST 8 hours. When I wake up I just want to go back to sleep again because it feels amazing. I don’t feel like it’s part of my anxiety or my depression, I just think it’s because I had insomnia for so long its addictive!
  • Extract 6: “To be honest if I could I would sleep my life away. My so called normal sleeping pattern: I am awake all night. Fall asleep around 4am-8am. Sleep 12 hours. Repeat. My mind is a broken record, constantly repeating the trauma. I do suffer from depression and anxiety. Sleep is my addiction. When I sleep I feel SAFE regardless?”
  • Extract 7: “I’ve been addicted to sleep (the escape from an abusive childhood, depression, and PTSD) since I was ten years old! I want to change though because my body is a mess. I’ve slept for 4 days and sometimes more with short awake periods to eat a little and use the potty. Not enough though, because now my body doesn’t work properly…Oversleeping has its consequences”.
  • Extract 8: “I’m so pleased that I have found this site and other people who are addicted to sleep as this problem has plagued my adult life and I would like it to stop. Take today for instance, I woke at 5.30am and was quite awake feeling a little anxious but I could not wait to get to sleep again, so I did and stayed in bed till around 2.20 pm. I have many days like this and as the lady above the sleep state is quite lucid and I do seem to enjoy it rather than getting up and living life for real”.

Again, I reiterate that none of these individuals are addicted to sleep but in addition to the addiction-like descriptions, there is also crossover in the motivations for excessive sleep and motivations underlying addictions (most noticeably the association with depression, anxiety, psychological trauma, and using the activity as an escape). In relation to addiction, these extracts include references to salience (engaging in sleep to the neglect of everything else in their life), cravings (for sleep), the sleep being excessive, repetitive and habitual, sleep leading to negative consequences (conflict), and loss of control. The fact that many of these individuals describe their behaviour as an addiction or addictive doesn’t mean that it is.

While there is no academic paper that I know of that has ever claimed sleep can be a genuine addiction there are countless clinical and empirical papers examining excessive sleep (i.e., hypersomnia) and the different etiological pathways that can lead to hypersomnia. Although hypersomnia is not an addiction, those with the condition (like addicts) can suffer many negative side-effects from the relatively minor (e.g., low energy, fatigue, headaches, loss of appetite, restlessness, hallucinations) to the more severe (e.g., diabetes, obesity, heart disease, clinical depression, memory loss, suicidal ideation, and in extreme cases, death). In one online article I came across, the similarity between hypersomnia and addiction in relation to depression was evident:

It’s important to note that in some cases separating cause from effect here can be muddled. For instance, does over sleeping contribute to depression or does depression contribute to oversleeping? Or are both oversleeping and depression the effect of a larger underlying cause? Furthermore, once a person is experiencing both, could they act to reinforce the other as a feedback loop?”

This observation could just as easily be made about most addictions (substance or behavioural). Finally, it’s worth noting that there are many sub-types of hypersomnia and excessive sleep. In a good review of hypersomnia [HS] in Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, Dr. Yves Dauvilliers notes the following hypersomnia sub-types (including narcolepsy which can include excessive sleep but isn’t usually classed as a type of hypersomnia; also note that ‘idiopathic’ means of unknown cause) which I have paraphrased below:

  • Narcolepsy: This is a disabling neurologic disorder characterized by excessive daytime sleep (EDS) and cataplexy (i.e., a sudden loss of voluntary muscular tone without any alteration of consciousness in relation with strong emotive reactions such as laughter, joking).
  • Narcolepsy without cataplexy: This is simply a variant of narcolepsy with cataplexy (but without the cataplexy).
  • Idiopathic hypersomnia: Idiopathic HS is rare and remains a relatively poorly defined condition due to the absence of specific symptoms such as cataplexy or sleep apneas (i.e., loss of breathing while sleeping).
  • Recurrent hypersomnia: This HS is characterized by repeated episodes of excessive sleep (at least 16 hours a day) lasting from a few days up to several weeks. The most well-known recurrent HS is Kleine-Levin syndrome which comprises both cognitive disturbances (feelings of confusion and unreality) and behavioural disturbances (such as overeating and hypersexual behaviour during symptomatic episodes).
  • Hypersomnia associated with neurologic disorders: This type of HS causes EDS and can be a result of brain tumours, dysfunction in the thalamus, hypothalamus, or brainstem that may mimic idiopathic HS or narcolepsy.
  • Hypersomnia associated with infectious disorders: This type of HS can be a result of viral infection such as HIV pneumonia, Whipple’s disease (a systemic disease most likely caused by a gram-positive bacterium), or Guillain-Barré syndrome (a rapid-onset muscle weakness caused by the immune system damaging the peripheral nervous system).
  • Hypersomnia associated with metabolic or endocrine disorders: This type of HS can be a result of conditions such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes, hepatic encephalopathy (a liver dysfunction among individuals with cirrhosis), and acromegaly (a hormonal disorder that develops when the pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone).
  • Hypersomnia caused by drugs: This type of HS is secondary to many different types of drug medication including hypnotics, anxiolytics, antidepressants, neuroleptics, anti-histamines, and anti-epileptics.
  • Hypersomnia not caused by drugs or known physiologic conditions: This type of HS can be caused by a range of disorders such as depressive disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and abnormal personality traits.

None of these types of HS is an addiction but clearly the negative consequences can be just as serious for the individual.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Alimoradi, Z., Lin, C-Y., Broström, A., Bülow, P.H., Bajalan, Z., Griffiths, M.D., Ohayon, M.M. & Pakpour, A.H. (2019). Internet addiction and sleep problems: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Medicine Review, 47, 51-61.

Aronson, S. M. (2010). Those esoteric, exoteric and fantabulous diagnoses. Rhode Island Medical Journal, 93(5), 163.

Bener, A., Yildirim, E., Torun, P., Çatan, F., Bolat, E., Alıç, S., Akyel, S., & Griffiths, M.D. (2019). Internet addiction, fatigue, and sleep problems among students: A largescale survey study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. doi: 10.1007/s11469-018-9937-1

Billiard, M., & Dauvilliers, Y. (2001). Idiopathic hypersomnia. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 5(5), 349-358.

Dauvilliers, Y. (2006). Differential diagnosis in hypersomnia. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, 6(2), 156-162.

Domenighini, A. (2016). Can you be addicted to sleep? Vice, January 24. Located at: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/mg7e33/can-you-be-addicted-to-sleep

Hawi, N.S., Samaha, M., & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Internet gaming disorder in Lebanon: Relationships with age, sleep habits, and academic achievement. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 7, 70-78.

Mamun, M.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2019). Internet addiction and sleep quality: A response to Jahan et al. (2019). Sleep and Biological Rhythms. doi: 10.1007/s41105-019-00233-0

Merton, A. (2008). Sleep addiction. Located at: https://www.plushbeds.com/blog/sleep-disorders/sleep-addiction/

Mignot, E. J. (2012). A practical guide to the therapy of narcolepsy and hypersomnia syndromes. Neurotherapeutics, 9(4), 739-752.

Pakpour, A., Lin, C-Y., Cheng, A.S., Imani, V., Ulander, M., Browall, M. Griffiths, M.D., Broström, A. (2019). A thorough psychometric comparison between Athens Insomnia Scale and Insomnia Severity Index among patients with advanced cancer. Journal of Sleep Research. doi: 10.1111/jsr.12891.

Dream lovers: Can lucid dreaming be addictive?

Last week I watched the South Korean film Lucid Dream (a 2017 Netflix original that premiered on June 2), the directorial debut by Kim Joon-sung. For those who don’t know, lucid dreams are those in “which the dreamer is aware of dreaming. During lucid dreaming, the dreamer may be able to exert some degree of control over the dream characters, narrative, and environment” (Wikipedia). The reason I mention this is because one of the characters in the film claims he is ‘addicted’ to lucid dreams. Obviously the use of the word ‘addicted’ in this context piqued my interest (in what must be said was a mediocre film).

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I’ve been fascinated by lucid dreams even before I knew what they were. Although I’ve suffered from insomnia for most of my life, I’m also someone that has very vivid dreams when I sleep. I learned a lot more about lucid dreaming during my PhD at the University of Exeter because one of my best friends (Rob Rooksby) was carrying out research into the area. Over the course of a few years, I had many conversations with Rob about the topic (both professional and personal) because I had experienced lucid dreams myself (and still do).

One of the academics that Rob mentioned many times to me was the psychologist Dr. Jayne Gackenbach who at the time was editor of a journal called Lucidity Letter (and in which Rob had a couple of papers published in, see ‘Further reading’ below. By co-incidence, I came to know Dr. Gackenbach professionally in the 1990s and since then I have written three chapters in some of her edited books – two on internet addiction and one on Game Transfer Phenomena – also see ‘Further reading’ below). In a short 1987 paper in Lucidity Letter, Dr. Gackenbach claimed that lucid dreaming could be potentially addictive:

“I would caution against taking an attitude toward the lucid dream state of it being unrelated to waking life. This could result in undue absorption in lucid dreaming, leading potentially to addiction (see the letter by Barroso in [the December, 1987] issue of Lucidity Letter for an excellent example)…After hearing about Tholey’s training of an Olympic athlete with dream lucidity, a colleague spontaneously remarked, “Dream lucidity is really the ultimate drug!” Yes, the state has that potential. But so too comes the potentiality of abuse through ignorance of proper use and possibly addiction”.

Consequently, I managed to track down a copy of Mark Barroso’s 1987 published letter where he asserted that:

“I would like to comment on how lucid dreaming became counterproductive. Like most everything else I’ve enjoyed, too much of it could be very destructive. Living in the dream world became preferable to reality. I would lay in bed, miss work, and wrap myself in a catatonic state in which to spin dreams, dreams, dreams. I would sleep in public places to use various stimuli for my lucid dreams: a park, a downtown bench, the beach, park the car near a school yard of children playing. If you have mastered lucid dreaming, you should try this, it really is incredible. Real and random sounds factor in the dream. Basically, all I did was lucid dream and nothing else. With a life like that it could be hard to pay the rent. So I just stopped. Over time I lost the ability to lucid dream…Although I never regarded myself as having a special ability, it never occurred to me that others did this as well. I finally “O.D.’d” on lucid dreaming when I stayed in bed for 4 or 5 days, only rising to drink and use the bathroom. I was a hermit with no other ambition. I got a job where people were counting on me to show up and found within me the motivation to shake the cobwebs from my eyes”.

Although I am highly sceptical that lucid dreaming can be potentially addictive, Barroso’s letter does contain anecdotal evidence at least suggestive of addiction-like symptoms where lucid dreaming completely took over his life and impacted negatively on every area of his life. These aren’t the only references to ‘lucid dreaming addiction’ in the academic literature. In a 1990 book by Dr. Stephen LaBerge and Dr. Howard Rheingold entitled Exploring The World of Lucid Dreaming, one chapter (‘Preparing for learning lucid dreaming’) featured a ‘Q&A’ section including the following question and answer:

“Q. Lucid dreams are so exciting and feel so good that real life pales by comparison. Isn’t it possible to get addicted to them and not wish to do anything else? 

A. It may be possible for the die-hard escapist whose life is otherwise dull to become obsessed with lucid dreaming. Whether or not this deserves to be called addiction is another question. In any case, some advice for those who find the idea of “sleeping their life away” for the sake of lucid dreaming is to consider applying what they have learned in lucid dreams to their waking lives. If lucid dreams seem so much more real and exciting, then this should inspire you to make your life more like your dreams – more vivid, intense, pleasurable, and rewarding. In both worlds your behavior strongly influences your experience”.

Another similar Q&A featured on the World of Lucid Dreaming (WLD) website founded by Rebecca Turner. One of the WLD readers (‘Nikki’) asked Turner: Is lucid dreaming addictive? I really want to have lucid dreams but I read that lucid dreaming is really addictive and this worries me. Would you compare this need to taking drugs? How do you keep control over it?” Turner responded by saying: “I [too] have read in the media that “lucid dreaming is addictive” but this is a poor use of language. They are trying to say that it’s highly enjoyable and you’ll want to do it more”.

As far as I am aware, no empirical study has ever examined addiction to lucid dreaming although there are plenty of individuals on various lucid dreaming online forums who have claimed that such activity can be addictive from either their own experiences or by those known to them. Here are a few of the more detailed examples I have come across:

  • Extract 1: “I first lucid dreamed purposely about 5-6 years ago. For the past year and a half. I’ve lucid dreamed every single night, except when I’m really drunk, I don’t seem to dream then. I have a bit of an addictive personality, I smoke weed every day. I have a sex in my dreams very often, a few times a week, and they almost always end up with an orgasm and a wet awakening later. I always just have the greatest times and see the greatest things while I’m dreaming. But it is getting harder and harder to get up in the morning. I will sleep an extra 2-3 hours after I want to wake up because I don’t want to leave the dream world, and I find if I go to sleep while the dream is fresh in my mind still I can continue it with ease. I have lost many jobs, and fucked up many opportunities because I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning…Now I am on welfare, get money from the government every month, and I sleep all the time, I have no set sleep schedule, I sleep in the day, I sleep at night, I sleep whenever I feel like it. I feel like the second my head hits the pillow I’m sucked into another world in my head. I daydream whenever I’m not sleeping, I’ve lost track of time. My whole world feels like a lucid dream now” (Steezy 233).
  • Extract 2: I think I spend at least half of my nights lucid dreaming. I never get tired of it…I love the world my mind creates every night…I have a really long history with lucid dreaming and hallucinations, but if I were to go that in-depth this post would end up being a novel or something. Long story short, I used to have hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis every night when I was young (4-10, I think)…Then one night I had my first lucid dream, and did some investigating…I became better and better at lucid dreaming, and somehow parts of my dream world have become consistent (architecture, people, holidays even). I love living in the dream world. It’s fun, and horrifying at times, but either way it’s exciting. But in the day, everything is drab. Living feels so dull and dead and repetitive and stressful…I love dreaming. I’m depressed when I’m not dreaming. Sometimes I wish I could dream and never wake up. I’m not suicidal or anything dangerous like thatI don’t really want people I know to know I have this addiction to dreaming” (‘JDBar’).
  • Extract 3: “When I first learned how to induce lucid dreams as a teenager, and then program the dream I wanted to have, it was intoxicating! Every night before I went to sleep I would have to decide if I wanted to do something romantic with a hunky male movie star, or save the world as Storm from the X-Men, or work on astral projection, or try to contact my friends who were also lucid dreaming, etc. I was practically living a double life because my night life was vastly different than my waking life.  I was becoming addicted to the pleasures of lucid dreaming. That habit led to some unfortunate experiences, however.  The more I explored the dream world and different planes of existence, the less connected I was to my waking life.  This was not at all healthy. It would take too long to explain everything that happened…but suffice it to say, it nearly destroyed my sanity. I eventually decided I had to plug back into my “real” life and leave some of the other world behind.  It took a couple of years to reconnect with the living instead of the astral” (Erin).
  • Extract 4: Well, I’ll admit that I went through a bad stage last year. I had high levels of anxiety and depression and I saw lucid dreaming as a way to escape from everything that was going on at school and in my life. I would even fake sick just to stay home and sleep all day to lucid dream. But something just changed lately and I’m no longer depressed…I don’t rely on lucid dreaming like I used to, instead I just see it as some fun. I wouldn’t say there’s any real reason not to lucid dream, though. It’s a lot of fun and can help with night terrors and nightmares” (Daydreamer14).

Most accounts I have come across online see the benefits of lucid dreaming as far outweighing any negatives. In fact, I came across a few websites claiming that lucid dreaming can be used as a method of overcoming more traditional addictions (similar to the idea of Dr. Bill Glasser’s positive addictions that I examined in a previous blog). For instance, at the Lucid Dream Leaf website it was claimed that:

“Lucid dreaming has a seemingly endless list of benefits attached to it. It can help people who are struggling with emotional pain, end recurring dreams and nightmares, expand consciousness, and so on. In addition to all of this, regular lucid dreaming practice can also be a useful tool to those in recovery (or moving toward recovery) from addictions”.

Other websites (such as the Remedy Free website) provide advice on how to overcome addiction to lucid dreaming or how to overcome problems with lucid dreaming (‘7 nasty side effects of lucid dreaming and how to fix them’ and ‘Lucid dreaming dangers – Obsession [Addiction]’). Although I’ve argued that any activity can be potentially addictive as long as there are constant rewards from the activity, lucid dreaming can only occur when an individual is asleep, so unless someone is constantly sleeping, it doesn’t appear it could be an addiction by my own criteria – but as ever, I am happy to be proved wrong. I ought to add that some online articles (such as one on the Dreaming Life blogsite) claim that lucid dreaming can be a consequence of ‘sleeping addiction’ (but I’ll leave that for another blog).

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Barroso, M., (1987). Letter to the Editor. Lucidity Letter, 6(2). Retrieved from https://journals.macewan.ca/lucidity/article/view/763/704

Gackenbach, J. (1987). Clinical and transpersonal concerns with lucid dreaming voiced. Lucidity Letter, 6(2), 1-4.

Glasser, W. (1976), Positive Addictions. Harper & Row, New York, NY.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Internet addiction: Does it really exist? In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Applications (pp. 61-75). New York: Academic Press.

LaBerge, S., & Rheingold, H. (1990). Exploring The World of Lucid Dreaming. New York: Ballantine Books.

Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An introduction to Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing. In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Video Game Play and Consciousness (pp.223-250). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science.

Rooksby, R. (1989). Problems in the historical research of lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 8(2), 75-80.

Rooksby, B., & Terwee, S. (1990). Freud, van Eeden and lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 1-10.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: Does it really exist? (Revisited). In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Applications (2nd Edition), (pp.141-163). New York: Academic Press.

Wikipedia (2017). Lucid dream. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucid_dream

Sleeping duty: A beginner’s guide to somnophilia

Somnophilia is a sexual paraphilia in which sexual arousal is derived from intruding on, caressing, and/or fondling someone (typically a stranger) while they are asleep without force or violence. However, some definitions of somnophilia – while all connected with sleep – sometimes slightly differ. For instance, some definitions of somnophilia say that it refers to actually having sexual intercourse with a sleeping partner (rather than just touching someone sexually while they are asleep). Another definition I came across says that somnophilia also includes having sex with someone while they are unconscious. This latter variation may have come about by the increased use of drugs such as rohypnol (“roofies”) that have been implicated in sexual offences such as ‘date rape’. There is no technical term for the reciprocal condition of being the recipient of sexual advances while asleep. This is thought to occur more often in fantasy than in reality.

Some signs or symptoms that may point to somnophilia include recurring thoughts regarding unconscious or sleeping individuals and feeling sexual urges when in contact with or in the proximity of those people. While there is speculation about treatment (e.g., hypnosis, behavioural therapy and 12-step programs), it is not needed unless the behavior becomes destructive, problematic, and/or involves sexually criminal activity and becomes a legal issue.

Empirically, very little is known about somnophilia and as far as I am aware there are no data concerning its prevalence, etiology, or treatment (not even a single case study). Various sexologists and authors have made reference to it (such as John Money, Nancy Butcher and Rudy Flora). The historian Richard Burg (Arizona State University) published a 1982 article in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and suggested the possibility of a continuum of erotic focus from somnophilia fantasy through to acts involving necrophilia. In fact, sometimes somnophilia has been described as ‘pseudo-necrophilia’ in that both paraphilias involve having sex with a human that is not aware and/or conscious, and have not given consent.

In a 1972 issue of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, the psychologists Dr. Victor Calef and Dr. Edward Weinshel decribed somnophila as ‘Sleeping Beauty Syndrome’ and asserted that somnophilia was the neurotic equivalent of necrophilia. As they asserted:

“The theme of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ who is brought back to life, as it were, by the love of a Prince Charming is one which has fascinated both story-tellers and listeners for hundreds of years. It is our impression that not infrequently we hear, from our analytic patients —primarily via various denials — this same theme and its disguised wishes. We are referring to those patients who complain that their spouses go to sleep before them and before sexual activity can be initiated. It is our experience that, at least in many of these individuals, this complaint is an attempt to hide the fascination and attraction for the sleeping sexual object and the wish to make love to that object”.

However, they ultimately concluded that although somnophilia appears to have some characteristics in common with necrophilia, the two syndromes do not necessarily reflect the same underlying pathology. Using Freudian theory, Calef and Weinshel speculated that underlying somnophilia was the desire to return to the maternal womb, and that somnophiliacs had unresolved Oedipal complex issues, fixations on pre-genital stages of psychosexual development, and castration anxiety. However, as with almost all psychoanalytic theory, it is hard to design any research to either confirm or deny such speculations.

In researching the topic of somnaphilia, I did come across a 2006 paper by Mark Knowles (New School for Social Research, New York) that examined the sexual content of the letters written by Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941). The primary purpose of Knowles’ paper was to examine the ways in which the paraphilic sexual fantasies of Joyce were expressed in his relationship with his wife (Nora Barnacle) via letters written at the end of 1909. Most of the paraphilic writings concerned coprophilia (sexual interest in faeces), but in one letter (dated December 8), Knowles noted there was also an instance of somnophilic fantasy. Here, Joyce writes of how he will perform cunnilingus on his wife in an effort to “surprise [her] asleep.” This will cause her to “groan and grunt and sigh and fart with lust in [her] sleep”.

Knowles claimed that investigators have suggested that the etiology of somnophilia is similar to that of fetishism and coprophilia (although these “investigators” were not referenced – although he did cite the paper by Calef and Weinshel). Knowles noted:

“The degree to which Joyce’s own aberrant libidinal impulses were influenced by factors such as these is uncertain; however, the fact that castration anxiety has been posited as a causal mechanism with regard to somnophilia as well as fetishism and coprophilia, the latter two of which played salient roles in his sexual fantasies, lends credence to the notion that the threat of castration did indeed constitute Joyce’s ‘nuclear complex’”.

Christina Eugene (Bowling Green State University, USA) also made some interesting observations in her 2006 thesis Potent Sleep: The Cultural Politics of Sleep’. She asserted:

“Sleep is the essential objectifier of all life. The passivity of sleep transforms subjects into inanimate objects, and in doing so removes the subject’s privilege of being able to act on the world of objects… This rendering of people into inanimate objects allows them to be fundamentally treated as objects – consumed, fetishized, and controlled. In accordance with the totality of capitalism and phallocentrism, an erotic fetish for sleeping beauties has surfaced”. 

Eugene also makes heavy reference to Carolyn Fay’s 2002 (University of Virginia, USA) thesis ’Stories of the Sleeping Body: Literary, Scientific and Philosophical Narratives of Sleep in Nineteenth Century France’. Although not actually using the word ‘somnophilia’, Fay says that:

“Contemporary sleep fetish culture is driven by the idea that the sleeping person is an absent person…To the fetishist, sleep is that perfect moment when consciousness is evacuated, leaving a living, breathing fragment, worthy of love”. [Men who seek to actualize their desire to have intercourse with a sleeping woman may use drugs to maintain the unconscious state] “for if the person wakes up, the fantasy and the fetish object become lost”

In response to this, Eugene thus claims that somnophilia emphasizes:

“The conflating of absence and passivity because rather than her being passive, the fetish is maintained by her absence. What are the dynamics that created these perplexities? What can account for both the sleeping beauty fetish and the somnaphobia of a culture where people are disposed to self-inflicting the torture of sleep deprivation? Despite the sheer obscurity of this fetish culture, both are, nevertheless, an exemplification of particular cultural messages that are written onto the sleeping body”.

http://forums.webmd.com/3/sex-and-relationships-exchange/forum/1904/22

Given that I prefer empirical data, I’m not sure whether these debates in the Arts and Humanities literature add to what we know scientifically know about somnophilia, but at the very least they make an interesting read about the human condition. In the absence of anything in the empirical literature, I did spend ages trying to find some kind of case study and this was the best I could come up with:

“I have a fetish that I have found out is called somnophilia. I have told this to my girlfriend and she has no problem with it, or with allowing me to fulfill my fantasy with her, since she is very submissive. The only problem is, she’s an extremely light sleeper. As in, she wakes up at the drop of a hat. For this reason, there’s really no way for me to do it naturally. I have tried artificial methods such as [over-the-counter] sleeping pills. However, these just make her drowsy, but don’t affect her depth of sleep (i.e., she still wakes up right away). I am looking for either a method or a drug that will put her into a very deep sleep, or even leave her unconscious, such as you would be under the influence of a general anesthetic during surgery. I guess I would need a very powerful sedative/hypnotic. I have heard of drugs such as Rohypnol, but I know that these are illegal in the US, and I’m not trying to get into any trouble here. I considered asking a pharmacist, but I’m worried they’d think I’m looking for a ‘date rape drug’ for illegal purposes and call the cops on me. I’m looking for something that’ll knock her out and will withstand a vigorous activity like sex”.

Although there is little detail here, and there is no way of checking the veracity, this plea does at least suggest that somnophilia is more than a theoretical paraphilia.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Burg, B.R. (1982). The sick and the dead: The development of psychological theory on necrophilia from Krafft-Ebing to the present. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 18, 242-254.

Butcher, N. (2003). The Strange Case of the Walking Corpse: A Chronicle of Medical Mysteries, Curious Remedies, and Bizarre but True Healing Folklore. New York: Avery.

Calef, V., & Weinshel, E. M. (1972). On certain neurotic equivalents of necrophilia. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 53, 67-75.

Eugene, N.C. (2006). Potent Sleep: The Cultural Politics of Sleep. Master’s Thesis, Bowling Green State University, American Culture Studies/English.

Fay, C.M. (2002). Stories of the Sleeping Body: Literary, Scientific and Philosophical Narratives of Sleep in Nineteenth Century France. Diss. U Virginia, 2002. Ann Arbor: UMI.

Flora, R. (2001). How to Work with Sex Offenders: A Handbook for Criminal Justice, Human Service, and Mental Health Professionals. New York: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

Joyce, J. (1975). Selected letters of James Joyce. R. Ellmann (Ed.), New York: Viking Press.

Knowles, J.M. (2006). Nora’s Filthy Words: Scatology in the Letters of James Joyce. The New School Psychology Bulletin, 4, 91-101.

Love, B. (1992). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books

Money, J. (1986). Lovemaps: Clinical concepts of sexual/erotic health and pathology, paraphilia, and gender transposition in childhood, adolescence, and maturity. New York: Irvington.

Sleeping thrills: A brief overview of sexsomnia

Over the last decade there have been an increasing number of papers published on sexsomnia (more commonly known as ‘sleep sex’). There have also been a lot of high profile media cases where women have claimed that their sexsomnia has ruined their lives or men who have been arrested for committing sexual assaults while asleep. Sexsomnia is a condition that is highly prevalent among sleepwalkers and is where people engage in sexual acts while still asleep and can include masturbating and fondling of either themselves or others, or oral sex and sexual intercourse with another person.

Sexsomniacs do not recall or remember anything that they did while asleep which raises interesting questions if criminal sexual acts are performed without the person being aware that they have even done anything wrong. Some in the field have claimed the disorder is relatively common but often goes unreported because of shame and embarrassment related to the condition. In addition to sleepwalking, other sleep-related disorders that sexsomniacs may suffer from include nightmares, bedwetting, and sleep apnea (abnormal breathing while asleep). Many of these behaviours are known as parasomnias (i.e., sleep disorders that involve abnormal and unnatural movements, behaviors, emotions, perceptions, and dreams and are events that occur intermittently or episodically during the night).

The first academic paper on sex during sleep was published in the mid-1990s in the journal Sleep Research by Canadian researchers Colin Shapiro, Nik Trajanovic and Paul Federoff (at the Universities of Toronto and Ottawa). They claimed that having sex during sleep could be conceptualized as a new type of parasomnia. Then, in 1998, the term ‘sleepsex’ was first used in a paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior by American neurologists Dr. David Rosenfeld and Dr A.J. Elhajjar. They described two case studies of people having sex while asleep. The more interesting second case concerned a sleepwalker who committed a sexual assault and used somnambulism as his legal defence. In 2003, the term ‘sexsomnia’ was first used by Shapiro, Trajanovic and Federoff in a case report published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

Unsurprisingly, sexsomniacs are often told by others that they are engaging in sex while asleep, and for many the disorder may not be problematic – particularly within the confines of a stable romantic relationship. According to a 2007 paper by Dr Michael Mangan (University of New Hampshire, USA) and Dr. Ulf Reips (Zurich University, Switzerland), some couples embrace sexsomnia, describing it as an exciting addition to their normal waking sex lives. The behaviour may have been going on a long time – sometimes years – before they seek medical help. Despite many people not believing that sexsomnia is a genuine medical condition, the condition has been confirmed by various sleep disorder specialists by video recording sufferers while they are asleep.

In 2007, Dr Carlos Schenck and co-workers (University of Minnesota Medical School, USA) reported in the journal Sleep, that bouts of sexsomnia can be triggered by such factors as physical contact with another person in bed (64%), stress (52%), fatigue (41%), alcohol use (14.6%), and drug abuse (4.3%). Sleep deprivation was also identified as a risk factor.

In 2003, Shapiro and his Canadian colleagues asserted that sexsomnia should be considered a distinct entity in the family of parasomnias, since there was were specific motor, and autonomic activation systems. However, they did make the point that it can be difficult to distinguish between typical sleepwalking and sexsomnia. They claimed that the uniqueness of the condition is the involvement of a partner (usually more than a witness). A recent 2011 review published in the Delhi Psychiatry Review pointed out the main differences between sleepwalking and sexsomnia:

  • Sexsomnia originates in most cases from non-rapid eye movement sleep (whereas sleepwalking usually originates from slow wave sleep)
  • Sexsomina can occur any time during sleep (whereas sleepwalking usually occurs in the first one-third of the night)
  • Sexsomnia involves widespread autonomic activation (whereas in sleepwalking autonomic activation is largely limited to cardio-respiratory functions
  • Sexsomnia involves frequent sexual arousal frequently (whereas in sleepwalking sexual arousal is not present)
  • Sexsomnia bouts possibly exceed 30 minutes (whereas sleepwalking bouts are usually under 30 minutes)
  • Sexsomnia can involve exceptional violence or injurious behaviour (whereas sleepwalking involves occasional violence, injury, and self-injury)
  • Sexsomnia occurs predominantly in adults (whereas sleepwalking predominantly occurs in children)

These bullet point differences do at lest suggest that sexsomnia and sleepwalking may be distinct clinical entities. Shapiro and colleagues state that the main features of sexsomnia often include sexual arousal with autonomic activation (including nocturnal erection, vaginal lubrication, nocturnal emission, wet dreams, sweating, and cardio-respiratory response). However, there are some case studies reported in the literature that do not appear to have shown signs of sexual arousal. Despite these differences, most sleep experts consider sexsomnia to be a variant of sleepwalking, as most sexsomniacs also sleepwalk.

Based on a review of all the published case studies, Dr Andersen and her colleagues asserted that sleep sex somnambulism was a predominantly male disorder, but that the basis for male predominance in sexsomnia is not known. They further reported that females almost exclusively engaged in masturbation and sexual vocalizations, whereas males commonly engaged in sexual fondling and sexual intercourse with females.

Mangan and Reips carried out an online survey using visitors to the Sleepsex.org website (run by Dr. Mangan). Data were collected over a three-month period and generated 226 responses. Up until their 2007 study, only seven academic papers had been published with the number of sexsomniacs totaling 30 cases (the largest sample size being 11 people and six of these were reported in a previous paper by the same authors). Unfortunately, the focus of the paper was on how the internet can be used to collect data on little studied groups and as such presented very few of the results. They noted that adult sexsomniacs sometimes coming into contact with minors (in this survey 6%), and that the legal implications of reporting this are serious.

Using the same dataset, Nik Trajanovic, Michael Mangan and Colin Shapiro joined forces and published yet another paper from the Sleepsex.org data in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. The results showed that females accounted for almost one-third of the sample (31%) and that the mean age of the total sample was just over 30 years of age. The participants typically reported multiple sexsomnia episodes that were typically ptriggered by body contact, stress and fatigue. A small number of participants reported that their sexsomniac behaviour had led to police and legal intervention (8.6% males and 3% females) some of which had involved minors (6% of the total sample). The authors claimed the study confirmed previous anecdotal evidence about the gender and age distribution, trigger factors, and medico-legal aspects.

An earlier 2004 paper by Dr Mangan published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, examined first-person reports of individuals’ experiences of sexsomnia. Qualitative analysis of 121 sexsomniacs resulted in six distinct themes: (i) fear and a lack of emotional intimacy; (ii) guilt and confusion; (iii) a sense of repulsion and feelings of sexual abandonment; (iv) shame, disappointment, and frustration; (v) annoyance and suspicion; (vi) embarrassment and a sense of self-incrimination. Mangan claimed that his results suggested that sexsomnia can elicit negative emotions and cognitions that may become a source of personal and relational distress.

Research published in 2010 by Lisa Klein and Dr. Daniel Houlihan (both at the Minnesota State University, USA) in the International Journal of Sexual Health examined relationship and sexual satisfaction, sexual functioning, and sexual desire in 32 sexsomniacs who were recruited online. Compared to controls, sexsomniacs reported lower levels of sexual satisfaction, lower levels of relationship satisfaction, and similar levels of sexual desire. They also reported that more frequent incidence of sexsomnia resulted in lower sexual satisfaction. However, frequency was not found to impact on the level of sexual desire or relationship satisfaction Four-fifths of the sexsomniacs (81%) also reported at least one sexual problem.

A review paper led by Dr Monica Andersen (Universidade Federal de São Paulo, Brazil) published in a 2007 issue of Brain Research Reviews, attempted to assemble the characteristics of sexsomniacs based on the small empirical base. They noted the sexsomnia should receive more attention and concluded:

“Reports describing sexual activity of sleeping humans are still rather infrequent and the etiology of this peculiar sleep disorder is still obscure… Moreover, sexsomnia is often a longstanding disorder that carries major adverse physical, psychosocial, and legal consequences. We anticipate that this condition is currently underreported”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Andersen, M.L., Poyares, D, Alves, R.S.C., Skomro, R. & Tufik, S. (2007). Sexsomnia: Abnormal sexual behavior during sleep. Brain Research Reviews, 56, 271-282

Anubhav, R. & Bhatia, M.S. (2011). Is Sexsomnia a New Parasomnia? Delhi Psychiatry Journal, 14, 378-380.

Klein, L.A. & Houlihan, D. (2010). Relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and sexual problems in sexsomnia. International Journal of Sexual Health, 22, 84-90.

Mangan, M. A. (2004). A phenomenology of problematic sexual behavior occurring in sleep. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33, 287-293.

Mangan, M. A. & Reips, U. (2007). Sleep, sex, and the Web: Surveying the difficult-to-reach clinical population suffering from sexsomnia. Behavior Research Methods, 39, 233-236.

Rosenfeld, D.S. & Elhajjar, A.J. (1998). Sleepsex: A variant of sleepwalking. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 27, 269-278.

Schenck, C.H., Mahowald, M.W. (2005). Rapid eye movement and non-REM sleep parasomnias. Primary Psychiatry, 12(8), 67-74.

Schenck, C.H., Arnulf, I., Mahowald, M.W., 2007. Sleep and sex: what can go wrong? A review of the literature on sleep related disorders and abnormal sexual behaviors and experiences. Sleep, 30, 683–702.

Shapiro, C.M., Fedoroff, J.P., & Trajanovic, N.N. (1996). Sexual behavior in sleep: A newly described parasomnia. Sleep Research, 25, 367.

Shapiro, C.M., Trajanovic, N.N., & Fedoroff, J.P. (2003) Sexsomnia: A new parasomnia? Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 48, 311-317.

Trajanovic, N.N., Mangan, M. & Shapiro, C.M. (2007). Sexual behaviour in sleep: An internet survey. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 42, 1024-1031.