Parasomnias: The Science of Unsound Sleep

Some suffer from unwanted sleep behavior, such as eating cat food sandwiches.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 7:44 PM

Nov. 27, 2007 — -- By day, Mike Doyle is a mild-mannered bank executive who lives with his wife in a suburb of Minneapolis.

By night, he wanders the house in a deep slumber, acting out his strangest and wildest dreams.

"I ran down the hallway and jumped from the top step and landed somewhere near the bottom," Doyle said. "I got up and went back to bed and the following morning I didn't realize what I had done, until I sat down on the wooden chair in the kitchen. And I thought I was gonna die because of how bad it hurt to sit."

Doyle is among millions of Americans -- as many as 4 percent -- who suffer from parasomnias: unpleasant and unwanted behaviors during deep sleep.

"What happens with parasomnias is that the brain tells the body to move, to walk, to have sex, to eat, to become aggressive, to become violent," explained Dr. Carlos Schenck, a sleep disorder specialist and the author of "Sleep: The Mysteries, The Problems, and the Solutions." "It's the brain that directs the muscles in the rest of the body to engage in these activities." (For more information on sleep disorders and on Dr. Schecnk's new book on parasomnias, visit

Schenck has catalogued a range of parasomnias in the documentary "Sleep Runners," including those who eat in their sleep.

"A woman with sleep eating, every time she eats a bit of her brownie, she extends the pinky of her hand and nibbles on it and that's no way that she would ever do that in the daytime," said Schenck. "The sleep-eaters generally have partial awareness of what they're doing, but they don't know the full extent until the next morning when with horror they see all that they consume and also they are really very disgusted with how they ate, such as spaghetti and meatballs with their bare hands or they make a tuna fish sandwich loaded with salt and pepper or they'll even make a cat food sandwich."

A cat food sandwich? It turns out that's the least of it.

"They butter cigarettes. They put coffee grounds, Coca-Cola, egg shells in a blender and they blend it all together and drink it," he said. "It's bizarre."