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The Devil of the Ever-Shrinking Gaps

Coming from a religious family, I was terrified of the devil. Satan was everywhere. Despite God’s omnipotence, the Devil ruled the world. If my natural sex drive acted up, it was the devil trying to tempt me. If I walked into a dark room and my hair stood on end, it was a demon searching the house for spiritual weaknesses.

I spent a night in a “haunted, demonic” cabin at camp one night where kids and counselors had reported seeing dark, shadowy figures. Nothing happened. A fellow counselor and I freaked out a few nights later when we walked into a dark room and got an adrenaline rush. Panicked, he looked at me and said, “Do you feel that?” My heart was racing. It was late, and mass demon hysteria was floating around the entire campground. Of course, I felt it! We stopped and prayed right there. I still felt the rush, but looking up at the stars somehow gave me comfort.

One night, when I was in my early twenties, I woke up filled with terror. My whole body was absolutely paralyzed. I was lucid but unable to move. My eyes darted around the dark room. I thought I heard noises and felt like something was stalking me. I prayed in my mind, begging Jesus to save me. I was terrified that despite my devotion to God, my earnest faith, and worship of Him, somehow I was still vulnerable to the Devil’s clutches.

This happened several times over the course of a year (each time scaring the hell out of me) until one day, while reading about neurology, I became aware of a condition known as sleep paralysis. I discovered that when a person enters REM sleep, the central nervous system becomes hyperactive, while motoneuron excitation decreases. Simultaneously, chemically induced motoneuron inhibition causes your body to enter a state of self-induced paralysis, protecting the body from thrashing or dangerous movement while asleep.¹ Put more simply, when you sleep, your brain paralyzes your body to protect you from rolling out of bed. This is normal.

On occasion, the brain will exit REM sleep and regain consciousness, but the muscles glitch out and remain paralyzed for several seconds to several minutes. According to Scientific American, “20 to 60 percent of the normal adult population has experienced sleep paralysis at least once.”² It’s likely to occur when a person is heavily stressed or sleep deprived. What are less common, but still quite prevalent, are the hypnopompic (exiting sleep) and hypnagogic (entering sleep) hallucinations. When a person is jolted from REM sleep into a state of sleep paralysis they regain consciousness, but the slower cerebrum (the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking) can lag behind. Meanwhile, the amygdala triggers a fear response, and let’s just say that this irrational, over-emotional state of panic isn’t exactly fun. Simply put, you wake up, your body is paralyzed, your brain is flipping out but unable to rationalize the experience, and you start hearing, seeing, and feeling things that aren’t actually there!

When in a state of sleep paralysis, people often report the presence of an intruder in the room. Feelings of pressure on the chest, levitation, and choking have been reported. For me, I felt a dark figure stalking me. Historically, the creatures people reported always coincided with the culture of the time. In Newfoundland, reports emerged of an “old hag” who would leave her body at night to sit on the chests of her victims. In Nigeria, it was devils, in Fiji and Mexico, it was dead family and friends, and in Iceland, it was a succubus or goblin. In early Salem, villagers reported sleep paralysis as the work of witches in the community. After unsubstantiated rumors of a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico sent a ripple through the media, people began experiencing alien abductions which bore every marking of a sleep paralysis incident.

I’ve had several sleep paralysis experiences since I learned the biology behind it. In one instance, I thought burglars were breaking in. Another time, I felt it was ghosts, and in the most recent occurrence, it was aliens coming to get me. On each occasion, my body froze and my brain panicked. After a few moments, I would lurch up in bed gasping for air. I would proceed to look around the room before acknowledging it was sleep paralysis and going back to sleep with a new found appreciation for my logical, rational cerebrum.

Without Science, without understanding what was going on in my brain, I would likely still suffer from a fear of demonic intruders. But thanks to the hard-working neuroscientists of the last century, this is one area of superstitious nonsense that has been sentenced to execution at the hand of reason, and for that I am immensely grateful. Tonight I will sleep peacefully.

1. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/32/29/9785.full
2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ask-the-brains-sleep-paralysis/?page=1

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