What you’ve just experienced is known as sleep paralysis and is surprisingly common, but most people don’t have the slightest clue what’s happening.
In order to understand what’s going on, we need to take a dive inside the human brain and learn what happens during sleep. As you rest, you cycle through five stages of sleep. During the deepest stage, or REM sleep (in which dreams occur), your brain releases the chemicals, GABA and Glycine which paralyze your muscles. This prevents you from reacting violently to your dreams – from thrashing or rolling over and falling out of bed.
If you’re lurched from sleep during REM, there’s a small chance your muscles can remain briefly paralyzed even though you’re awake. This lack of ability to move can trigger a rush of adrenaline and a panicked state can ensue. Your brain is trying to fire signals to your muscles to move, but experiences a desynchrony with your sense of proprioception. In other words, your muscles are saying, we’re over here, and your brain is yelling, “You shouldn’t be. Move over there.” But they don’t listen. This feedback mismatch can lead to a sense of floating, or even in feeling like you’re outside your own body.
Meanwhile, your amygdala (the not-so-rational center for fear and emotion in the brain) is going crazy. Terror rushes over you, but you’re not awake enough to think clearly and rationally, and you feel threatened because you can’t move. In a certain percentage of sleep paralysis cases, hypnopompic hallucinations can occur. These hallucinations can be auditory and/or visual. But here’s where it gets interesting.
Historically what people hallucinate about has always been linked to their cultural exposure. 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. And 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 sleep paralysis.
Now if you’ve experienced sleep paralysis, fear not. It’s not dangerous, and according to Scientific American, “20 to 60 percent of the normal adult population has experienced sleep paralysis at least once.”² It can happen to anyone, and is likely to occur when a person is heavily sleep deprived or stressed. If you have irregular sleep habits, drink too much caffeine or alcohol, eat heavy meals before bed, or sleep on your back, you’re more likely to experience it. If sleep paralysis was demonic in nature, then this means demons are summoned by Mountain Dew and thwarted by sleeping on your side!
I’ve had sleep paralysis many times, not because I’m some kind of gifted indigo child caught in an out of body astral space and targeted on a spiritual hitlist, but because I often have sleep deprivation from jet lag or working all night. The first few times I was convinced it was demons, which was weird because this first happened at a point in my life when I was actively pursuing God, praying and worshipping several times a day, and had buried myself in scripture. Then I learned the science behind it, and after I stopped believing in demons, I still had sleep paralysis, but this time I felt like burglars were breaking in. Another time, it was ghosts (which is odd because I don’t believe in those either), but once it was zombies, and then aliens coming to abduct 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, going back to sleep with a newfound appreciation for science. I have better sleep habits now, and haven’t experienced sleep paralysis in almost a year, but the last few times I did, it was more annoying than anything else, there were no accompanying hallucinations, and I just lay there waiting for it to pass. My adrenaline levels were high, but I was fully aware of what was going on.
Without understanding, even if at a rudimentary level, what was happening 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. And tonight I will sleep peacefully.
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