Man, I had this crazy dream last night. But I’m not going to tell you about it, because listening to other people tell you about their dreams is officially the boringest thing ever. They’ve done surveys. I’m not going to look them up, but I’m about 70% certain that it’s actually true. It sounds right, doesn’t it?
But dreams are pretty fascinating things, and not just in a Freudian analysis way where you get to nod thoughtfully and tell someone that their subconscious wants to shag a camel. For one thing, dreams give us a context in which we can talk about being naked in a school classroom and be confident that concerned bystanders aren’t going to call the authorities – in fact, they can often directly relate to our experiences.
And, more pertinently, they highlight the kind of weird shit the human brain sometimes completely makes up, and the kind of bizarre things that can seem to happen when parts of it are shutting down and going to sleep. If you didn’t really understand anything about the brain, and couldn’t realise that dreams are something that just happen to it sometimes, you might really believe that you magically went flying last night, or were being chased over a hill by some giant peanuts, or that your teeth fell out, or that Simon Cowell said you were a terrible haddock-juggler who’d never amount to anything, or that little green men walked through your wall into your bedroom and did invasive things to you while you had no choice but to lay there completely immobilised.
Yeah. If you didn’t know much about how the brain works, you might take that kind of thing seriously. Maybe even base an entire belief system around it. Sell a few books. That kind of thing.
What I’m getting at is that sometimes people decide that there’s something more substantive to their surreal nighttime experiences, despite the strong precedent provided by dreams. They may have lost count of how many times they’ve flown high above the ground on wings of yoghurt, or discussed the mysteries of the universe with a six-foot chaffinch, and just put it down to the imagined imaginings of an imaginative imagination. But some dreams are more persuasive, and convince people that they were real.
It’s not just the more mundane and realistic dreams that can seem believable, either. I’ve had dreams about hurrying toward a school lesson I was late for, which would by no means make for a weird or inexplicable episode in my life. It’s only the context that lets me know that it was a dream at all – I know that my lessons don’t normally take place in between falling asleep in bed one night and waking up in the same place the following morning, so it probably didn’t really happen. But some of these more persuasive visions, which convince people that they must have been a genuine experience, are way outside the realms of normal possibility.
Somehow, they still manage to feel like more than a run-of-the-mill dream. Often, this is largely due to sleep paralysis.
Have you ever had that thing where you’re drifting off to sleep, then suddenly your whole body spasms as if trying to pull itself out of a fall? I get it a lot. Apparently some people momentarily feel like they’re plummeting down a hole. For me, it comes with a not-quite-dreaming sensation of stumbling over on a pavement. It doesn’t really jolt you awake, and you can get back to drifting sleepwards after a moment or two, but just for an instant it’s very abruptly unsettling.
It’s called a hypnic jerk, and it’s one of those things that’ll happen when you’re falling asleep. The brain doesn’t make a perfectly smooth transition from a state of total consciousness to blissful slumber, and has to sort of shut things down in parts. Although we don’t seem to know exactly what causes a hypnic jerk, it seems to be to do with the way parts of you get ready for sleep at different times. Your muscles may start to fully relax into sleep, but part of your brain is still alert to these things, and when it notices all the tension seeping out of you it worries that you’re about to fall. So, it gives you a kick and jolts you back into action before you hurt yourself. Something like that.
But you’re not operating in perfect synch with yourself when waking up, either. Sometimes your brain can emerge from REM sleep, before the rest of you has caught up to the fact that you’re back in the real world now, and it’s okay to get up and move around.
Specifically, something called REM atonia carries on for longer than it should. While in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your brain naturally keeps your body paralysed. This is because REM sleep is when you do most of your dreaming, and you don’t want the nightmare about the cross-dressing murderclown to send you hurtling out of bed and into a wall. Your mad, panicky flailing for your life should be restricted to the dreamworld.
But what this means is that, in these cases of lingering REM atonia, you become conscious of your surroundings, probably feel “awake”, but are unable to move. Your brain is still kinda mushy, and not entirely clear whether it’s time to get up and face the real world, or whether it’s not quite done giving you surreal nocturnal visions from your subconscious yet. As a result, you may not just find yourself lying there immobile in the dark. You may also experience what Wikipedia rather charmingly calls a “hallucinatory element”.
By which they mean there might be a demon sitting on top of you eating your soul.
Seriously, that’s a pretty common hallucination/dream associated with sleep paralysis. You feel like you’ve just woken up, you can’t move, and there’s some kind of sprite/goblin/pixie/ugly little mythological bastard of your choosing, sitting right on you, pinning you down. A painting of this exact scenario is used as Wikipedia’s illustration for their page on sleep paralysis.
According to one of Chris French‘s students:
Common images are bearded, goblin-like demons laughing or whispering sinister speech, a faceless girl (usually covering her face with hair, moving around in bed moaning and feeling my body), hands appearing from the wall and attempting to strangle me. A hung man talking in the corner of the room, and some of the most bizarre experiences may include up to a dozen ‘critter’ entities (think Gremlins movie) laughing and talking about me.
That is properly messed up. And it sounds horrifyingly real. I’ve never been through it myself, but these kinds of personal experiences can be extremely persuasive, and when you’ve lived through something as vivid and unpleasant as this, I can imagine that it would leave quite a mark, and that you’d be pretty concerned to find out just what the hell is going on.
But it’s important to take these reports of personal experience with a grain of salt. After all, we’re talking about all this in the context of sleeping, and dreams. Nobody’s seriously denying that the brain regularly simulates some pretty fantastical scenarios for us during the night. Some people just deny that this explains what was happening to them this time, for this particular fantastical scenario that played itself out during the night.
And it’s worth treating this belief sensitively, and not dismissing it out of hand as a derisive inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Even though that does kinda sound like something I’d do. A lot of people experience sleep paralysis to some extent (possibly between 5-40%, depending on the number of associated symptoms), and even if they don’t ascribe it to any paranormal interference afterwards, it seems common to experience it as something very different from a normal dream at the time.
Lucid dreaming (where you become aware that you’re dreaming) is relatively rare unless you’re actively trying to achieve it, but sleep paralysis tends to come with something close to a normal, waking awareness of the world around you – you really have started to wake up, after all – which is why it’s so scary when you find that you can’t move and there are goblins in your room laughing at you.
But, while we can sympathise with the apparent reality of the experience, we don’t need to take it at face value. Even before we start, a particularly life-like and vivid dream is actually a more reasonable explanation than the genuine presence of, say, a mischievous imp. The kinds of things that sleep paralysis sufferers often report seeing have never before been experienced by anyone who wasn’t, at best, still a bit tired and groggy. These things are often truly unprecedented and unbelievable, and the evidence that there was ever actually anything there, more than simply an unsettling vision, is always flimsy to non-existent.
After all, how far do you have to stretch your imagination to suppose that these experiences are hallucinations provided by a half-asleep brain? Really not that far. Given some of the stuff we’ve all seen our brains do, it’s not outlandish to suggest that it might be providing us with unreliable information even when we think we’re awake and alert and accurately seeing the world as it really is. But positing actual intrusions, only occurring sporadically and momentarily just as you’re on the cusp of waking up, by genuine and real goblins and demons who leave not a trace of their presence after they depart, is not something to be believed lightly.
It’s not just goblins and demons sitting on you, of course. As mentioned earlier, some people report seeing hands coming through the wall, or creepy faceless girls out of a Japanese horror movie. And perhaps unsurprisingly, many reports of alien abduction are strikingly similar to reported experiences of sleep paralysis.
In centuries past, and in less scientifically minded cultures, it made sense that demons, witches, or other un-Christian manifestations would be what plagued people’s nightmares. (Wikipedia has a long list of possible cultural interpretations of the sleep paralysis experience.) But in some parts of the world these days, aliens are a more relevant aspect of society, and so it makes sense that something akin to the standard little-green-man abduction scenario would be envisaged. But with no lasting evidence of any such intrusion, and with the known facts about some people’s experiences of REM atonia while coming out of REM sleep, the “extraordinarily vivid dream” explanation is far more likely until any new evidence comes along to depose it.
If your personal experience has been enough to convince you of something genuinely strange, then can you really discount all the strange-sounding reports from people who claim to have gone through something similar? Was there really a cat with a melting face in Chris French’s student’s room that night? Are there also really regular succubus attacks in Iceland, ghosts in Taiwan and Mexico, hags who prophesy doom if you say the Lord’s Prayer backwards in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the demon Mora stealing people’s speech in Greece and Cyprus? If any of these ideas can be explained away as dreaming, imagination, or a misinterpretation of some other phenomenon, then why not yours?
It’s also worth noting that hallucinations accompanying sleep paralysis aren’t always paranormal in nature. Sometimes it just seems like some regular human intruder in your home, or something ambiguous like the sound of footsteps or shadows moving across the wall – often still accompanied by the paralysis, so still pretty scary. These also leave no indication of having been caused by any external phenomena once you fully awake. So, either aliens are visiting some people’s houses in the night, and abducting burglars from others, at very precise and opportune moments… or it’s something like a dream, produced by the endlessly creative human brain.
By all reports, sleep paralysis can be a fairly traumatic experience for someone who doesn’t know what’s going on or what to think of it, and the number of people it affects is far from negligible. If you’ve been through anything like this yourself, it might be worth finding other people with similar stories, or organisations set up for exactly this purpose, to try and find some ideas for what might help deal with it. There are some links at the Skeptic’s Dictionary, and easily found across the internet.