Posts Tagged ‘sleep paralysis’

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.


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The title quote is a popular one with skeptics, and is often attributed to Carl Sagan in his Cosmos series, though Wikipedia reckons that Marcello Truzzi and Pierre-Simon Laplace both said something pretty similar first. I think I prefer another assertion along the same lines, known as Hume‘s maxim, which states:

That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.

This, I think, expresses what Sagan and the others were getting at, perhaps a little less succinctly, but also more clearly and unambiguously. It’s closely related to Occam’s Razor, or the law of parsimony, but it deserves some elaboration as to its exact meaning. It’s not really fair if “extraordinary evidence” is allowed to become a vague and unattainable moving goal-post for any phenomenon not already established.

If you met me at a party, and I introduced myself as Greg, you’d have little reason to doubt me on this point (assuming you don’t already know that that’s not my name) and probably assume it to be true without a moment’s hesitation. Why would I be lying about my own name, to someone I’m meeting in some casual social situation? It’s hardly an extraordinary claim, so extraordinary evidence is not really required – my word is probably enough to convince you.

If I were to further claim to have made a considerable fortune by hiring myself out as a private contractor to service the sexual needs of Natalie Portman, I’d probably lose a smidgen of credibility. The claim is, after all, on the incredible side, and the evidence I’ve provided is rather lacking, so you’d be reasonable to assume that I’m probably attempting to live out some personal lonely fantasy.

Looking at it in Hume’s terms, it’s unlikely to be more than a very minor miracle for me to give you my real name. I could be lying for some reason, but who does that? It’s not impossible, but marginally more miraculous, so you’re probably safe assuming you do know my name.

However, my earning any money at all as a man-whore to today’s Hollywood starlets would make raising Lazarus from the dead look about as impressive as stealing a kid’s nose. And all you’ve got is my testimony, which ain’t much. It might be odd that I’d tell such a brazen lie – most people aren’t mentally ill, and don’t just make up obvious nonsense to try and impress random strangers – but any explanation is more plausible than that I’m telling the truth. The falsehood of my testimony is hardly miraculous at all in comparison, so there’s probably not much point asking for advice on getting into my line of work.

We’ve all seen people lie for personal gain, or be wrong but sincere in their efforts to convince us of something they believe. I can’t even be bothered to find any links or references to corroborate it right now – that’s how obvious it is that people might easily claim to believe all sorts of untrue or incorrect things, no matter where they fall on the scale of honesty. If someone says, for instance, that Elvis beamed down into their bedroom last night from his new home planet, then there’s nothing very miraculous in suggesting that they’re either mistaken or lying.

If, however, the King then attends a major press conference announcing his new comeback tour, dazzles millions with a series of concerts around the world, and provides several independent scientific agencies with samples of the technology he uses for his interstellar travel, then we might start to be convinced. There would come a point where the “everyone’s just making it up and/or experiencing a mass hallucination” idea falls apart.

And the principle is often applied in actual, non-Elvis-based science, too. When Einstein first published his ideas about the curvature of space-time, gravitational time dilation, and other aspects of general relativity, it was pretty extraordinary and/or miraculous stuff. The evidence initially in its favour couldn’t have been called extraordinary, and for it to have been false didn’t seem to require anything more miraculous than a German scientist with some wacky ideas.

But then the evidence started coming in to support it, observations which Newtonian physics alone was unable to explain. When light was observed to bend around a massive object like the sun in just the way he predicted, in a way inconsistent with classical predictions, the falsehood of Einstein’s testimony became more and more unlikely. So these ideas, which started off sounding improbable and being rejected by most scientists, are now widely accepted. The extraordinary evidence has been provided, the miracle confirmed, and science has moved forward.

It’s a shame the ufologists, psychics, homeopaths, and so many other paranormal experts haven’t had similar luck.

The controversy around this principle comes, I guess, in making a judgment call on just how miraculous something is, and how reliable the testimony in comparison. This is bound to be at least partially a subjective measurement, but we can try and minimise how arbitrary and personal some of the decisions are. We should want to avoid setting our bar for “extraordinary evidence” so low that we become gullible and easily taken advantage of, and to do that well it’s worth understanding some of the ways that people can get things wrong. This is the kind of thing I’m planning to keep listing under ‘Wrongness’, near the bottom of the Skeptictionary list on the right there: the various kinds of faulty reasoning and misleading experiences that we can easily fall prey to, thanks to the unreliable nature of our squishy brains what do all our thinking.

If someone wakes up in the morning with a vivid memory of lying paralysed in their bed a few hours ago while a demon hovered over them, they may find this to be sufficient evidence that they were visited by something horrible from the pits of Hell. If they later read about sleep paralysis and find out about our understanding of the brain activity that can bring about these sensations, and the tests that have been done to examine what causes it and what might stop it, will they feel reassured?

Some people who go through this aren’t reassured, whatever they learn. I’ve never had it happen to me, but I understand it’s a pretty scary experience, which I can imagine feeling very real and leaving a lasting effect. But let’s take a less contentious example. I doubt many children have ever been seriously impressed by that trick where it looks like you’re detatching your thumb, but if they were, they were probably successfully disillusioned after being shown how it was done. Once you’ve seen how it can easily be faked, you assume that’s what was happening. It doesn’t make much sense to keep believing that Dad is just like Lego.

The same principles are at play in both cases. For a claim as extraordinary as being visited and imprisoned in your own body by minions of Satan, is “I remember feeling it happen, at around 4am, right after I remember running naked to catch a school bus” sufficiently extraordinary evidence? Is there anything particularly miraculous about the falsehood of the testimony – the idea that it might not have really happened the way you remember, given the other freaky shit we know your brain sometimes comes up with when you’re half-asleep?

I’ll try and go into some of the examples I’ve mentioned here in more detail later. For now, just take away the fact that, if you’re going to make a radical claim that undercuts vast swathes of established scientific understanding or invokes new and unimagined forces beyond the ken of man, you’re going to have to make a convincing case that there’s definitely something new going on the way you describe it, before we stop laughing at you and decide to completely re-evaluate our understanding of the world. It’s just basic skepticism.

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