Sunday, November 30, 2003

Sleep Paralysis and Night Terrors

Caught part of a show on the Discovery Channel this afternoon that piqued my curiosity about the sleep paralysis phenomenon. The series is "Into the Unknown," and the episode was, "Unraveling the Mystery of Alien Abduction."

One of the things mentioned was that the brain releases paralyzing hormones during R.E.M. sleep, which prevent the sleeper from engaging in potentially injurious, dream-induced thrashing about. When one "wakes up" during this time, the paralysis is real until the hormones wear off, and dream state invades the "waking" consciousness. According to the first article cited below, something like 40 to 50 percent of people have had occasional incidents of this.

I know I've had some memorably unpleasant experiences of this sort. Fortunately few and far between, but vivid and shudder-causing even years later. Woken up unable to move, convinced that someone evil was lurking in the shadows ready to dismember me alive, eventually to wake up screaming loud enough to bring apartment neighbors around to make sure I was okay. Never imagined it was aliens or demons though...more like Jack the Ripper or Charles Manson. And, once awake, I was well aware I'd been having a particularly unpleasant nightmare.

Anyway, the show got me curious enough to dig a bit deeper. The Discovery Channel site itself was sadly information lite, but I did find a couple of interesting, related articles described below.

"Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis?" by Susan Blackmore in the May/June 1998 issue of "The Skeptical Inquirer."

One theory of alien abductions is that the reported experience is a misinterpretation of the relatively common "night terror" or "sleep paralysis" phenomenon. Sleep paralysis is a sort of "waking dream" that occurs when one "wakes up," but is unable to move or speak. The person may have an overwhelming sense that someone is in the room, may hear noises or see strange lights. Sometimes there is a sense of being unable to breathe--as if someone seen or unseen is sitting on the victim's chest.

"The Skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar," by Joe Nickell in the December 1995 issue of the "Skeptical Briefs" newsletter.

Sleep paralysis has also been proposed as the origin of historical tales about nighttime visitation by demons or witches--such as succubi and incubi. Asian and African cultures have their own myths that fit the same pattern. In other words, the suggestion is that people interpret sleep paralysis experiences as having been controlled by whatever supernatural or alien force they're primed to believe in.