Picture this. You are alone in the room at 3 AM. Something abrupt forces you to wake up. In horror, you find out you cannot move at all. You try to move your arms and legs, but they don’t seem to budge. Screaming doesn’t work either, since your voice seems to halt.
To make things worse, you notice a shadow creeping towards you. It seems to add burden to your already tightened chest. Breathing becomes harder and harder.
Thankfully you survive the episode, though it has scarred you.
This moment of not being able to move after waking up is better known as sleep paralysis. And it is actually more common than we think.
Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis before? And how exactly do you cope with a situation that stops your movements? Here are some things about sleep paralysis you probably didn’t know about.
1. Sleep paralysis begins as something functional.
Even before waking up to sleep paralysis, our muscles already tend to become paralyzed on their own. This is something we should be thankful for most of the time.
Psychologists classify two kinds of sleeping: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (NREM). During REM sleep, our brains begin to produce vivid dream images that seem so lifelike. So lifelike that when left unchecked, we begin to act them out.
Is someone about to punch you in your dream? You might reflexively move your body in real life. This can be problematic if you’re supposed to stay in bed at night.
Luckily during REM sleep, our muscles are relaxed to the point of paralysis. This is great since it prevents us from sleepwalking (though it fails at times!).
However, having our muscles turned off might not be the best thing to wake up to. Sleep paralysis occurs when we abruptly wake up before REM sleep finishes.
The question still exists though. Where do these “supernatural” visitors during sleep paralysis come from? Those entities such as shadows, demons, or even aliens?
2. Sleep intruders are quirks of the brain.
Recently, brain scientists Dr. Baland Jalal and colleagues proposed a fascinating explanation on why we see these ‘intruders’ during sleep paralysis.
The explanation mainly has to do with our brain’s temporoparietal junctions (in charge of pointing out our sense of “self” and “other”) and our projected body map in the form of an intruder. Yes the explanation is quite technical so bear with me!
During REM sleep, the temporoparietal junction of our brains is normally inactive. In other words, the boundaries between the “self” and the “other” blurs, allowing us to become someone else in our dreams.
This is exactly why some people may experience “astral projections” or become someone else in their dreams.
On the other hand, our brains usually have an accurate template of our bodies that it uses for reference. Sometimes our brains fail us, like in the case of phantom limb syndrome, but our body maps are usually accurate.
According to Dr. Baland and company:
A disturbance in the processing of “self” and “other” at the temporoparietal junction results in a hallucinated projection of one’s own body map; the mind literally casts a shadow, just like the body does. As the barrier between self and other dissolves, the person mistakes his own “shadow” for a separate entity.
Our body image’s location becomes distorted during REM sleep, giving way to our shadowy intruder. Our intruders are actually projected from our own bodies.
If you’re not yet open to the idea, there have been some evidence to support this.
In one study, researchers disturbed the temporoparietal junction through electrical shock. Instead of having out-of-body experiences, people started to sense “ghost-like doubles” of themselves.
But what if you see more than a shadow? Perhaps demons or ghosts?
Dr. Balal further proposes that whatever alterations the shadow takes is a result of how our brains make sense of things after waking up from REM sleep.
Stiff chest, rapid breathing, and the presence of a shadow shouldn’t be too hard to translate. Of course we would see a supernatural entity, especially if we’re a firm believer of their existence. Plus, waking up from our dreamy REM state does not help at all.
This brings me to our next point.
3. Supernatural beliefs worsen the experience of sleep paralysis.
What are your initial beliefs of sleep paralysis? Say you are not convinced with the ‘brain explanation’. Apparently, belief in the supernatural may make the experience a whole lot scarier.
Another study wanted to know how people from Denmark and Egypt tended to experience sleep paralysis differently. Egyptians tended to attribute sleep paralysis to supernatural forces, while Danish people tend to chalk it up to something in the brain.
The scientists found out that the Egyptians tended to experience longer, more frequent, and scarier forms of sleep paralysis compared to the Danish!
This just means a little skepticism can be healthy at times. Are you starting to see a floating ghost after you just woke up? Maybe its real, or a result of your disturbed temporoparietal junction during REM sleep.
Of course, we need more research to support Dr. Balal’s hypothesis . But I find comfort in knowing that the ghost visiting me in bed may only be a product of my brain.
Have you ever tried sleep paralysis before? What keeps you cope with the experience? Feel free to comment below!