Here I am, lying in bed. If you walk in now, you’ll think I’m sleeping. But I see you. Although my eyelids look shut, they are fluttering slightly. They are the only parts of me that I can move. I am fully conscious but I cannot shout out to you: my body is completely frozen.
Everybody is paralysed during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep where dreaming occurs. If we weren’t paralysed, we would act out our dreams, endangering ourselves and our sleeping partners. But sometimes, especially when sleep patterns are disrupted or we get exhausted, things go awry: REM extends into waking consciousness, our bodies become immobile and our alert brains fuse with the imagery of dreams. The phenomenon of waking up during REM, completely unable to move, is called sleep paralysis.
MYTHS WITH SLEEP PARALYSIS
- From Newfoundland come tales of the Old Hag, a hideous witch who pins down sleepers by sitting on their chests.
- Japanese folklore gives us kanashibari, the fate of the unfortunate or cursed who have been magically tied up in their sleep by evil spirits.
- In Old Norse, the Mara is a malevolent spirit who straddles the body of the sleeper as if riding a horse, then tries to strangle them; mara is the origin of the English word ‘nightmare’.
- UFO abduction stories and alien encounters likely emerge from sleep paralysis, too.
WHY IT HAPPENS?
The biological underpinnings of sleep paralysis have become less mysterious in recent years. The psychologist Kazuhiko Fukuda at Edogawa University in Japan explains the likely involvement of the amygdala, a brain region that signals fear from threats in the environment and triggers our primal ‘fight or flight’ reactions. Waking up paralyzed constitutes an environmental threat, yet we cannot react. The amygdala is in hyper drive, and REM physiology has invaded our consciousness. We are left stuck in a state of overwhelming terror, leaving us dreaming awake and set upon by our deepest fears.
BOOK ON IT
In the book Wrestling with Ghosts (2004), the writer Jorge Conesa-Sevilla, who himself suffers from sleep paralysis, takes a refreshing approach to the subject, couching sleep paralysis in scientific terms, without denying his personal, exploratory approach. The book says that people who experience sleep paralysis have a unique advantage in dreaming lucidly – they can use their altered state as a launch pad for full-blown dream control. It makes sense: both lucid dreams and sleep paralysis are ‘blended states’. This book explained how to do this switching from one blended state to the other, but most importantly, it made us understand that sleep paralysis is not a curse; it could be a gift.
To this day, we frightened when we wake up paralyzed. After all, our amygdala is screaming FEAR! FEAR! FEAR! But, with our new-found understanding, we can overcome the terror and take advantage of being awake to explore these altered states. The transition from state to state can be slippery but, the more we understand what is happening in my brain, the more control we have and the more enjoyable the experience becomes.
Here I am again, lying in bed. If you walk in now, you’ll think I’m sleeping. But I am not: I am conscious and I am flying, bounding across landscapes coloured by dreams.
If you ever wake up unable to move, try not to panic. Remind yourself that you stand at the threshold of a fantastical world, a strange hinterland, an exhilarating space in which you are awake.