December 04, 2002
Sleep Paralysis

On Sleep Paralysis and Related Subjects: An Email Exchange

Is there any more to it than an automatic reaction before the "walking/talking" part of the brain has disconnected from the actual muscles? (Don't remember the names, but I do remember reading about it.)


I think that's it, yes. ISTR that the brain 'unplugs' from the muscles as you enter sleep, to stop you acting out your dreams (though people who sleepwalk have problem with this). This "unplugging" can cause a sort of muscular spasm - quite a lot of people do odd "jerk"... as they go to sleep, apparently I do sometimes. And sometimes the spasm is enough to wake you up.


That all sounds right to me.

I *always* spasm once when I'm about to fall asleep. Mum used to be able to tell when I'd drifted off when I was a baby by the sudden jerk. It's funny, cos I'm often conscious of it, and have to be careful what I think. If I pay too much attention to the fact that I'm about to fall asleep, I wake up again. I have to kinda notice, but ignore the spasm....


I usually only get the awake-with-a-start thing if I'm in a strange bed, which doesn't happen that often, more's the pity.


IIRC that's right, and every now and then you can mentally wake up before you're "plugged in" again, although by the time you realize this / care, you jumpstart the process. I've done that once or twice. It's very, very strange, but doesn't last very long. Your body does an "oops" and turns on.


Not always. It's possible to wake, become fully conscious and be utterly unable to move or speak. The first time it happened to me it lasted about a minute. There was an article on it earlier this year in either the Grauniad or the Observer and I thought, "Thanks. It would have been useful to have known that the time I almost DIED FROM TERROR."


I was quite young when I learned about "sleep paralysis" and used to wonder whether the interesting experience would be worth the worry. Apparently it's often accompanied by feelings of dread, of some kind of malevolent presence, and of weird changes in one's body image (these feelings can be generated in a lab by passing changing magnetic fields through the brain). I like the theory that lots of cases of "alien abduction" are really strange experiences associated with sleep paralysis. Before aliens, people used to think that a witch had visited them or that the Devil was sitting on them when they had episodes of sleep paralysis...

Posted by DeLong at December 04, 2002 03:37 PM | Trackback

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Sleep paralysis happens to me fairly regularly - usually at the end of a nap, not at night. Maybe about 35 times total. It's quite unpleasant, and usually ends in me trying to break out of it by screaming - but the screaming just comes out as a fairly quiet moan...eventually enough to 'wake me' for real, or get the person next to me to do it..

Since it often happens at the end of a 'stressful' dream I'm usually not of mind to attempt to enjoy the experience.

Posted by: Atrios on December 4, 2002 05:17 PM

I think I've heard that called 'Old Hag',
presumably an archaic notion that you couldn't
move because an old hag/witch was pinning
you down.

Now it's aliens.

Posted by: Jon H on December 4, 2002 06:41 PM

It happens to me as well from time to time.

Very disturbing because I can't tell if I'm still breathing and when I snap out of it I am sometimes gasping for air.

I don't know if the gasping is due to a true failure to breath or panic.

I've found the best way to deal with the paralysis is to relax and try to fall back to sleep. Then I wake up normally in what seems like a minute or less.

At the risk of sounding wierd - or worse - I've also experienced some difficult to explain "psychic" (?) phenomena occurring at that phase of consciousness.

No witches or aliens, however.

Posted by: E. Avedisian on December 4, 2002 07:45 PM

This used to happen to me as a kid. "Feelings of dread", "quite unpleasant" and "very disturbing" are pretty casual understatements, at least as far as I remember things.

Taught me not to sleep on my back, actually.

Just reading up on the phenomenon now, ABC News suggests that it affects 6 percent of the population, while other sites claim a majority of adults experience this at some time or another. Either way, it makes it seem very odd to me that one doesn't hear more about this.

Posted by: david on December 5, 2002 02:59 AM

Dr. Wade Davis, an Ivy Legeau ethnobotanist, positively identified a mix of compounds derived from natural sources that are used by some Haitians to create a zombie powder. The film "The Serpent and the Rainbow" was based on his experiences related to this discovery.

When the powder is ingested by an unwitting victim, the victim enters a state of consciousness that seems quite similar to sleep paralysis. The victim may even be buried alive (to be dug up later); completely aware of all that is transpiring, but unable to so much as twitch a muscle.

The zombies' respiration is dropped to an imperceptible level, yet a level some how sufficient to prevent death of the brain and organs.

Perhaps the powder induces a state similar physiologically similar to sleep paralysis.


Posted by: E. Avedisian on December 5, 2002 05:14 AM

E. Avedisian wrote "At the risk of sounding wierd - or worse - I've also experienced some difficult to explain "psychic" (?) phenomena occurring at that phase of consciousness."

There's a name for those. Hypnopompic and Hypnagogic hallucinations. Hypnagogic hallucinations occur when you're initially falling from wakefulness to sleep. Hypnopompic hallucinations occur when you're waking from sleep.

They are "highly colored and etched with enhanced textural details" among other characteristics ("Zen and the Brain", Dr. James H. Austin, a neurologist)

Posted by: Jon Hendry on December 5, 2002 06:53 AM

Zombies? Aliens? Witches? What a relief!!! I was afraid it was Ashcrofts!

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on December 5, 2002 09:40 AM

I was diagnosed with sleep apnea just over a year ago. When I first started using a CPAP device for it, I had sleep paralysis on awakening on a number of occasions, for much longer periods than is usual. Fortunately, I had read about it, and instead of being terrified at finding myself paralyzed, I merely noted that it was just like they described it, only longer.

Then it happened when I had left the radio on. Just as a public-service religion program was starting. There was a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Lutheran, and a Muslim cleric of some sort. They were so polite and ecumenical. And the program lasted for half an hour, and I was unable to move and SMASH THE RADIO INTO DISCRETE TRANSISTORS.

Night terrors? Luxury.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins on December 5, 2002 11:17 AM

I enjoyed Dennet's autobiographical book about sleep disorders, a lot of stuff worth knowing.

For example teenager's biological clock shift so they naturall fall asleep at about 1am. In Minn. they experimented with opening the high schools later, SAT scores rose 10%.

Your sleep needs are apparently just like a bank acount; draw it down and you _will_ fill it back up. Either you will microsleep or you will get sick. ... many interesting stories.

That said the book needed an editor very badly.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0440509017

Posted by: Ben Hyde on December 5, 2002 02:20 PM

In my teens, I had nocturnal epilepsy. I also usually got a "sleep spasm" when drifting off. My neurologist told me the two were related

I was prescribed a mild dose of medication to control the seizures (carbamepazines, IIRC). I wasn't good at remembering to take them, but the "spasm" before falling asleep would remind me. I'd get up, take the pills, and then fall asleep with no "spasm".

Later, the spasms disappeared, as did my epilepsy.

Posted by: Tom on December 5, 2002 03:42 PM

Sleep paralysis? I have it fairly frequently, more often in the morning than at night. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it. There wasn't much else I could do.

The important thing is to stay calm and assess your situation. If it's plain uncomplicated sleep paralysis, there's not a lot that's going to happen to you, aside from delay, irritation, and being stuck with a full bladder. Fear makes the paralysis worse, and keeps you from doing potentially useful things.

As long as you're lying there, you might as well check yourself out to see how much muscle control you have, and where. For example, I can usually manage to whistle between my teeth, which Patrick recognizes as a signal that I'm paralytic but not unconscious. Sometimes I have some degree of control over things like my shoulder or abdominal muscles. Even a little movement helps.

I find that if someone else moves me -- repeatedly squeezing my hand, say, or bending my arm at the elbow, not roughly -- it can help my muscles wake up. It's harder to do that by moving myself using whatever muscles I can control at the moment, but I've done it.

Sleep paralysis isn't always accompanied by a sense of dread, or by hallucinations. Let me explain. I have narcolepsy. Several of my neurologists have been partial to a model in which "sleep" is actually a combination of several different parts or modes or processes. In narcoleptics, the different parts of sleep can drift apart from each other.

We're not the only ones who experience this. Everything that happens to narcoleptics happens to normal people once in a while; just not as often or as severely. Sleep paralysis is one of the normal parts of sleep. It keeps people from acting out strange episodes when they're dreaming. It's having it turn up during waking hours that's the problem.

Being oppressed by a sense of dread is night terrors: a separate phenomenon. Having vivid "waking dream" hypnagogic hallucinations is also a separate phenomenon. Some people get two or three of them together, which sucks mightily; but they're quite capable of turning up singly.

Hypnagogic hallucinations can seem so real and vivid -- sometimes you can touch, taste, and smell them, as well as seeing and hearing them -- that they'd trouble the most committed skeptic. They can also weave together information you hadn't previously assimilated or synthesized in just that way, the same way normal night dreams can do. I've seen some damned lurid things myself. Good thing they weren't actually there; otherwise I'd have a heck of a time explaining them.

That weird falling, stumbling, muscular twitch or jerk or thrash that you sometimes experience just as you're falling asleep is the myoclonic jerk. It's sometimes also referred to as a hypnagogic jerk or hypnic jerk. When I was a kid, I thought that was the normal way to go to sleep: You'd drift off, then spang!, you'd get awakened by the myoclonic jerk, and then you'd really go to sleep.

There's a more generalized sleep disorder called myoclonus where you twitch a lot in your sleep. One of my brothers sometimes has that. It makes him kick his wife while they're both asleep in bed.

As far as I know, the myoclonic jerk isn't a seizure. I know for sure that narcolepsy isn't a seizure disorder.

Posted by: Teresa Nielsen Hayden on December 7, 2002 02:38 PM

I have sleep paralysis at least once a week. I find that i have it whenever i sleep on my back and right side. My bdy goes numb and i can't move, sometimes i can open my eyes or move my hand. It is so hard to get out of i feel way to tired. Last night i had it and it felt as if the covers were being pulled over me and then someone sat beside me i could feel the bed drop down. I slowly began to move my fingers then arm then i snapped out of it. And behold i realized i was on my right side. Now the only way i can sleep without getting this is on my stomache with my head turned towards the right or lying on my left side. I have also had cases when i opened my eyes and saw things and another when i heard someone come in my room, and another when someone came down the stairs and sat beside me. It is scary!

Posted by: Steve on January 10, 2003 05:28 AM

I have sleep paralysis at least once a week. I find that i have it whenever i sleep on my back and right side. My bdy goes numb and i can't move, sometimes i can open my eyes or move my hand. It is so hard to get out of i feel way to tired. Last night i had it and it felt as if the covers were being pulled over me and then someone sat beside me i could feel the bed drop down. I slowly began to move my fingers then arm then i snapped out of it. And behold i realized i was on my right side. Now the only way i can sleep without getting this is on my stomache with my head turned towards the right or lying on my left side. I have also had cases when i opened my eyes and saw things and another when i heard someone come in my room, and another when someone came down the stairs and sat beside me. It is scary!

Posted by: Steve on January 10, 2003 05:28 AM

I have sleep paralysis at least once a week. I find that i have it whenever i sleep on my back and right side. My bdy goes numb and i can't move, sometimes i can open my eyes or move my hand. It is so hard to get out of i feel way to tired. Last night i had it and it felt as if the covers were being pulled over me and then someone sat beside me i could feel the bed drop down. I slowly began to move my fingers then arm then i snapped out of it. And behold i realized i was on my right side. Now the only way i can sleep without getting this is on my stomache with my head turned towards the right or lying on my left side. I have also had cases when i opened my eyes and saw things and another when i heard someone come in my room, and another when someone came down the stairs and sat beside me. It is scary!

Posted by: Steve on January 10, 2003 05:28 AM
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