You may even feel a pressure on your chest, as if the apparition is leaning on you, restricting your airways, leaving you struggling to breathe and move.
This is sleep paralysis, a relatively unknown sleep disorder that affects anywhere between three and sixty percent of the world population (1).
At TSW, we’ve previously looked at whether paranormal experiences may be in the mind (2). Sleep paralysis is potentially another example of this.
Because this disturbing sleep disorder occurs all over the world, different mythologies have been attached to the attacks. In Europe, the incubus or succubus is often blamed, whereas in Brazil it is the work of a pink dolphin-type seducer (1).
In Egyptian culture, sleep paralysis is considered the work of the Jinn, a creature made of smokeless fire from Islamic mythology. The Jinn is actually blamed for a number of mental and neurological disorders including epilepsy, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia (3).
Indeed, the experiences of seeing ghosts during sleep paralysis may be affected by cultural beliefs. In 2013, Baland Jalal, University of San Diego, California, and Devon Hinton, Harvard Medical School, completed a study of sleepers from Egypt, a deeply religious country, and Denmark, an atheist country (4).
They found that the Egyptians experienced sleep paralysis with the horrors of apparitions more frequently than the Danish. Jalal and Hinton claimed that this was because the Danish understood that sleep paralysis was a minor malfunction of the brain, whereas the Egyptians were more likely to think it was connected to the supernatural.
The fear that the Egyptian participants felt during sleep paralysis is thought to contribute to the length, regularity and severity of the episodes.
Researchers believe that this paralysis happens during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep (5). Our muscles naturally freeze to stop us from acting out our dreams but a few may wake during this time. It is these people that will see or feel often menacing figures in their room or holding them down.
Researchers argue that this is because the brain becomes almost confused by the paralysis. In the confusion, it may project the person’s image onto a hallucination of a figure in an attempt to figure out why they can’t move. Although this doesn’t explain why some grown male sufferers witness children skipping around their bed. It is more likely, in this case, to be wisps of dreams left over from the sleep brought into reality as the body struggles between being conscious and asleep.
So sleep paralysis may just be the conscious mind fighting for control over the sleeping body. Once awake, with the muscles still frozen, the mind begins to seek control over the breathing. But, because the body is still in sleep mode, and therefore in a sleep breathing pattern, this results in a battle, and the feeling of being suffocated.
No Proven Explanation
The brain is a complex and little understood organ, so there is every possibility of sleep paralysis being an affliction of the mind and body. Luckily for those who believe in ghosts, this theory is difficult to prove as only a small number of people experience and witness intruders during sleep paralysis. While there are a number of theories to explain the horrors of sleep paralysis, nothing has yet been proven.
It is unlikely that the science of sleep paralysis explains many ghost sightings, considering that most ghost experiences happen when the witness is fully awake and in various locations. Rather, sleep paralysis makes up only a small percentage of supernatural experiences.
So what’s the best way to overcome a sleep paralysis attack? Stay calm and tell yourself that there is nothing scary in your room with you. Pay attention to how you are lying rather than any ominous presence and, with some practice, the fear you feel during the attacks will subside.
Unless you’re one particular gentleman who took part in sleep paralysis research carried out by filmmaker Carla MacKinnon. As he experienced the disorder on a regular basis, he knew something was different one night when he woke, unable to move, and saw a presence in his bedroom. The figure of a real intruder (1).
References & Image Credits:
(1) Live Science
(2) TSW: Paranormal Incidents Really Just in our Heads
(3) Live Science
(5) Live Science
(6) En Bouton via Compfight cc
(7) Dead Air via Compfight cc