Comforting but not useful? Diagnosis: Sleep Paralysis

OK, we have all been there. A frightened friend tells us of how they woke up, pinned to the bed by an invisible entity, struggled to speak or move but could not — or worse, saw the THING sitting on their chest… and I’ll avoid all the obvious jokes about ex-girlfriends and move on to the point.  🙂

The Nightmare by Johann Heinrich Fussli

The Nightmare by Johann Heinrich Fussli

We say, “don’t worry dear, it was just sleep paralysis”.

And we sound all content, smug and scientific. But are we really talking sense, or just spouting hot air?

Is “sleep paralysis” actually meaningful as an explanatory hypothesis? We all know what it is I’m guessing, and most of us would classify certain experiences as it, but as we lack any actual empirically testable hypothesis as far as I know, or even probable physiological mechanism with supporting evidence does it actually mean anything? It’s a hypothesis, not a theory?

People often say it is REM atonia. As far as I know REM atonia is just the medical name for sleep paralysis. Yes we have a vague idea that the body paralyzes in REM sleep, and that the even some ideas as to how – but no actual description of the mechanism. That is what interests me.

Someone says “I had this weird experience”.

I say “oh that s sleep paralysis”.

They say “cool, whats that?”

So I respond “it’s REM atonia persisting after you wake up.”

Person “oh cool, er, how does that work?”.

CJ –“er, the neurological mechanism is not known or currently demonstrable. We have a few ideas, but no accurate description of the mechanisms involved.” Person – “oh so it’s psychobabble woo?”

Hence my concern. When we say these experiments are sleep paralysis, we are really just answering with a set of symptoms, and a tentative hypothesis – but we sound dead medical and scientific so people don’t normally question.

Obviously I don’t think sleep paralysis is aliens, ghosts or witches! I’m just saying that honestly we don’t actually really understand it yet. And so, really, honestly, what does telling someone it was ‘sleep paralysis’ mean?

cj x

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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3 Responses to Comforting but not useful? Diagnosis: Sleep Paralysis

  1. Neil Law says:

    Well, it DOES tell the individual concerned that what they have experienced is a pretty common occurrence, which helps them to relax about it a little maybe?

    Many years ago I experienced it exactly as you described; being held down by an unseen force (while they beat me up), unable to move or speak. I have also practised a form of dream meditation, imparted to me by a vedic teacher, the aim of which was to retain full awareness as the body slept. It worked a couple of times, and was quite remarkable, but eventually I gave up, because the more I experienced paralysis on the way INTO sleep, the more I came to fear it, even though I knew what it was. It is distinctly unnerving at the best of times, but when fully aware of it….it’s more intense.

    Now, I have a renwed interest in this area, for medical reasons you are well aware of.

  2. David says:

    I have experienced sleep paralysis several times in my adult life, although thankfully not for a couple of years now.
    It can be a very frightening experience, but on none of these occasions did I mistake it or interprete what was happening to me as anything ‘paranormal’, but that could be because I already knew of the condition, and somewhere in my confused brain I knew what was actually going on.
    It’s a horrible thing to happen, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.


  3. chokofehler says:

    I don’t think that the explanations I’ve heard are satisfactory either. For example the visual manifestation is supposed to be a result of the mind making sense out of a scary situation, but my experience and accounts from other people show that the visual manifestation can happen prior to the scariness or awareness of paralysis. This can be seen in the accounts where people initially mistake the visual manifestation for someone they know.

    Have you experienced it?

    I agree with David, its not something I’d wish on my worst enemy. It’s interesting that that thought can kind of narrow the distance between hypothetical enemies. When you experience something very dreadful like this, the pain caused by other people seems somewhat less significant and easier to forgive.


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