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What It’s Like to Have Severe Sleep Paralysis

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It didn’t happen every night, but every now and then, Blake Smith, a 45-year-old writer and programmer from Kennesaw, Georgia, would jolt awake, believing he was under attack. Just what exactly was attacking him was something of a mystery, as it was invisible — a ghost, maybe. Whatever it was, he could feel that it meant him harm.

What was really happening, he now knows, was that he was experiencing sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that occurs either upon falling asleep or awakening and is thought to be a mix-up of normal REM sleep. On the one hand, people who experience it are, in some sense, conscious and aware — they can see that they’re in their bedroom, for example. But some part of their body still thinks they’re asleep — in particular, their muscles are essentially paralyzed, something that happens in REM sleep. It’s thought to be an evolutionary mechanism that prevents people from acting out their dreams.

But in sleep paralysis, this normal function turns terrifying. The experience is often accompanied by some kind of hallucination, usually something scary; people report feeling as if they’re being pinned down by a huge weight on their chest. Washington State University psychologist Brian Sharpless recently published a book on sleep paralysis, in which he argues that the phenomenon may offer up a naturalistic explanation for some terrifying nighttime phenomena found in folklore all over the world — like stories of incubus or succubus attacks. In Zanzibar it’s the popobawa; in Japan it’s called kanashibari; in China it’s known as ghost oppression. “Even though every culture puts its own stamp on it, the core experiences are similar,” Sharpless said. “It’s paralysis — except for the eyes — and conscious awareness during it.” And for most people, it’s incredibly frightening.

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August 14, 2015
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