Scared Stiff - Sleep Paralysis
An Interview with Jorge Conesa, PhD.
© 2001 Lucy Gillis
You wake up in bed, like you do every day, but something is wrong. Something doesn't feel right. It feels like there is someone or something in the room with you. You become nervous and decide to get up, but you can't. You're paralyzed! Fear rising , you struggle to move. It's hard to breathe and there is a force pressing down on your chest. A loud roaring and buzzing noise is building all around you and your panic increases. Inside you're screaming, but no sound passes your lips…
Many people endure experiences like this throughout their lives. For those who aren't aware of what is occurring it can be terrifying and have a profound effect on every day life. But for those who know what is happening, and who are not frightened by it, it can provide an opportunity to enter lucid dreams or OBE's.
Body paralysis is a natural part of the sleep cycle that we all undergo every night. We simply don't recognize it because we are asleep. However, conscious awareness during sleep paralysis can arise and it can feel like your mind is awake but your body is not. (Just like lucid dreaming.) Sleep paralysis researcher Jorge Conesa, PhD., has kindly agreed to help shed some light on this fascinating phenomena and point out how sleep paralysis can be connected with lucid dreaming.
<LG> What first interested you in (SP) sleep paralysis?
I panicked thinking that the house had collapsed on top of me. Then I turned around, all the way around, and I saw "myself" sleeping in my own bed. The fright of seeing myself was so intense that I 'woke up' in a jolt. After that, similar experiences would follow a period of paralysis. Since then, I have run the gamut of hypnagogic phenomena, from being accosted by hairy beings, to flying, to nowadays, a situation of almost total control of the vision experience. Unfortunately, through all those early years I never told anyone about these events and did not know about sleep paralysis until I read Hufford's (1982) classic on night terrors in 1985. I became interested in the scientific study of SP while in graduate school (1989-92). While working on my Ph.D. (short-term memory) I came across several references from leading dream researchers addressing the topic of dream recollection research. I was taken by a strong and sensible case for the need to establish long-term monitoring of dream content. Since my own SP experiences were concurrent with vivid and lucid dreams, I decided to conduct a long-term study (at first a single-subject study, now it has grown to include many subjects as well) on my dream recollections associated with chronic SP. This was an attempt at gathering basic SP data from a consistent subject.
<LG> What exactly is SP? What is happening in the body when it occurs?
<JC> Phenomenologically speaking, SP is the awareness that one's body is immobile while one is supposedly asleep. Although dream researchers may disagree about the exact correlation between dreaming and REM sleep in general, the fact that SP is about paralysis makes it a REM phenomenon. Part of the normal nighttime cycle of human sleep includes roughly four periods of desynchronized sleep (D-sleep) accompanied by rapid eye movements (REM). During these periods the body is physiologically paralyzed, in order, some dream researchers argue, to prevent us from acting out our dreams. Some individuals can become aware of this normal state and report the paralysis and other accompanying phenomena. Because the period from being awake, to becoming drowsy and finally moving quickly into D-sleep consists of a very dynamic series of consciousness states, then in addition to the awareness of the normal paralysis the sleeper can experience any number of ideatic phenomena. These phenomena can include auditory hallucinations, the sense or feeling of a presence (FOP) in the sleeper's bedroom, somatosensory-acoustic phenomena such as tingling, crackling, vibrations, "sonic booms", bodily pain, wind-like rustling. Additionally, some subjects (myself included) report OBE's. Finally, in some subjects (myself included) these phenomena become secondary experiences to more creative and controlled forms of dreaming such as lucid dreaming. Some of these experiences can be accounted for neurophysiologically. In an important piece of research Takeuchi et al (1992) showed that, in addition to being a REM disorder, SP is accompanied by alpha waves. This is an important finding because it connects the phenomena with other types of "conscious ideation" (D. Foulkes) practices such as meditation.
<JC> Actually, it would be fair to ask: what causes some individuals (normals, experiencing Isolated Sleep Paralysis) to be aware during normally occurring periods of paralysis associated with REM sleep? That is the million-dollar question. To my knowledge, no one has "the answer" to that question yet. I suspect that "the answer" would show a multitude of reasons causing a person to experience/report SP episodes. One way to an answer would be to say that during REM sleep our brain is closer to being awake than in any other sleep stage, and a segment of the population, or all of us at some point in our lives, are more aware of this particular state than others. That is, our studies show a relationship between the amount of awareness (higher arousal leading to higher awareness) that the sleeper brings to his nighttime rest periods and the incidence of SP. More specifically, others have reported (Takeuchi et al, 1992) that individuals who experience SP may exhibit sleep onset REM (SOREM) or the ability to slip into REM sleep while bypassing NON-REM sleep stages. However, it has not been explained why some sleepers exhibit SOREM. The phrase "the amount of awareness that the sleeper brings" includes: psychological anxiety, physical stress, physiological stress (illness), the ingestion of stimulants, and in our study, geophysical variables that could impact sensitive individuals. This grand variable, increased awareness prior to sleep, may be moderated in turn by a variety of culturally diverse sleeping situations and expectations, personality profiles, psychological states, and environmental circumstances. The complexity of the circumstances giving rise to SP opens the door to a multitude of studies. The bottom line is this: some individuals maintain self-awareness into sleep processes that are usually unconscious. The insatiable predormittal preoccupation with stressful events increases the probability of self-awareness during sleep. Unfortunately, Isolated Sleep Paralysis has not been researched comprehensively; therefore, much case-study work needs to be done in order to learn basic information about the personality and the environmental context of the sleep paralysis dreamer. Our own studies are aimed at initiating this basic research. We want to know as much about the context of the experience as possible.
<LG> Can anything be done to prevent SP or ease the anxiety while it occurs?
<JC> Great success has been reported in ways of preventing SP such as: altering sleeping posture (from supine to sleeping on one's side); reducing psychological or physiological stress (antidepressant drugs such as imipramine have been proven useful in treating SP); reducing the ingestion of stimulants prior to going to sleep; and allowing individuals simply to catch up on much needed rest. Four basic things are very useful in easing the anxiety that comes with the SP experience. One, the person must know that she/he will wake up at some point, that the paralysis is a normal part of sleep. Second, people should calm themselves by breathing in a regular and rhythmic manner. Most of our subjects benefit greatly from learning how to breathe in a calm, relaxed manner. Thirdly, some individuals, in a calm and predetermined fashion, may attempt to move parts of their bodies (just trying to move the pinky or one of your toes works, without struggling). Finally, many subjects can ease their anxiety by combining these methods with a fourth: an attentional exercise. I recommend our subjects to focus their attention at a point two inches below their navel. By trying any of these techniques alone or in combination, the sleeper either naturally wakes up or moves on to dreaming.
<LG> What is the connection between lucid dreaming (LD) and SP?
<JC> There are two parts to the question. First, the electrophysiology of sleep suggests that SP and LD may have little in common. That is, there are reports that lucid dreaming seems to occur at the beginning or the end of S-sleep, whereas SP is a REM phenomenon. Having said that, and going back to my earlier point that sleep is a very dynamic series of processes, these eletrophysiological boundaries may mean little to the person who experiences SP with LD. Many of the subjects who report SP also report LD. I have come to accept the fact that self-awareness during sleep, no matter how it happens or when it occurs, is an extraordinary phenomenological event. Once a person finds himself/herself in SP, the probability increases (especially if they can control the transition from SP to LD) that they will experience a LD. In this sense, one can think of SP as a very convenient launching pad toward LD. This is certainly the case in my own experiences. I hardly think of SP as an experience in itself; or if I do, I know it to be a gateway to LD and beyond: I breathe calmly, I focus my attention on my navel area and there I go into some fantastic dreamscape. In this sense, to have SP is to have a gift.
<LG> Do you think that a person's cultural beliefs or folklore influences the SP experience?
<JC> Yes, absolutely! Let me cite the case of The Night Marchers, a SP phenomena reported in the Hawaiian Islands. The vision of the "marchers" typically occurs after people have gone to bed and have experienced some of the classical symptoms of SP-as-incubus: a heaviness in the chest and the inability to move. Then folklore steps in and colors this classical SP experience by homogenizing, if you will, the SP experience with the anticipation of hearing warriors' thunderous footsteps marching near the sleeper's location. Many SP experiencers who have never heard of Hawaii's "Night Marchers" still hear thunderous footsteps marching near their beds. However, they may not interpret these acoustic hallucinations as marching Hawaiian warriors. Furthermore, to me it is interesting that these visions occur in certain parts of the island. This is significant to my own geophysical hypothesis of SP in that it points to locations that may be geophysically (geomagnetically) active, where sensitive sleepers may be affected by these natural forces. Elsewhere (Conesa, J. (2000). Geomagnetic, Cross-cultural and Occupational Faces of Sleep Paralysis: An Ecological perspective. Sleep and Hypnosis, 2:105-111) I have made the case for a greater incidence in the reports of SP and in its folklore in the area generally called the Pacific Ring of Fire. Your question is also very relevant to our homespun, cultural version of SP: the so-called alien abduction phenomena. If a person reports an alien abduction while they are in bed, experiencing paralysis, and without credible witnesses to their abduction, then I am going to bet my scientific dollars that they are experiencing SP with concomitant hypnagogic hallucinations.
<LG> How may geomagnetism and SP be related?
<JC> The connection between SP and geomagnetism began as a suggestion by neurocognitive researcher Michael Persinger that so-called paranormal experiences can be explained by the reactivity of the human brain to electromagnetic fields. It also began after the discovery that cells in the pineal gland are affected by the introduction of fluctuating earth-strength magnetic fields. Finally, it began as a reasonable and parsimonious explanation of certain SP experiences when none of the usual triggers (anxiety, stress) were present. Some writers have commented that our geomagnetic hypothesis may not be useful once a genetic explanation for SP can be supported. Even if an argument can be made for a familial (genetic) history of SP, this fact alone does not explain away a purported geomagnetic effect, but only enhances it. What I mean is that a physiological reactivity to changing magnetic fields (SP) may confer an evolutionary advantage to an SP experiencer, especially if this human can predict atmospheric or geomagnetic phenomena. This advantage would pay off in terms of greater probability for survival if the same atmospheric or magnetic phenomena affects the creatures she hunts or he plants. What I mean is that SP and its imagery may only be a byproduct of other more important geophysical, natural sensitivities. It would be a bonus indeed if this natural sensitivity to geophysical variables translates into vivid imagery that can warn off the sleeper and create, in turn, rich folklore and practical superstition.
<LG> What are you currently studying/researching with regard to SP?
<JC> There are many facets to our interest in SP. Our three main research goals are: 1) to pursue long-term naturalistic (case) studies of SP experiencers; b) to pursue an understanding of a possible role of geophysical variables in SP when other more obvious triggers are not relevant to the subject's case; and c) to look closely at the interaction of these two emphases by examining cross-cultural varieties of SP in folklore narratives in epidemiological studies.
<LG> What about current research in other institutions? Has there been any recent findings of note?
<JC> I keep track of research coming out of the Stanford Sleep Laboratory. From the same laboratory came a comprehensive study of SP by Ohayon, et al (1999). (Prevalence and pathologic associations of sleep paralysis in the general population. Neurology, 52(6), 1194-1200.) If the reader is interested in cross-cultural accounts of SP I would recommend Arikawa's et al study (1999) looking at the Japanese version of SP, Kanashibari (The Structure and Correlates of Kanashibari. Journal of Psychology, 133(4), 369-375.) or Wing, et al's. (1994) Chinese study. Finally, our group published a review article in 2000 (Conesa, J. (2000). Geomagnetic, Cross-cultural and Occupational Faces of Sleep Paralysis: An Ecological perspective. Sleep and Hypnosis, 2:105-111). Next year, our group will release our decade-long SP study. To my knowledge, this is the only study so far to have monitored a single SP sufferer for that long (Kleitman's study lasted that long but it did not look at SP as the focus). Although we must be cautious making a generalization using single-subject case studies, our data may prove to be useful to sleep (SP) researchers.
<LG> Do participants in your research sleep in your lab? If so, what is being monitored while they sleep? Can you tell, from the monitoring devices, when someone is experiencing SP hallucinations?
<JC> N/A We are not a sleep laboratory. We are a cognitive laboratory trying to narrow down the many variables associated with SP. There is much in my research that obviously adheres to the adage "if life gives you lemons ..." Being a chronic SP sufferer may have its advantages when it comes to studying this phenomenon up close and personal. Additionally, and thanks to the world wide web, we have been able to collect hundreds of reports from subjects all over the world. This is an added benefit for scientific research if one is very careful about methodology and protocols. We also work closely with the Geological Survey of Canada (Dr. R. L. Coles) in order to obtain our geomagnetic (aa indices) flux data. Earlier in my scientific interest of SP I seriously considered doing work in a sleep research center. But I was persuaded by writers/researchers such as Cohen (1974), Gackenback (1991), and Hobson (1994), that sleep research needed more field observations in real-life settings if we wanted a comprehensive view of dream phenomena. It would be very difficult indeed to monitor a subject (myself) for ten years with wires hanging everywhere while the (this) subject plays the multiple roles of family man, scientist, educator, hiker and didgeridoo player! It would be impossible to allow this hypothetical subject a LIFE if he was to spend ten years of his life inside of a sleep research facility. It is indisputable that EEG methodology is invaluable in tracking gross sleep events and concomittant behavior (narcolepsy for example). But I suspect that in the case of the SP experiencer the experiential context is larger than squiggly lines on a piece of paper can tell. If we isolate the SP dreamer from his/her rich cultural, natural, or familial context, we may miss the genesis of his/her condition.
<LG> Is there a certain type of personality more susceptible to SP than others?
<JC> Yes! A lot of our respondents describe periods of great personal conflict coinciding with their reported SP episodes. The bottom line is that these individuals report anxiety or are emotionally, physically or psychologically stressed. There are some marginal effects of dramatic life style, including, for example, moving to a new domicile or starting an intense (new) intimate (sexual) relationship. Some female respondents associate their menstrual periods with greater incidence of SP. Some subjects are involved in meditation or do self-hypnosis prior to sleeping. Some subjects who report having migraine headaches also report SP (it may have nothing to do with the actual migraine but with the resulting added vigilance due to the pain and/or lack of sleep). Lately, we have begun collecting data in our survey that includes questions about being a "weather witch". Meaning, some subjects (it happens to me) associate storm fronts with an increased frequency of reported SP (by the way, migraine sufferers do, too). There are lifespan effects as well. For example, SP reports increase during adolescence and peak around the mid to late twenties. I have argued earlier that this increase in reports concentrated around these ages is also associated with turbulent and highly dynamic periods of human development. Individuals who work graveyard shifts in hospitals or factories also report SP frequently. This apparently chaotic list of circumstances can be summed up into two broad categories of susceptibles: One, individuals who are experiencing mild to high anxiety or emotional excitation who are likely to bring this increased sense of self-awareness into their sleep cycles. And two, individuals who are not getting enough sleep and who are likely to experience REM-rebound to catch up their lost D-sleep and consequently move too fast into REM with the recognition of paralysis.
<LG> If people want to participate in your study or want further information, how can they contact you?
<JC> We welcome the interest of anyone who is curious about SP. Interested parties can contact me directly by mail, phone or email at:
or they can visit our research and SP information web
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October 12, 2012