Sleep paralysis is a neurological phenomenon in which a person awakens from sleep but is temporarily paralyzed.
The episode may last a few seconds to minutes and is accompanied by the strangest hallucinations. It can feel terrifying.
Sleep paralysis often occurs when we take a nap, when jet-lagged or sleep-deprived. We wake up while still in the stage where vivid dreams occur, called the rapid eye movement sleep (REM).
During REM, the front brain - central to our ability to plan and think logically - turns off and makes our bodies temporarily paralyzed. It prevents us from acting out "real" dreams. Sometimes we wake up in this stage. The vivid and sometimes threatening dreaming of REM can "spill over" into conscious awakening. It can feel like a nightmare coming alive.
Sleep paralysis can sometimes make us feel like we're floating outside our body. The out-of-body experience can reliably be reproduced in the laboratory by disrupting the temporo-parietal junction in the brain. This region helps build a body image based on inputs it receives from the senses. The area is usually turned off during REM sleep.
In sleep paralysis, there is no feedback from the body telling the brain how to build the body image, resulting in out-of-body hallucinations such as seeing your body float in the air or sink deep into the bed.
The most distressing during sleep paralysis is seeing an intruder that sometimes attacks the sleeper. Anything the imagination can invent can happen. Commonly, the intruder chokes the person by crushing his chest. The creature can include details like a demonic face with sharp teeth and cat eyes.
One explanation is that in the same way that people who are born with a missing arm may experience phantom limbs - they feel the missing limb - a person can 'feel' another phantom person during sleep paralysis.
Research suggests that your beliefs about sleep paralysis can shape your experience.
In Denmark, people see sleep paralysis as something trivial caused by the brain. Egyptians fear dying from sleep paralysis and consequently have longer episodes. The fear will activate fear areas in the brain, making them more likely to wake up during REM. The escalating anxiety would worsen sleep paralysis, causing more intense bodily hallucinations.
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