Anyone who’s experienced sleep paralysis can attest to it being both a source of imaginative thrills and primordial terror. Karen Emslie writes about how she used the experience to leave her body and have lucid dreams in this Aeon piece:
Ever since I was a teen, I have seen shadow figures in the corner of my bedroom, and awoken to find strange entities – grinning vampires or silent watchers – by my bed. I’ve felt my hand grasped, my chest crushed by the weight of a strange beast; my body twisting and spinning in space. I’ve heard buzzing, ringing, whooshing and nasty names whispered in my ear. If the radio or TV were on, I could hear the programmes clearly and, after paralysis released me, I could report them back. If someone walked into the room, or the doorbell rang, or a dog barked, or (as happened on one occasion) there was a power outage, I was fully aware. I tried to shout out, to pull at my eyelids, desperate to snap out of it, but I could not budge.
With this ghoulish treasure trove to draw upon, sleep paralysis has naturally spawned some very scary stories and films. But as a writer and filmmaker as well as a long-time percipient, I have another story to tell. Beyond the sheer terror, sleep paralysis can open a doorway to thrilling, extraordinary, and quite enjoyable altered states. One is the lucid dream state, in which you can consciously manipulate your dreams, traversing incredible landscapes and interacting with creatures conjured in your mind. Another is the out-of-body experience – the waking sensation of separating from your physical body and floating, spinning and flying through your surroundings; often, you’d look down to see yourself lying below.
The biological underpinnings of sleep paralysis have become less mysterious in recent years. The psychologist Kazuhiko Fukuda at Edogawa University in Japan explains the likely involvement of the amygdala, a brain region that signals fear from threats in the environment and triggers our primal ‘fight or flight’ reactions. Waking up paralysed constitutes an environmental threat, yet we cannot react. The amygdala is in hyperdrive, and REM physiology has invaded our consciousness. We are left stuck in a state of overwhelming terror, leaving us dreaming awake and set upon by our deepest fears.
In 2012, University of Toronto neuroscientists Patricia Brooks and John Peever reported the physiological process behind the altered state: GABAA and GABAB, the receptors that regulate the body’s muscle tone, combine with glycine, an amino acid, to switch off motor-neurone activity in our voluntary muscles during REM sleep. Normally, they switch our motor-neurone activity back on before we wake up. But, sometimes, we wake up during REM, and the GABA and glycine keep hold of us – the scary result is dreaming awake.
I could float up to my bedroom ceiling or into the living room or out through the solid front door
One of the most probing explorations of this state, and the one that helped free me from the terror, comes from Jorge Conesa-Sevilla, a neurocognitive psychologist and shamanic artist based in Oregon who regularly experiences sleep paralysis himself. In his book Wrestling with Ghosts (2004), he takes a refreshing approach to the subject, couching sleep paralysis in scientific terms, without denying his personal, exploratory approach.
Conesa-Sevilla taught me that people who experience sleep paralysis have a unique advantage in dreaming lucidly – they can use their altered state as a launch pad for full-blown dream control. It makes sense: both lucid dreams and sleep paralysis are ‘blended states’, according to the psychologist James Cheyne of the University of Waterloo in Canada – but these states are distinct. ‘Lucid dreaming seems to consist of waking awareness intruding into dreams and sleep paralysis of dream imagery intruding into waking consciousness.’