The Science and Culture behind Sleep Paralysis

Author: Patrick Lin Editor: Lydia Ren

Artist: Doris Tan

Paralysis is a normal occurrence during the sleep cycle. Although we are paralyzed every night when we go to sleep, we rarely experience the feeling of paralysis during our sleep. Sleep paralysis is the state in which a person has awareness but is still unable to move. It is characterized by unusual behavior or abnormal physiological events and episodes are generally accompanied by anxiety, inability to perform voluntary tasks, and sometimes, fear of death.

One hypothesized cause of sleep paralysis is abruptly going in and out of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep is often associated with the stage in which animals dream during sleep. REM sleep causes changes in vital signs such as blood pressure and heart rate and most of the muscles in the body are paralyzed during REM sleep. This is to stop animals from committing movements experienced while dreaming in the non-dreaming world. Although the muscles are paralyzed, the brain is very much still active and the lack of synchronization between the brain and muscles is responsible for the inability to move during sleep paralysis.

Throughout history, people interpreted sleep paralysis based on magic, religion, and folklore. In the middle ages, sleep paralysis was considered as succubi and incubi attacking their victims at night. In Egypt, sleep paralysis was interpreted as a jinn or genie attack. In Japanese culture, sleep paralysis comes from a vengeful spirit who suffocates his sleeping enemy. In the early enlightenment period, a sleep paralysis episode was diagnosed as a nightmare, with the root word mara referring to a spirit that suffocates sleepers. In more modern interpretations, sleep paralysis can manifest in people as an alien abduction. Although these examples just show how neurological phenomena can be interpreted by different cultures, the interpretation of sleep paralysis seems to have an actual effect on the severity of it.

When a person has an episode and interprets it through a particular cultural filter, the conditioned fear within the culture can make the overall experience worse than an episode that is not interpreted through any cultural filter. In a study comparing the rates and characteristics of sleep paralysis in Denmark and Egypt, the Egyptian population was found to have 19% more individuals who suffered from sleep paralysis at least once, triple the number of total occurrences as during the experience of the Denmark population. This is attributed to the fact that Denmark does not have a culture of deep-rooted supernatural beliefs related to sleep paralysis, so the experience of an individual from Denmark is interpreted as less dangerous than the interpretation of an individual who does have cultural fear of sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis can be a bizarre and sometimes even traumatic experience. As such, if you are one of the lucky or maybe unlucky ones who experience an episode, you just have to keep the dark thoughts away so your fear won’t make it worse.

Citations:

de Sá, José F R, and Sérgio A Mota-Rolim. “Sleep Paralysis in Brazilian Folklore and Other

Cultures: A Brief Review.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers Media S.A., 7 Sept. 2016,

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5013036/.

Jalal, Baland, and Devon E Hinton. “Rates and Characteristics of Sleep Paralysis in the

General Population of Denmark and Egypt.” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, Cult Med

Psychiatry, 25 July 2013,

link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11013-013-9327-x.

Walther, Björn W, and Hartmut Schulz. “Recurrent Isolated Sleep Paralysis:

Polysomnographic and Clinical Findings.” Somnologie, Steinkopff-Verlag, 1 Mar. 2004,

link.springer.com/article/10.1111/j.1439-054X.2004.00017.x.

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