Ok firstly this is not the post I was intending to put up. That post, the post I spent most of the weekend researching, writing and re-writing until I was finally happy with it, well that post was deleted when my computer decided to inexplicitly eat my USB stick yesterday. Yes I know I should have had it saved somewhere more reliable, and I won’t make the same mistake again, but you really don’t expect your pc to erase several hundred files for no apparent reason, without any warning in just a fraction of a second. Ah well, we live and learn. I have yet to decide if I can be bothered to rewrite my lost post again, but either way I really should put something up and so I’ve picked a topic, somewhat at random, that every good rational thinker and skeptic should know about. Picture the scene.
It’s night and you’re alone in bed sound asleep. Suddenly you wake and quickly become aware that there is someone or something in the room with you that shouldn’t be there. You try to move but find that your body will not respond. The thing moves nearer. Fear grips you with an intensity that you can’t remember ever having experiencing before. You can hear strange noises coming at you from all directions, voices that somehow don’t seem human, unearthly lights flash all around you and now the thing is leaning over you, pressing down on your chest and making it hard to catch your breath. You try to scream out but your voice just won’t come. This is it. The aliens, demons, witches, goblins or even the devil himself has finally come for you.
Or maybe, just maybe, there is something else going on.
Hypnagogia, a condition known by most people as a waking dream, is a term that applies to a number of different sleep related symptoms, such as visual and auditory hallucinations and sleep paralysis, which can occur when you wake up but your body and most of your brain still remains in the dream state. Experiences like the one I described above are actually fairly common, though not everyone gets all of the symptoms at once, and it is generally believed that the vast majority of alien abduction stories, ghost sightings and demonic visitations are the result of this. However while they may seem very real at the time these experiences have nothing what so ever to do with the supernatural or aliens and a lot to do with how our brains work and the culture in which we live. Before we look at that let me relate my own personal experience with hypnagogia from back when I was a teenager.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night and immediately becoming convinced that there was something evil lurking at the end of my bed. I didn’t see or hear anything but the sensation that there was something there was very real, as was the fear that washed over me. I don’t remember if I was able to move or not but I know that I didn’t try to, such was my fear that doing so would cause the thing to pounce. I knew, I just knew, that there was a demon in the room with me and being fairly religious at the time I commanded that it leave in the name of Jesus at which point the fear and sense of not being alone immediately left me. For years afterwards I was convinced both that demons were real and that the name of Jesus had power over them. That one event probably kept me going to church for years longer than I would have otherwise. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I learnt about hypnagogia and was able to look back at my encounter with evil with a more skeptical mind. Let’s break down my experience and see how it fits with what is known about hypnagogia.
As I mention at the time of my experience I was going to church, believed in the existence of evil spirits and had recently finished reading This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti, which probably didn’t help much. I already believed in the possibility of demons at the foot of my bed long before this event happened and so of course that is what I thought was there. A big part of what people believe they see, hear and feel under the effects of hypnagogia comes from their pre-existing beliefs and what is commonly accepted within their culture. In various African cultures, where witchcraft is readily accepted, people commonly describe sleep paralysis as “the witch riding your back” and tend to see “witches” sitting on them. In China and Mexico, amongst others, these events are believed to be caused by ghosts, while in Turkey, Greece and Pakistan they blame it on demons. And as for New Guinea, well they think it is caused by magic trees that feed on people while they sleep. Perhaps the cultural example we are most familiar with these days is the alien visitation story, though this is most common in America. Up until the 1960s when Americans recounted the effects of hypnagogia they tended to describe an encounter with an old hag or witch sitting on there chests. But then around the mid 1960s the Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction story brought the concept of “Greys” to the public’s attention and suddenly the old hag was sent packing and people started describing visitations by little grey people with big heads that pinned them to the bed with powerful cosmic rays. Are we to believe that the aliens scared the witches away or that the witches were in fact aliens in disguise and that they just decided to do away with the theatrics? Or maybe the zeitgeist changed and so did the hallucinations.
One of the most common symptoms in all of these stories is the inability to move or the feeling that something is pushing down on you. In my experience I didn’t try to move and so don’t know if I could or not. However when a friend of mine related a similar story to me she mentioned that she’d felt a weight pressing her face into the pillow, as she was sleeping on her front, and this is exactly the sort of effect caused by sleep paralysis. Usually sleep paralysis only occurs during REM sleep and serves the important function of stopping you from acting out your dreams. Your brain paralyses certain muscles in your body to prevent possible injury as some of our body parts may move during dreaming and sleep walking is an example of something that can happen when this paralysing effect fails. If however you wake up suddenly your brain may still think that it is dreaming and sustains the paralysis. The paralysis itself is also frequently accompanied by other additional phenomena. Typical examples include a feeling of being crushed or suffocated, electric ‘tingles’ or ‘vibrations’, imagined speech and other noises, the imagined presence of a visible or invisible entity, and sometimes intense emotion such as fear or euphoria and orgasmic feelings. Trust me to get fear huh.
Hallucinations are also not limited to just sights and sounds. Some people report smells, tastes and even tactile feelings during such events. Some people may notice a change in their perceived body size and proportions, while others may feel like they are floating or falling or even suffer an apparent out of body experience. There is also something called the Tetris effect where you may experience the sensations of an activity you were doing before you went to bed. Sleep researcher Dr. Robert Stickgold recounted the feeling of rocks beneath his hands as he fell asleep after a day of mountain climbing. I myself have often felt a sensation of wave like motion when trying to get to sleep after a day spent travelling, or more commonly that I am still playing at my computer after a day spent gaming.
But what about the part where I used the power of “JESUS” to drive the demon away? Well in all honesty I could have said anything and it would have had the same effect. The act of forcing myself to talk simply caused me to wake up more fully and thus negated the effects of my waking dream. It was the same as trying to read something when dreaming, because in dreams words never say the same thing twice. It breaks the illusion and thus it no longer has the same effect on you. It probably also had such a dramatic effect because I believed it would work and it was these pre-existing beliefs that caused it to stay with me for as long as it did. Had I instead imagined a flying purple elephant at the foot of my bed then as soon as I’d woken up enough I would have instantly known that I had been dreaming and would have simply dismissed it as a weird and vivid dream. But because I imagined a demon, that seemed to flee at the name of Jesus, and I already believed demons to be real I ascribed to the event far more credit that it was in fact due.
Since then I have experienced audio hypnagogia on a number of occasions. Laying there I have been convinced that I heard someone calling my name, only to discover that I am alone in the house or everyone else is still asleep. Even knowing that this is just my mind playing tricks on me it can be a disconcerting experience and on occasion, mainly when the voice I believe I heard belonged to my mother, I have been let with a disquietening feeling until I have been able to confirm that she is ok. Now I doubt I am alone in this and in fact hypnagogia is fairly common. As such it is not too hard to imagine that every so often someone will believe they hear the voice of a loved one only to later discover that the person in question passed away around the same time. Again there is nothing supernatural involved here, just basic probability, and yet it is easy to see how events like this could convince someone of the existence of ghosts and paranormal powers.
But don’t take my word for it. Be skeptical and make up your own mind.