Sleep Paralysis: Not the Stuff Sweet Dreams Are Made Of

December 9, 2019

Sleep Paralysis affects roughly 8% of the general population.

As a child, I would sometimes find myself wide-awake in bed, but unable to move. Some nights, I would hear voices in my room, as I felt invisible forces pinning me down. When I would finally regain control of my body, I was left feeling terrified.

Sleep Paralysis affects roughly 8% of the general population, yet its cause remains speculative, full of competing scientific, cultural and religious explanations.

Our current understanding is that sleep paralysis happens during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is a sleep-cycle in which a person’s eyes and brainwaves move at an accelerated rate, similar to a wakeful state. In this paralyzed limbo between sleep and wakefulness, people may experience multi-sensory dream activity, including auditory and visual hallucinations, that are generally described as terrifying. Scientifically, these interpretations of sleep paralysis are plausible, but one component remains especially elusive. Many report a common visual archetype—a dark figure sitting on their chests.

In Medieval Western philosophy, an “Incubus” was a seductive male demon who rested on the chests of sleeping females. In late Latin, “Incubo,” roughly translates to, “nightmare, one who lies down on (the sleeper).”

Similarly, some Inuit communities recognize sleep paralysis as “Uqumangirniq,” a term that in Shamanistic practices refers to an individual who is sleeping or dreaming and whose soul is vulnerable as a result of being consciously unguarded. In Brazilian folklore, the “Pisadeira” is a crone with long fingernails who rests on the bodies of those who fall asleep.

Sleep paralysis in Nigerian culture is referred to as “Ogun Oru”, or nocturnal warfare, during which sufferers are visited by a female entity. This malevolent being is present in numerous other cultures as well, including in Ethiopia as “Dukak,” in Egypt as “Jinn,” in Thailand as “Phi am,” and in Newfoundland, Canada as “Old hag.”

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