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The Many Wonders of Dreaming: Sleep Paralysis

asavannah's picture


       Imagine lying in your bed, asleep one moment and then suddenly waking up to find that your body is stiff, you are having difficulty with your breathing, and you feel like you no longer have control of your own body. This describes one horrible night I experienced during my first time sleeping in my dorm room. I could not believe that this was actually happening to me. The feeling of having no control of my own body was like no other feeling I had ever experienced in my life. By doing more research and asking questions about what occurred that night, I latter found out that I was suffering from sleep paralysis; a brain disorder that effects several people and makes them wonder if what actually happened during that time they were sleeping was actually a dream or reality.
       I can recall being in a completely dark room laying flat on my back, then all of a sudden my eyes open and I begin to gasp for air. I am aware that I am partially awake but there is only one thing wrong, I can not move my body. It felt as though there was extra pressure being applied to my body. Scenarios started to race through my head about what was actually happening to me. I instantly thought that someone had broken into my room and was attacking me, but the only thing wrong about that was, thankfully, there was no one there. In a state of panic, I attempted to scream but the sound was muffled and all I could hear was that of me gasping for air.
       The body is one of the most intriguing and intricate creation known to man and it does a fantastic job of regulating itself. One example of the body regulating itself is during sleep. When we sleep, our body is going through a set of changes that must occur during a given eight hours or so amount of sleep.
       Sleep is divided into four or five stages and all contain different electroencephalographic (EEG) readings. The EEG is a machine that records brain activity that would not be noticeable during sleep since there is such subtle behavior and psychological changes are not always present. During stage one of sleep which is a brief transition of sleep, the person is first falling asleep. Stages two through four are deeper stages of true sleep. The deeper a person is into sleep the percentage of the waves in the EEG increase and cause delta waves. Stage five is REM sleep, the deepest sleep of all and the stage when we dream. During this sleep, the EEG records beta wave, the type of wave recorded during alertness. REM sleep was a remarkable discovery because even though the brain is at an active state the body still seems to be in an inactive mode.
       Sleep is very important to our bodies and helps us to function throughout our daily lives. There have been two theories derived by theorists about why a tendency to sleep evolved during evolution. One theory is the restoration theory. According to this theory, the body wears out during the day and it becomes necessary for us to sleep so that our bodies can restore itself. The preservation and protection theory is the less intuitive of the two theories. It states that the reason we sleep is because we have to restore our energy and it keeps different species of animals out of harms way.   
         REM is a remarkable stage of sleep because it allows us to dream. When we dream, we are able to do things that we do not normally do when we are fully awake. Because of this, our bodies go through a state of paralysis when we are sleep. The reasoning for this happening is so that we do not attempt to act out or dreams while we are unconscious.  
       REM begins in the pons, which are a structure in the brain stem. The pons are found between the midbrain and the medulla. They are responsible, along with the medulla, for organizing reflexes more complex than spinal reflexes. The pons send signals to the cerebral cortex and to the thalamus which are both responsible for most of our thought processes. The pons also send signals to turn off the motor neurons found in the spinal cord, this is what causes the temporary paralysis during sleep which prevents movement. 
       Sleep paralysis is defined as the temporary state of paralysis of the body that occurs a little after waking up or shortly before falling asleep. When the brain awakes from the state of REM but the body is still in a state of paralysis. When this occurs, the person is fully conscious but is unable to move their body. As this is happening, the person is unaware of what is going on and begins to hallucinate, which causes them to feel like they are in a sense of danger.
       Many people who experience sleep paralysis in the lifetime may think it was all a dream due to the extreme hallucinations. It has also been known that people who experience this think they are being attacked by some sort of demonic creature that is taking over the body during sleep. This is solely based upon the fact that during that moment of sleep paralysis, one will feel as thought they cannot breathe or move and like there is something sitting on their chest.
       Sleep paralysis is a very terrifying experience because it makes one feel like they have absolutely no control of their body. In many cultures, it can be associated with fanciful or demonic occurrence during sleep but in reality you just have not fully waken up yet.   
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Paul Grobstein's picture

Sleep paralysis: brain or spirit?

It is indeed both a frightening experience, and a good one for thinking about the relation between neurobiological stories and earlier cultural ones. Is the neurobiological story "better"? In what sense?