Sleep freeze

The August edition of The Psychologist has a fascinating article on the awareness during sleep paralysis, a state where we wake but can’t move and sometimes experience intense hallucinations.

This form of awake sleep paralysis is remarkably common and has been explained throughout the world with a diverse and colourful range of cultural explanations.

In Newfoundland it’s called the ‘old hag’, in Hong Kong ‘ghost oppression’, in Japan ‘kanashibari’ – the result of magic from a Buddhist spirit and famously, in Europe of the middle ages, the effect of the succubus demon. A recent study looked at the phenomenon among Mexican teens and found it was explained as ‘a dead body climbed on top of me’.

The article also tackles science of this curious state and one of the most interesting bits is where it discusses the evidence for sleep paralysis being the intrusion of the rapid eye-movement (REM) stage of sleep into wakefulness.

It turns out that there are some people who experience REM almost immediately after falling asleep and they are much more likely to experience awareness during sleep paralysis:

This research strongly suggests that sleep paralysis is related to REM sleep, and in particular REM sleep that occurs at sleep onset. Shiftwork, jetlag, irregular sleep habits, overtiredness and sleep deprivation are all considered to be predisposing factors to sleep paralysis (American Sleep Disorders Association, 1997); this may be because such events disrupt the sleep–wake cycle, which can then cause SOREMPs [sleep-onset REM periods].

Of course, episodes of sleep paralysis occurring as people emerge from sleep cannot be explained in terms of SOREMPs, but it seems reasonable to argue that such episodes may well involve a similar state of consciousness, mixing aspects of both normal wakeful consciousness and REM consciousness. Needless to say, for practical reasons such episodes are inherently more difficult to study in psychophysiological terms as there is currently no known way to induce their occurrence.

Link to The Psychologist article ‘Terror in the night’.

Full disclosure: I’m an occasional columnist and unpaid associate editor of The Psychologist. I have experienced sleep paralysis once and interpreted it as sleep paralysis.

11 thoughts on “Sleep freeze”

  1. Hey Vaughan,
    First, I just wanted to inform you that the links to the original site above are not working; I believe the site is temporarily down.
    Secondly, and most importantly, I figured since you’re such an avid brain junky and a psychologist, you may get a kick out of a new theory on why we dream (if you haven’t heard of it yet that is). Psychology Today ( ) has a fantastic, mind-blowing article on this theory that links dreaming with dopamine and schizophrenia.
    This researcher posits that the reason for the increased levels of dopamine is to create a hallucinatory state so that our brains are distracted from trying to engage with our extrinsic world. This allows us to continue to sleep and rest our bodies while our brain is busy hallucinating about a purely intrinsic world. It is one of those theories that really makes you think.
    Just thought I would share. I am one of your RSS feed readers and have been enjoying your contributions to the internets. 🙂

  2. This fits in well with my experiences. I have frequent sleep paralysis and I’m also an incredibly deep sleeper. I often feel like my dreams begin before I’m fully asleep. I also have a lot of difficulty waking up to sounds or even movement and I”m often in the midst of a comprehensive dream when I do wake up. I’ve had sleep paralysis both while falling asleep and while waking up, but it occurs much more often while waking up. In fact when I am paralyzed my whole effort is generally focused on waking up. It can take quite a while to pull out of it and it used to be pretty scary.
    I don’t know why they feel like its difficult to induce for study purposes. I could probably initiate sleep paralysis whenever I want to. I used to have a lot of “Astral projection” experiences while paralyzed also. Not that I actually believe they were supernatural, I just can’t remember the scientific name for them. I used to be very good at lucid dreaming on command as well. Funny how these three things tend to go together. If you come across any additional information on these things, I’d be very interested in it.

  3. Vaughn,
    You say that you’ve suffered sleep paralysis only once in your life. Consider yourself lucky. I have a bout of sleep paralysis at least once a month. I’ve lived through this since I was a child and the latest spell was just this morning! I am a light sleeper and I’ve always felt that I suffer because some parts of my brain wakes up much easier than others. And some experiences are much scarier than others.

  4. This sounds a lot like astral projection, where you basically leave your body and can “travel” to different places, while your physical body is paralyzed. It’s a pretty strange, and sometimes scary experience.

  5. Sleep paralysis is one of the many sleep problems I have. It’s caused so much anxiety. I’ve had it as far back as I can remember and I discovered what it was when I was 14. I’ve read a few places that once you know what’s going on, you can alleviate your fear – nuh uh. It doesn’t matter that I understand during all conscious hours that I’m not in danger. It is still a terrifying experience. I’d really like to know far more what’s going on in the brain — it seems to me that fear is actually triggered in me before anything frightening happens, and then numerous frightening things begin happening. I feel like it’s an emotional hallucination (does that even make sense?) where fear is just forced upon the person for no reason, maybe coloring the other hallucinations.

    Just now, I had my first instance of feeling pressure on me. I always used to feel light and float around or sink down. I’d be aware of a presence and be fearful, occasionally seeing things (but rarely). However, this experience felt as if someone was grabbing me. I was sleeping on my stomach and it felt as if someone were laying on top of me and clutching me. I remember thinking, “Get off,” and then hearing a male voice, in my ear, speaking an indistinct whispering. The auditory hallucinations are the worst because they are real — there is absolutely nothing different between them and hearing anything else except for that I feel very close to the speaker. It’s absolutely terrifying.

    I haven’t read any satisfactory information on this, to be honest. Along with sleep paralysis I’ve had issues with insomnia, excessive sleepiness, sleep walking/talking/eating, hallucinations upon waking (without ASP) and — not sure what this is, but dreaming something terrifying is happening, and waking up to discover I’m trying to escape it. The other night I dreamed a giant rat was crawling through my vent. While still asleep, I jumped up and started tearing at my curtains so I could climb out my window. I woke up when the curtain rod fell off my wall and realized that there was no rat, but I had in fact tried to escape through my window.

    This makes sleep an anxiety producing experience for me, all of this, and I wish I could find a way to calm all these things down and just sleep well.

  6. hi guys,im a 19 year old male, and i have had the exact same issue as everyone here. this has been going of for some years now and im tired of this, its confusing and frustrating that their is no clear explanation to the sleep paralysis and im trying to do something about it. i was told the mexican beliefe of the “dead body climbed on top of me’. i was also told once that its a demon trying to invade the body but i wish not to believe this. it is a scary experience and i find it happening to me atleast twice a month not every month but some more than others. i do tend to have a busy schedule but this has been happening to me before i was even deprived of sleep. i believe this is a serious issue and i wish someone can give me a clear answer of what is wrong with my brain??

  7. M also been sufferin this frm childhood n m reaally curious to know Wot actuaaly iz da reason behind sleep paralysis its really scary to see things hear voices……isnt there Preventive measures

  8. i have had these night events,cant speak move and it is very scary. but have learned to call on the name of Jesus,and it became alright 4 me.i even had a voice say 2 me its not who you think it is! what that mean i dont want to know.But i do know that i will pray 4 all of us.

  9. I’m 35 yrs old and been having these S/p’s since the last 15 or more years and everyday this week 25/05/12.
    I also suffer the same symtoms as all the rest of the ppl on here except for sleep walking but I will jump out of bed to kill spiders that aren’t there! Im also tunned in with spirit world, at first it scared me feeling like something heavy is on me, and i began saying prayers, only i started to wake up and it went away. then i tried to fight it untill i woke, Then i tried to open my eyes unitll i could just see, only to find i could see face’s,ppl that i knew or did’nt know that have passed on,Angles passing through and some felt like they were touching me and some i have touched through outer body Exp,but all of them were wanting to tell me something that made a diiference in my life and some that were haunting me and wouldn’t leave,(thats a story for next time. in the end and after reading the science version’s I began to ignor the spiritual side, when i began to feel heavy I just quicky,relax and start thinking of a nice place untill a dream takes over, it will pass and all will be ok. Most of the time it’s your surrondings slightly altered by the dream state which makes it more scary. If it is a ghost ask a question you might learn something!

  10. Hi all, I am 54 years old and have experienced SP since I was about 14, some times it will happen every night for a week and some times it will not happen for 8 or 9 months.
    Certainly during those first few years it was a very scary experience, I thought the demons were coming for me, and I am not even religious, but that’s just how scary it was.
    After the first few years I realised that nothing had actually hurt me and I learned to relax during an episode and began to enjoy it.
    After the initial scary sounds and feelings comes that very pleasant sensation of disengaging from your body and floating, it does feel really nice and relaxing.
    Being able to pass through my roof or walls and floating over the roof tops is an experience I hope I will always be able to enjoy, some times I will go down through the ground and explore the inside of our earth or I might go beneath the surface of a body of water for a look, the reflected shards of moonlight that you can see under water are a worth going down to see.
    Just remember that there is nothing to fear, nothing can hurt you, be strong and confident and enjoy this gift.

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