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Friday, July 16, 2010

The Essential Science of Ghost Hunting: Two Sleep Anomalies Investigators Should Understand

By Robin M. Strom-Mackey
“What I came across were two completely normal occurrences of sleep that could explain a great number of the strange reports, and at the very least calm the nerves of quite a few clients along the way.“
She knew that the dark man was in the house. She could hear the front door opening and the quiet footsteps on the stairs. Any moment now the intruder would be in her room. She needed to get up, she needed to get the bat from under the bed or the phone off the dresser. She needed to hide. She could hear those footsteps getting closer and closer. Her heart was racing, her hands shaking, and then she saw the dark form in the doorway….

The next moment she was awake and still sure the intruder was there. The dream had felt so real. However, in a panic she found that she could not move, not one inch. What was wrong with her? Was there something or someone holding her down?

As fearful as this scenario was for me, I realized later that the experience I had was actually a very normal function of dreaming. I’ve come across numerous reports from people claiming they had experienced paranormal phenomenon during the night while they were asleep, and have actually experienced some strange phenomenon I myself couldn‘t account for, until doing some research into the science of sleep. What I came across were two completely normal occurrences of sleep that could explain a great number of the strange reports, and at the very least might calm the nerves a few clients along the way.
Hypnagogic Hallucinations

You’re settling in for the night, just drifting off to sleep and then suddenly you hear your name called. Realizing you’re all alone you wake up frenzied. You swear you just had a visitor from beyond call your name. However, it’s more likely you experienced a hypnagogic hallucination. These strange little “dream” sequences occur in the first stage of sleep (NREM 1). In other words, a sleeper is likely to experience them within the first 20 minutes of settling in for the night, which can cause the illusion that they are that much more real.

Indeed in the first stage of NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep) a subject isn’t even technically asleep. At this point they also are not technically dreaming, according to sleep researchers. Dreaming is a function of REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep). Sleepers don’t actually enter the REM state until 70-120 minutes after falling asleep. Whether technically asleep and dreaming or not, however, sleepers can experience these odd little dream states called hypnagogic hallucinations. These are in effect, “odd, but vividly realistic sensations,” or strange little hallucinations that can feel quite real to the sleeper (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2010). For example, a sleeper might hear someone call their name, or have a sensation of falling, floating or flying, according to the authors. These can feel shockingly real, and can even cause the sleeper to jerk awake. While strange, these hallucinations are quite normal to the sleep cycle.
Sleep Paralysis

Another quite normal experience is sleep paralysis. This usually occurs later in the sleep cycle, normally during a REM period of sleep. As stated earlier REM (rapid eye movement sleep) is when a sleeper is technically dreaming. During this period the brain waves of sleepers accelerate to that of a waking person. The eyes of the sleeper move back and froth rapidly behind closed lids. Blood pressure and heart rate can fluctuate rapidly. Muscles often twitch uncontrollably. We are in effect locked effectively in the dream state actively participating in our own little fantasies. It is during REM while our minds are so actively engaged that our bodies go into a state of sleep paralysis. In other words, our bodies become immobile to the demands of our brains. There is undoubtedly a very sound physiological reason behind this phenomenon. If our bodies reacted to our brains while soundly asleep and dreaming we might end up flailing or falling, or otherwise hurting ourselves or others. Our brains therefore impose this paralysis on our bodies to protect us from ourselves. If, however, the sleeper is startled awake, as in the first scenario, she will awake to find herself quite unable to move. They will most likely remain paralyzed for a half a minute or more, before normal movement again becomes possible. It should be noted, too, that some subjects can experience sleep paralysis when first awakening in the morning. Again, this is a perfectly normal function of sleep, that can however, cause distress to the unaware.
References
Hockenbury, D.H., Hockenbury, S.E. (2010) Psychology; 5th Edition. Worth Publishers: New York, NY.

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