Excuses for not getting out of bed – Laziness, Ghosts, or neither?

This morning, I had a nightmare of a crazy lady latching onto me, and immediately, I felt like I couldn’t move and my body experienced intense vibration. I felt immense dread, and in the midst of panicking, I woke up. I could still feel the vibration and I still couldn’t move; like someone was pushing me down. It all felt very familiar –I realized that I was once again in the starting stages of my Sleep Paralysis.

That was a direct quote from my best friend Lina, regarding her experiences with Sleep Paralysis. After hearing of her creepy experiences for the first few times, I started to look up on the topic, as I have heard of many similar stories. Sleep Paralysis, is defined as defined as “a period of inability to perform voluntary movements either at sleep onset (called hypnogogic or predormital form), or upon awakening (called hypnopompic or postdormtal form)” (stanford.edu). It is believed to be a hereditary disorder, with symptoms being the inability to move limps at sleep onset or upon awakening, often accompanied by hallucinations of a malevolent existence in the room, commonly sitting on the victim, “paralyzing” him/her. Since this occurrence has been experienced by people across all cultures (in Chinese culture, this is referred to as Gui Ya Chuang, which literally translates to ‘Ghost pressing on you on bed’) for thousands of generations, there are many historical and urban myths that attempt to explain this, including ghosts and spirits ‘sitting’ on you to feed on your energy. However, I was curious as to how science would explain this mysterious phenomenon.

This well known painting (John Henry Fuseli (1781) - The Nightmare) depicts Sleep Paralysis as a visit from the demon.
This well known painting (John Henry Fuseli (1781) - The Nightmare) depicts Sleep Paralysis as a visit from the demon.

I knew that when one falls asleep, the body slowly relaxes, and one usually becomes less aware about. The body alternates between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep – when the body is in NREM mode, it is still capable of tossing and slight movements. However, I found out that during REM mode, dreams occur and muscles are “turned off”. As a result, if you become aware before the REM cycle finishes, you will be left to notice that you are not able to move or speak. Why are our muscles “turned off”? This was to prevent a person from “acting out” a dream, so signals are sent from the brain to inhibit any muscle contractions.

Getting further into what the body does during REM mode – activation/inhibition activity is passed on from hormones and nerves to second messengers, which passes this on to third messengers and so on until the last messenger inhibits the motorneurons. So, if the nervous or endocrine system, for some reason, continues releasing neural inhibitors, a person may experience Sleep Paralysis while being awake during the REM period itself.

In essence, modern neuroscience describes the Sleep Paralysis as errors of the neural transmission of the brain during REM sleep. How are the hallucinations explained then? Extreme anxiety seems to be the reason. When the patient of Sleep Paralysis feels extreme panic, the brain releases signals that stimulate visual and auditory senses, producing hallucinations. Another explanation is that the patient is still dreaming, after some parts of the brain become awake, causing him/her to “see” images and “hear” sounds. Usually sleep deprived people are victims of Sleep Paralysis; reduction of anxiety, regular exercise, and a regular sleeping schedule are ways to prevent or stop Sleep Paralysis!

Since I have not personally experienced Sleep Paralysis, I personally find it difficult to believe the superstitious myths of ghosts and aliens that explain them, so I focused on the scientific explanation.

It is important to understand this, because armed with a scientific explanation, we need not be afraid of the popular myth that we have just been visited by a demon, or captured by aliens. This is an example of science being able to offer powerful explanations, reducing the dependency on superstitious explanations for seemingly mysterious occurrences. Another implication is how such occurrences show that we cannot fully trust our brains, as they are capable of “distorting, filtering, and interpreting sensory input, of altering memories and even generating false memories, and of generating false experiences” (NeuroLogica). It is necessary to understand that our brains contain flaws, and so relying solely on our memories or senses to understand the world would not be enough. Science provides the external verification to make up for our limitations.

Works Cited:

Sleep Paralysis.Stanford University. Stanford University, 26 Jan. 1999. Web. 21 Nov. 2011.

Sleep Paralysis: Page 2.Innovative Arts | Faculty of Arts. Web. 21 Nov. 2011.

Takahashi, Hiro. “Sleep Paralysis – Awake but Still Asleep.Serendip’s Exchange. Serendip, 01 July 2008. Web. 22 Nov. 2011.

One thought on “Excuses for not getting out of bed – Laziness, Ghosts, or neither?

  1. Reading Xinying’s post, it led me to question, “What is a dream?” How do dreams occur? She quoted that “during REM mode, dreams occur and muscles are “turned off””. Similar to the superstitions about Sleep Paralysis, there are also many dream interpretations. In Korean culture, dreaming about a pig means that you are going to get lots of money that day. Throughout history, people believed that dreams predicted the future. They also believed that it was a way for God to communicate with them. Do dreams really predict future or is their scientific reasons behind dreams?

    Dreams can be interpreted both psychologically and physically. According to “how stuff works”, “dreams combine verbal, visual and emotional stimuli into a sometimes broken, nonsensical but often entertaining story line.” Researchers proposed many theories about dreaming that divide in two categories: “dreams are psychologically necessary” and “dreams are only physiological stimulations.”

    There are three main psychological reasoning behind dreams. Two famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung claim that dream is an interaction between the unconscious and the conscious. Sigmund Freud proposed a theory based on the idea of repressed longing. He primarily focused on sexual desires and symbolism, indicating that the certain objects in dreams signify sexuality. Sigmund Freud thought that stories have hidden meanings that could reveal much about a person’s psyche. Carl Jung theories; however, proposed that dreams “allow us to reflect on our waking selves and solve our problems or think through issues.”
    Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley proposed another theory called activation-synthesis hypothesis. They claimed that dreams are random electrical brain impulses that pulled imagery from traces of experience stored in the memory. In waking minds, people try to make sense of the imagery, making a story out of the images.

    According to “C-Health”, dreams originate from the visual centre of the cerebral cortex. When people first sleep, heart and breathing rate decreases and the muscles relax. After 90 minutes, people fall into slow wave sleep called rapid eye movement. REM sleep is when the most vivid and frequent dreams happen. The heart rate and breathing quickens; the blood pressure rises and the brain activity increases to the same level (alpha) as when we are awake, or even higher. The images in the dreams come from cerebral cortex and it interprets images to make sense of all the fragmented memory and imagination.

    There is also correlation between psychological and physiological state when people are dreaming. Harvard researchers did a study that found that “when people were told to not think of something, those thoughts were more likely to pop up later in their dreams.” This led to believe that people dream about the things that people rather prefers to forget when they are awake.

    Both psychological and physiological researches explain why people dream. It is important to know as some people rely greatly on dreams to make their decisions. Many people in Korea buy lottery tickets after they dream about pigs. Rather than relying on dreams to predict about the future, the dreams can indicate about one’s unconscious and psyche. As Freud and Jung explained that dreams are interaction between conscious and unconscious, people can learn better about their suppressed emotion or memory. It will help them understand why they are having these dreams and what is the stress or the memory that are causing them to have these dreams. Perhaps knowing these will help a person to release his or her stress and to understand him or herself better.

    “How Do We Dream.” ThinkQuest . N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2012. .


Obringer, Lee Ann. “Theories of Dreams.” HowStuffWorks. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2012.

”Why do we dream? .” C-Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2012. <http://chealth.canoe.ca/channel_health_features_details.asp?health_feature_id=363&article_id=1140

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