Parasomnias Part 3: Sleep Paralysis and Space Alien Abduction

You wake up, open your eyes, and try to get out of bed. But you can’t move. Panic sweeps over you, and you are unable to cry out for help. Suddenly, you feel a heavy weight on your chest and you see dark figures surround your bed. A few seconds later, it’s finally over and you are able to move.

Sound familiar? If so, you have experienced sleep paralysis (SP). SP is another mysterious parasomnia sleep disorder. It is characterized by an inability to move upon awakening, but vision, touch, and hearing are still in tact. Here’s how this happens. When we enter REM sleep, our body enters a state of muscle paralysis. If this does not happen, we would act out our dreams in our sleep. For many reasons, we do not want this to happen.* So, SP happens when you awake before the muscle paralysis has ended.

Approximately 30% of the population has experienced an episode of SP at least once. It is much more common in students, most likely due to the exaggerated sleepiness of this group. SP prevalence is also slightly higher in individuals with anxiety, PTSD, and narcolepsy. However, experiencing an episode of SP does NOT indicate an underlying pathology; many healthy people experience SP.

Episodes of SP also tend to be very frightening. In a student sample, 90% of participants stated that their episode of SP was frightening. One reason for this is the state of complete paralysis. Experiencing this for the first time, not knowing why you can’t move, can arouse great fear. Second, hallucinations are common during SP; sexual assault and intruders are common themes during these.

Different cultures throughout the world have given different meanings to these hallucinations. Some think it’s religious. Some think it’s witchcraft. Some think it’s demons. One new trend is people reporting getting abducted by space aliens. 

In a study at Harvard, researchers interviewed and examined 10 people who reported alien abduction during an episode of SP. Below is an example of a report of one of the female “abductees.”

“Another female abductee was lying on her back when she woke up in the middle of the night. She was completely paralyzed, and felt electrical vibrations throughout her body. She was sweating, struggling to breathe, and felt her heart pounding in terror. When she opened her eyes, she saw an insect- like alien being on top of her bed.”

Psychiatric interviews revealed very little psychopathology; several of the participants met the requirements for anxiety related disorders. However, compared to controls, they scored significantly higher on scales of dissociative experiences and magical thinking. Interestingly, three of the participants nearly met criteria for PTSD related to the space alien abduction.

Researchers went a step further in examining PTSD related to their “abduction.” They created a script of the abduction, which “replays” the event to the individual. They then measured physiological responses (i.e. heart rate and skin conductance) of the individual upon hearing the script. They then compared these responses to a large study that employed similar methods on Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Amazingly, the abductees had larger physiologic responses than the Vietnam veterans.

This study was not to support the idea of extra terrestrial life. It is interesting, however, that many people report experiences like this. It is also quite fascinating what our mind can do while transitioning between the different sleep stages.

*This is called REM Behavior Disorder (this will be detailed in a future post!).

McNally, R. J., & Clancy, S. A. (2005). Sleep paralysis, sexual abuse, and space alien abduction. Transcultural psychiatry, 42(1), 113-122.

Sharpless, B. A., & Barber, J. P. (2011). Lifetime prevalence rates of sleep paralysis: a systematic review. Sleep medicine reviews, 15(5), 311-315.

Parasomnias Part 2: Lucid Dreaming and Nightmare Therapy

“I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”- Chuang Tzu

In 2010, the movie Inception captivated audiences everywhere. I have to admit that I have seen it around 10 times. Each time the credits roll, I wish that it were real. Well, what if it is? Inception was actually inspired by a real phenomenon, lucid dreaming.

Lucid dreaming is when the sleeper becomes aware that they are dreaming, and then have the potential to control the dream storyline and content. Everyone can attempt to train themselves to lucid dream. Throughout the years, there have been a number of techniques to train people how to do so.

One example of this is Imagery Rehearsal Treatment. This is a three-step process:

1) Write down a brief description of a recent nightmare

2) Think of a way to change the nightmare (i.e. a less scary environment)

3) Imagine this altered version several times throughout the day.

While this method has shown some success, a new and exciting type of therapy has emerged. This machine looks like a high tech pair of goggles, and administers bursts of white light into the sleeper’s eyes during their dreaming stage. How do we know when someone is dreaming? Sophisticated sleep technology, called a polysomnograph, allows us to examine one’s sleep architecture (the different sleep stages). Also, you can look at their eyes. When we start dreaming, our eyes begin to move back and forth. This is why this stage of sleep is called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

When the machine administers the burst of light, it actually lights up the dream world. Over time, the brain conditions itself to say, “When I see this flash of light, I am dreaming.” This technique can take considerable time to make the individual become a lucid dreamer, and may not work for everyone.

So what purpose does this serve, other than making my wish of a real life Inception come true? It may help alleviate severity and quantity of nightmares. This application becomes particularly relevant in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); frequent nightmares accompany approximately 80% of people diagnosed with PTSD.

If you ever have had a nightmare, you know how awful they can be. When people frequently have nightmares, it can become very debilitating. Imagine if, while in the midst of a nightmare, you could change what was happening and make it less scary. This is the idea behind using lucid dreaming to mitigate nightmare frequency and severity.

In a 2001 study, these types of techniques led to decreases in chronic nightmares and also PTSD symptoms. This was a very exciting finding, and has warranted more research in this area. However, lucid dreaming is still somewhat controversial. Hopefully, over time, further research will advance our knowledge in this area.

Krakow, B., Hollifield, M., Johnston, L., Koss, M., Schrader, R., Warner, T. D., … & Prince, H. (2001). Imagery rehearsal therapy for chronic nightmares in sexual assault survivors with posttraumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Jama, 286(5), 537-545.

Payne, J. D. (2014). The (gamma) power to control our dreams. Nature neuroscience, 17(6), 753-755.

Parasomnias Part 1: Sleepwalking and Murder

The date is January 16, 1997. Scott Falater is a successful businessman, married to his high school sweet heart, and the father of two teenage children. Life is great for him and his family. However, he has been under a lot of stress at work and not sleeping well. At dinner, he talks about his job and the certain aspects of it that are causing him so much stress. Afterwards, his wife asks him to see what is wrong with the filter for the pool in the backyard. He works on this till dark, kisses his wife goodnight, and heads to bed sometime between 9:30 and 10:00pm. At about 10:30pm, the next-door neighbor wakes up to the sound of a woman screaming. He goes to his window, and sees a bloodied woman beside the pool. He then sees Scott Falater come outside, stare blankly over the dead body of his wife, roll her into the pool, and then walk back inside. Sounds like Scott Falater murdered his wife, right? Well, Scott has no memory of this. In court, his defense was based on the premise that he was sleepwalking. Is this a legitimate legal defense? Was he convicted?

First, let’s go through some basics of sleepwalking. Sleepwalking belongs to the family of parasomnia sleep disorders, and is characterized by a series of complex behaviors that are initiated during deep sleep. This does not happen during REM sleep, the stage in which we dream, and usually occurs during the first third of the night. Something mysterious happens with sleepwalkers, in that they are able to navigate their environment, but do not seem able to recognize the faces they come across. This is because the pathways in our brain responsible for visually guided movement and facial recognition are in different areas of the brain. So, the part of the brain responsible for facial recognition appears to be “asleep” in sleepwalkers, while the area that runs visually guided movements is not.

Sleepwalking can also turn aggressive. Sleep-related aggression has an estimated prevalence rate of 2.1%, and occurs mostly in men. This particular case is an extreme example; sleep-related aggression rarely turns into murder. It is most often choking, punching, etc. But how does someone go from passive sleepwalking into an aggressor? This is not yet known. One theory was that those who are aggressive sleepwalkers have an underlying psychopathology, but research has not shown any relationships between the two.

Now let me give you the rest of the story. After Scott fell asleep, he slept walk outside and continued working on the pool filter. When his wife noticed he was out working on it again, she went out to tell him to call it a night. However, she probably did not realize that he was sleepwalking. This startled him-often called a confusion arousal- and this then progressed into him murdering his wife. He then went into the garage to put his tools in their appropriate place, and then went back outside. This is when the neighbor watched Scott roll his wife into the pool and go back inside. Scott went back to bed, and was eventually wakened by noises coming from the first floor of his house. He went downstairs, and was immediately arrested.

Scott did not have any prior intent, did not appear to be conscious at the time of the crime, and did not present any psychological disorders. Do you think he should be responsible for the crime? This is important to consider. In our criminal justice system, defendants who are deemed mentally ill are not held to the same legal standards.

Should sleepwalkers be treated the same way? In the case of Scott Falater, he was sentenced to life in prison. However, there are a number of other similar cases in which the defendant was found not guilty. When someone is accused of a violent crime and they claim they were sleepwalking, they go through a large battery of evaluations to test the legitimacy of their defense. Much more development and research is needed to refine the development of sleep-related aggression and its treatment.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on this in the comments. Also, if you would like to learn more about this case (or similar ones) please feel free to contact us.

Cartwright, R. (2004, July). Sleepwalking violence: A sleep disorder, a legal dilemma, and a psychological challenge. Psychiatry, 161(7), 1149-1158.