I awake from a nap on an airplane, but something’s not right. My eyes are closed, my body is still, but yet, I’m conscious, I'm aware of my physical self. There’s internal panic as my eyes dart behind shut lids, and I realize I can’t move. I’m completely frozen, with an acute awareness of the separation of my self, what some would call a soul, from the body I'm currently trapped in, unable to stir. I prepare to do the only thing I can think of: I will make myself move. Okay, I think. One, two, three, move. One, two, three, move. Eventually, my body heaves forward, my eyes snap open, and I take a gaping breath as the woman sitting next to me raises an eyebrow. As I would find out from research later that day, what I had experienced had a name, and about 8 percent of the population will experience it at some point in their lives: sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, characterized by an inability to move muscles and often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. A cursory inquiry on my Facebook had friends jumping at the bit to share their experiences. "I feel like I'm waking up in a version of my room but in a dark realm," said one. "I had an experience," said another, "where a darkened creature opened my front door and was creeping toward me with what appeared to be a knife in their hand." They all shared the common themes reported by most who experience sleep paralysis: a dark figure, supernatural creatures, a sense of dread, and often, a physical, suffocating feeling. So, what the eff, body? What's going on?
When a person falls asleep and enters deep REM sleep, the brain tells the body’s voluntary muscles to relax and be still, entering a state called atonia. This protects your body as you sleep, preventing you from acting out physical movements in dreams. While the pathophysiology of sleep paralysis is still not completely understood, research has consistently shown that onset is often triggered by extreme stress, lack of sleep, alcohol, caffeine, and other factors, although there are no known exact causes. While researchers are still trying to understand the natural phenomenon that is sleep paralysis, some believe it is a fragmentation of REM sleep—becoming aware before your REM cycle has finished and your body is still in atonia—while others think it is the gateway to lucid dreaming or the body’s way of trying to achieve an out-of-body experience (OBE).
While there has been extensive research in lucid dreaming—a dream where you are aware you are dreaming—OBE is still not entirely understood. The first scientifically documented OBE was in 2014 when a team of scientists monitored the brain activity of a woman who said she could induce them at will. While she reported being able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, the scientists saw her functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showing a “strong deactivation of the visual cortex,” while other parts of the brain involved with mental imagery of bodily movement were lit up like fireworks. In other words, it was real in that she experienced it, but it didn’t scientifically mean her “soul” escaped or that it was a genuine astral trip.
So, some believe sleep paralysis, lucid dreams, and OBEs are triggered by hallucinations, but others say no way. “I absolutely believe that it has to do with spirituality and existing in higher levels of frequency,” New York-based artist Lauren Flax says. “Sleep paralysis is a key component to having an out-of-body experience—it's thought that we can’t really move when we exit or enter back into our bodies, but once you understand that element, the fear subsides and you can wait it out. Being alive and being human means we exist at the lowest frequency. We leave our bodies when we die, so why not learn that ability while alive?”
Dream researcher Ryan Hurd agrees, calling sleep paralysis “an initiation into the dreaming arts,” and those who experience it as possessing “a greater ability to be touched by the world, experience life and all of its pain, as well as its beauty.” So, if you experience sleep paralysis, it seems you're already ahead of the game and there can be ways to turn it into a lucid dream or OBE—something freeing and fantastical, and not tormenting. Though it feels horrifying, it is simply a brief biological event, and one that can work in your favor at that. As DreamStudies.org says, “You’re not dying. It’s a hiccup in the brain’s chemical soup.”
Believers, if you want to try and harness your brain’s power, and turn an episode of sleep paralysis into a joyful, trippy experience, here are some tips that could train your body to flip things around. While we've outlined the basics below, there are a vast array of techniques and methods for lucid dreaming. For more resources on dreaming and to find a method that works for you, visit The Lucidity Institute, DreamStudies.org, or the lucid dreaming subreddit.