Posts Tagged ‘Myth’

Just read a brief piece in SciAm by Professor Randolph W. Evans and psychologist Christopher French about sleep paralysis, and I couldn’t help but think fondly upon my own experiences with sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is a sleep disorder that mindfucks you, to put it bluntly.

I’ve had at least two experiences that I can remember. The first was was relatively tame. It happened at my summer school World History class in high school. I was pleasantly napping. Our teacher was about to start lecturing again, so I woke up to feign interest, but, to my alarm, I was totally unable to lift my head off the desk. I tried to move my arms, but to no avail, and I realized all I could do was roll my eyes. It even took some mental strain to blink. I was terrified, and began to panic. The panic implored me to deepen my breathing, but the state of my lungs and autonomic nervous system was static and so I couldn’t change the pace of my breathing. A few seconds passed and I finally regained my normal physical function. I had no idea what had just happened, but since there didn’t seem to be any residual physical or mental side effects, I didn’t feel the need to dwell on it any further. I was just relieved that I wasn’t doomed to a life of comatose consciousness.

My second significant experience with sleep paralysis was far more disturbing. It occurred one night a couple of years ago. It wasn’t especially late at night. I remember I was doing some heavy work on an essay (if I remember correctly, it was a narrative on an unfortunate night involving a Nissan Sentra and a mysterious hill in the boonies. anyway), and started to feel lethargic. A headache accompanied my lethargy, and so I resolved to stop my work for the night to try and get some rest. I hadn’t turned the lights off yet. I moved to just lie on my bed for a while to try and compose myself and ease the headache so I could prepare some things for the next day. I closed my eyes and rested on my mattress.

A few seconds later, the headache began to strengthen into a migraine, and I noticed that I was unable to move my body, even unable to open my eyes again. The pain of the migraine got worse and worse with every throb. Along with the increasing intensity, I started to hear a sharp ringing sound. The sound would come like waves, getting louder and louder, stronger and stronger, in symmetry with the throbbing pain. It was completely disorienting, as if the paralysis weren’t disorienting enough; a maelstrom of pain, sound and confusion. I began to sweat and my heart started beating faster, imploring that my breathing get deeper. But, the paralysis was the same as before, restricting my autonomic nervous system from allowing my breathing to match the beating of my racing heart. I felt as if I were breathing through a thin straw or with a punctured lung. It gave no ease that my eyes were closed and all I could see was the dim, reddish light glowing from my eyelids. I couldn’t comprehend what I needed to worry about first–the migraine that felt as if it would lead to a brain hemorrhage, or the paralysis that was only compounding the panic. Amidst the chaos, I started to feel an unwanted presence. All the pain and confusion was matched with a sense of terror as I began to hear a whispering voice, incongruous with the rest of the symptoms, speedily repeating, like a mantra, the phrase “I’m sinking in.” The volume of the whisper was sustained with each repetition, but it seemed as though it grew in intensity, until all symptoms experienced so far–the throbbing pain, the loud, sustained ringing, the sinister whisper, and, above all, the panic and terror–grew to a crescendo; feeling as if it all would be leading to a destruction of the mind and the expiration of the functioning body. But, as it all felt to become too unbearable, the whispering stopped and the symptoms began to to subside, and it seemed in an instant that all were normal again, save for the same lethargy felt before the main episode started.

I sat up, having regained my ability to move, and felt startled, shaken. I thought about the episode, but could not come to any rational conclusion for what happened. So, rather than worry about what I was unable to control and likely wasn’t soon going to experience again, I decided to go about my business and get to sleep. Some days or weeks later, I sat on a bench outside on a break from work, talking to a person who worked at the grocery store deli next to us. I talked to her about the episode, which, at that time, I hadn’t equated to sleep paralysis. When I told her the details of my experience, she told me about a similar type occurrence in Hmong culture about a demon that manifests itself in people. She said it was a demon that plays tricks on people, but does not mean to do any other harm and, therefore, is a benign trickster. I think she also mentioned something about the ghost of an ancestor or dead relative attempting to communicate, though I can’t clearly recall the mention.

I wasn’t inclined to accept a supernatural explanation, however well it seemed to fit, and still wished for a rational explanation for the episode, but it was nevertheless a comfort to discuss it with her, and to hear the fascinating story she equated it to. Some time later, I came across the subject of sleep paralysis on one of my Google tangents, and found that rational explanation I knew existed. Sleep paralysis supposedly occurs when a person goes to sleep, or sometimes when a person is waking during the transition from lucidity to REM sleep. Christopher French in the SciAm piece posits that the paralysis occurs as a function of REM sleep “presumably to prevent the dreamer from physically acting out the dream.” The hallucinations are a product of REM sleep and can be equated to the dreams that normally occur. Because the person experiencing the episode is still fully conscious, the images can seem very real, and, I imagine, because of our folk past, our minds automatically grasp concepts of ghosts or demonic possession or divine intervention or other supernatural events.

Rational explanation aside, it’s fascinating looking at the Wikipedia page and seeing all the folk explanations for sleep paralysis. In it, the story told by the woman who worked at the deli was partially affirmed, as well as stories in African, Turkish, Greek, and other cultures; all very disparate lands but equating it to evil spirits of different names or other supernatural phenomena. It’s fascinating the stories concocted in the absence of scientific explanation. And so in-lies the problem of science that I most lament. As a person who values rational thinking, I fully accept science and the scientific process for providing explanations for the things that happen and for everything in the world and in the universe around us. But with the explanations brought forth by science comes the death of the folklore, and of mythology, of the supernatural. No longer does Diana in her chariot fly through the heavens, illuminating the darkness with her moonlight. Dulled is the magic and wonder of the rainbow, when equated as the mere prismatic effect of the sun and the sky. John Keats expresses his lament for scientific explanation in his narrative poem, “Lamia,” as does Edgar Allen Poe in his sonnet “To Science.”

I wonder, as I know now definitively that the “demon” in my sleep paralysis episode was a mere auditory hallucination, and as the world’s gods have died–the gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt, of Greece, of Rome, of the Norse and Germanic and Irish, Indian, and, surely, eventually, the god of the Abrahamic religions–I wonder if science has definitively killed folklore and religion. Does the modern scientific state of humanity have the need to create such beautiful, aesthetic works as created in the books of The Odyssey and the Iliad or the works of the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita?

I feel as though the topic that I am touching upon will require much more contemplation. As I have some reading I must get tonight, I’ll have to save my thoughts on the state of modern mythology for a later date. However, on a humorous side note, at some point as I typed this, I turned the TV on to see if anything interesting was playing. I went back to typing with the telly on and I started to hear whispers. Considering the subject of my post, I was a little startled. I looked over to the television and saw a man massaging his head as if he had a headache. The camera switches to a shot of two people whispering into a vent. It turned out to be an H&R Block commercial with two people sending whispers through a vent into the office of a man exhausted from the act of filing his taxes, which was oddly reminiscent of the very matter for which I was typing! I almost had a flashback…



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