“To Sleep… Perchance to Dream, Ay There’s the Rub…” (Hamlet)
Here is my very first morbid post, writing it while listening to the Delilah show and 106.7 LiteFM.
Last week, something strange happened to me. I was asleep in my bed, or I thought I was. I woke up in the dark and saw some faint white shadows along the ceiling above me. “Faint white shadows” sounds awfully like floating ghosts. In my half-asleep mind, I felt myself trapped amidst paranormal activity, like in that creepy mockumentary blockbuster. The natural instinct for a girl was to scream, which I tried and failed. Here was the freaky part: I could not move or scream. I was paralyzed in my sleep. My arm was locked against my sides, my voice disembodied. I could not twist my torso or turn my head. My eyes still wide open, I saw the swiggly white ‘smoke-like’ shadows above me. I wanted to shriek and cry, but I was paralyzed and petrified to the bone. I could only lie there, helpless, scared, and alone. A few minutes felt like a stretch of time. Eventually, I fell asleep, because I woke up the next morning with a fuzzy recollection of the previous night’s happenings and fear of the unknown. I know all this sounds bizarre, speaking that I was in deep sleep, but this whole sleep paralysis phenomenon is real and chilling.
The first time I learned about sleep paralysis was in my college Child and Adolescent Psychopathology class. There, I learned about the human sleep cycle for the first time. And now that I’ve been studying the Neurobiology of Sleep and Wakefulness for my Neuro final, I can integrate my learning and my personal life.
Why do we sleep? We have an internal clock called the circadium rhythm, controlled by a suprachiasmatic nucleus. We maintain homeostasis, regulate temperature and energy, and consolidate learning, memory, and daily activities.
Sleep occurs in stages (here goes the Greek alphabet again…):
Awake: Beta waves –> high frequency and low amplitude waves
Stage 1: Theta waves –> drowsy feeling, right before falling asleep; waves become more synchronous
– This also occurs when you are doing routine activities where not much thinking is required, like driving a car on the LIE or jogging. It’s like being on autopilot. Here is where I tend to tune out and daydream, allowing my creative drive and fantasies enter my conscious thoughts.
Stage 2: Sleep spindles and K-complexes–> synchrony begins and real sleep sets in
Stage 3: Delta wave –> slow, mellow waves
Stage 4: More delta waves –> DEEP sleep; here is where nightmares and sleep-walking happens, which I’ve had the pleasure to experience in bygone days.
– My body really likes this stage. I sleep like a hibernating bear, sleeping through storms of the century, fighting couples outside my dorm room, friends playing Mah-jong or Smash-Brothers, etc… This stage is my friend =)
– There were many occasions where I’ve felt like falling out of the sky, only to roll out of bed and flop on the floor. That’s why I asked my roommate to take the top-bunk junior year of college, so as to prevent any emergency room runs for a concussion.
REM: (aka Rapid Eye Movement) –> higher amplitude and lower frequency; MANY important things happen at this stage
-This stage is NOT my friend after what happened last week, but it is a necessary part of our sleep/wake cycle
– like the awake state, as there is an asynchronous pattern
– dreams happen, the ones you remember (in Stage 3/4, your dreams are fuzzy) but also cannot act out
– I learned that in REM sleep, the ‘naughty’ nature of dreams emerges because the inactive prefrontal cortex does not hinder the ‘down and dirty,’ primitive parts of the limbic system (amygdala for emotion and hippocampus for memories).
Non-REM physiological changes: autonomic slowing, episodic & involuntary movements, slow eye movements, and decreased muscle tone/blood pressure/temperature/respiration/heart rate/erections.
REM physiological changes: autonomic activation, rapid-eye movements, skeletal muscle paralysis, pupillary constriction, twitching of digits, and increased blood pressure/temperature/respiration/heart rate/metabolism/erections.
Now back to my night. My child psychiatrist professor from college asked the class during that sleep lecture, “Has anyone woken up during REM sleep… It’s pretty freaky, you know, the feeling of being trapped and unable to move!” Back then, I thought “Is that really possible, to wake up during REM sleep?” Speaking that the brain is active, it can happen, in normal people or with psychopathology, such as narcolepsy.
I looked this up on the Internet. You can wake up either in deep sleep right before REM sleep (predormital) or upon awakening (postdomital). Sleep paralysis can be associated with panic symptoms and vivid hallucinations, which explains my urge to scream and run after seeing some funky things in the dark.
I told this story to my sister and she asked me, “Are you sure you weren’t hallucinating?… Oh by the way, do not do that again. Do get your rest and be careful! Are you wearing your jade wu lou?!” I was like “Huh?,” to which she directed me to some cultural references, particularly the East Asian school of thought. I got the chills when I read about the Chinese explanation for sleep paralysis, termed “鬼壓身 / 鬼壓床” (Gui Ya Shen/Gui Ya Chuang). The term translates to “ghost next to you or on your bed.” Chilling, n’est pas? Japanese and Korean culture have a parallel interpretation, that an other-worldly, ghostly presence is about the sleeping person. In Japanese, it is called kanashibari (金縛り), or “bound to metal.” In Korean, it is called gawee nulim (가위눌림), or “being pressed by a scissor.” Why do Asians explain everything with references to the evil spirits and ghostly manifestations? Watch J-Horror, and you’ll notice all ghosts look the same with bloody unfinished business and surprises for the living. Aish!