The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sleep Hallucinations

Early last Monday morning, I woke up to see Kay cuddled up beside me. As I looked at her, she opened her eyes, looked up at me, and intoned a series of strange syllables in an ominous tone of voice. She then closed her eyes and turned away from my face.

Was Kay posessed? Did some malevolent force enter her mind and force her to do it's bidding?

No. I had a very common, if somewhat unnerving, experience.

My body had begun to wake up, but my brain was still slumbering. As a result, I could perceive what was really around me, the room, Kay cuddled up, the light coming in from the window, but I was also still dreaming and my brain was incorporating what was really around me into the dream. In other words, I was halfway asleep and as a result I hallucinated. This is very common, it happens to all of us from time-to-time, and is nothing to be alarmed about.

It is also the source of many false perceptions that are taken to be "proof" of the supernatural.

After Kay did her little bout o' speakin' in tongues, I blinked, and there were a few subtle differences in the room. The position of the light on the walls was a bit different, Kay's position was a bit different, and the arrangement of the blankets was a bit different. All of it was subtle, and would have been easy to miss if I hadn't thought to look for it, but all of it also clearly showed that what I had just seen hadn't actually happened, and because I knew a little bit about how we sleep and how we wake up, I knew enough to be able to figure out what had, in fact, occurred.

Here's another example: As a teenager, I woke up one night to hear the sound of artillery shells, and saw that my room was occupied by somewhat luminescent and translucent World War I-era soldiers, preparing to leave the trench for the machine-gun fed slaughter that was mistakenly called a "battle" during that war. I knew that I had to go with my comrades, as futile as it was, and so I began to don my backpack, pcik up my rifle, and get ready. I was still in my room, but I knew that once I opened the door, I would be int he trench, and ready to fight. I went to the door, opened it, and saw my this point, I had completely waken, and felt a bit foolish to be standing there in my backpack, holding a dowel that I had been keeping in my room for who-knows-what reason.

Again, I could have viewed this as some sort of weird visitation or out-of-body experience, but instead I reflected on the fact that earlier in the evening I had been watching a television show about WWI-era trench warfare, and that the descriptions of the misery of the soldiers had really disturbed and gotten to me, and I also had been having trouble sleeping lately. Putting the two together, it became obvious that I was experiencing a mundane, if somewhat creepy, event.

The point to all of this is pretty simple. When I collect ghost stories from people, most of them tell me about events that occurred while, or shortly after, they had been resting, usually (but not always) in bed. The descriptions are usuall pretty simple - they see someone standing over them that vanishes, they hear strange sounds that they can't identify, or they perhaps even get out of bed and see/hear/smell something unusual. Invariably, the teller of the tale assures me that they were awake, and I hear those words "I know what I" saw/heard/smelt/etc. However, I have yet to hear one of these stories that is not absolutely compatible with near-sleep hallucinations. I also have never had a conversation with someone about such and experience in which they said that they had bothered to look for dosconfirming evidence before deciding that their experience was a supernatural one.

"I know what I saw!" is always used as if it could somehow settle the matter in the mind of the person hearing the story. I don't doubt that the person honestly perceived what they tell me that they perceieved, just as I perceieved a possessed Kay and a spectral platoon. Nonetheless, these things were, faaaaaaaar more likely than not, simply artifacts of our brains' sleep patterns. Demanding otherwise will not change that fact.

As for "but I wasn't asleep when this happened!"...well, that's a bit like a guy in a bar demanding his keys because "I'm not drunk!"

And, hey, if I tell you that it was probably a hallucination, I'm not saying that you're crazy, though most people seem to think that only the insane have hallucinations. The truth is that we all have these experiences, I have described two of my own right here. You're not crazy, you're human, like the rest of us. Now, come on up to the bar and let me get you a drink.


Evan Davis said...

When we sleep our body releases hormones to paralyze our motor functions. Most sleep hallucinations are connected to this process in some way.

If you wake up still under the effects of these hormones you will not be able to move, change your breathing and might have vertigo. The symptoms of this match most abduction and haunting stories where the subject feels bound, possibly floating and is dreaming about their surroundings.

If you are still dreaming and the hormones wear off early you will act out your dream. This is consistent with sleepwalking and is very similar to what you described above.

The hormones can be affected by many things including stress, diet and sometimes genetics. Very cool stuff.

Kay said...


I am actually a demonic being sent to slowly suck out your soul and by use of hypnotic influences during your REM slowly turn you into my slave.

Jay said...

I've had occasional experiences like this for, oh, about 20 years now. Typically they include auditory components, such as footsteps in the hall or a child crying, as well as visual components like a human-shaped shadow. I can usually force myself out of them by focusing on inconsistencies within the scenario - a clock out of place, a wrong color on a pillow, something like that.

They used to be quite terrifying. Now they're more annoying than anything else.

Felipe Epaminondas said...

These experciences always scare the **** out of me. :S

Anthroslug said...

Jay: I think that your approach sounds like a good one, and I may try it myself.

Felipe: They used to scare me, too. Now, if they result in me actually getting up and moving about, then I see them as unpleasant, if not, they're a minor annoyance.

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