Friday, November 13, 2015

The Science of Things that Go Bump in the Night

This post would have been perfect right around Halloween. But here in the Northern Hemisphere, our days are still getting gradually darker and darker so the spooky aspect of stories is still applicable!

This article in the Guardian is about sleep paralysis, a condition in which you are somewhat awake during the night, but your body is still paralyzed in a dream state. What results is a terrifying feeling-people with this condition may notice noises or shadows on the wall but be unable to do anything. The brain, being so close to sleep, may continue to invent images, causing people to hallucinate figures they are already afraid of, often folkloric monsters, vampires, or ghosts. People will also experience heaviness on their chests, leading them to think there is something sitting on their chest, such as in this painting "The Nightmare."
John Henry Fuseli

Studies suggest that 8% of the general population has experienced sleep paralysis at one time, but the likelihood is higher among students or psychiatric patients. Having such a realistic vision of a supernatural monster can definitely increase belief in such creatures, and can potentially help to explain certain folkloric beliefs. The article states,

"In many cultures, humanity’s attempts over the centuries to seek explanations, have led to deep- held superstitions about witches and dark magic. Such fairytales act as a primer for the hallucinations.
“It creates a positive feedback loop,” Jalal explains. “So you’ve grown up being told by your grandmother that spirits and demons inhabit your village after dark. You wake up during REM sleep, you see some kind of a shadow, and you starting panicking, creating more body image hallucinations which your mind interprets in this cultural narrative and so you perceive a demon coming towards you. And then you go to bed the next night even more afraid, so it happens again, and you perhaps start to believe you’re possessed.”"

It reminds me that, even in this technological and scientific age, there is so much that is still a mystery. Sleep and dreaming itself is pretty crazy: your body shuts down and hallucinates for a few hours. While we sometimes tend to look back on older generations who believed in fairies, witches, vampires, etc., we may see them as simple and unintelligent, but really, in many cases they were just trying to make sense of this crazy world we live in. Watching nature shows you often see animals that are just as amazing as fictional ones. There are will-o'-the-wisps, or mysterious lights sometimes seen above swamps, and gravity hills-places where you can seemingly watch objects roll up a hill. Even we who might know the current scientific explanations for things like this can find them hard to believe, how much more for earlier generations who didn't have that knowledge!

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