On the Edge of Reality

Paper presented at the British Association Annual Festival of Science, Birmingham, 10 September 1996. Theme: The Psychology of Anomalous Experience

Have you ever had an experience in which you couldn’t be sure whether things were real or not? I am not referring to ordinary dreams. These seem real at the time and then you wake up and realise that they weren’t. I mean experiences which are more deeply confusing than this.

You might, at some time in your life, have enjoyed playing around with your own dreams, like this man who learned how to control his dreams as a child.

I was 10 years old and my mother had taken me away from my father (pending a later divorce). I was staying in my grandparents’ house and had nightly dreams of falling off a cliff. I always woke half way through (I don’t think it needs a psychoanalyst to see the significance of this one!). I became determined to complete the dream and find out what happened if I hit ground. I eventually managed it. It was followed by a ‘sensation’ of nothingness – I know this sounds like a contradiction but I can’t think of few other ways to describe it. I stopped having that particular dream but have been able to control dreams ever since. For example, I quite often wake in the middle of an enjoyable dream in the morning and deliberately drop back into sleep to finish it off in the way I want.

If have learned to control your dreams you may also have had the experience of realising during the dream that it is a dream. It feels as though you are becoming conscious during your dream and can give an exhilarating sense of being in charge of the dream. This is called “lucid dreaming”, and experiments show that people are genuinely asleep and dreaming when it happens. Something like 40% of people claim to have had this experience (though surveys vary considerably) and it is associated with flying and falling dreams.

Or you might be one of the 15% or so of people who have had an out-of-body experience. You might have felt that you left your body and were able to travel about, flying over the countryside or visiting a long lost friend. But you wonder all the time – is this real? The grass and fields below look and seem absolutely realistic – even more real than in ordinary life, but isn’t there something wrong about it all? You probably find you cannot read or see small objects clearly, and you certainly cannot open the door or turn on the light. Or you might have had an accident or terrible shock, or even come close to death, and felt dragged or propelled along a dark tunnel towards a beautiful light and another world.

Much research has been done to try to understand how such experiences can come about and what is happening in the brain to set them off. However, there are some simpler and subtler experiences which are available to nearly all of us and yet which have barely been researched at all. For many years now I have been collecting accounts that people send me. The results have surprised me. Far from being the oddities you might think, these strange states are extremely common. Most of us talk as though we are absolutely sure we know reality from imagination – we’re not going mad – we have our feet firmly planted on the ground. But dig just a little deeper and most people will admit that, just sometimes, they have not been so sure.

I am going to talk today about just two of these strange experiences. Many of you may have had them yourself. If you haven’t you will probably think I am as peculiar as the people I am talking about, but if you have I expect you will recognise them immediately and think “Oh yes, that’s just what happened to me”.

False Awakening

A false awakening is when you dream that you have woken up – though in fact you are still asleep. It can be really confusing, and even distressing. You may be convinced that you have done all sorts of things when really you have not, like a student of mine who dreamed she had got up, cleaned her teeth, eaten breakfast, cycled all the way up the steep hill to the University, only to realise she was still in bed and had to do it all over again – for real.

This could be amusing, but some false awakenings are not so funny – like this one

I had one where I felt a presence in my room. I thought I was awake at the time and it was very scary. I could feel something trying to turn me around on my bed. I opened my eyes and it was very dark but I noticed that my bed was on the opposite side of the room and I suddenly realised that I could wake up.

In a recent survey of children’s experiences, I asked 126 school children aged 8-13 “Have you ever thought you had woken up and then realised that you were only dreaming you had woken up?” To my surprise 57% answered “Yes”. Of course it is difficult to know how well they understood the question and how good their memory was for their experiences, However, this is an enormous number, and several of them provided descriptions that fitted the definition absolutely.

Sometimes people spontaneously wake up from this kind of dream. Sometimes they notice something odd about the room, like a light switch that doesn’t work properly, a familiar object being the wrong colour, or an eerie kind of lighting or glowing to things. This can jog them into wondering “Is this a dream?” and that is the way either to go into a lucid ream (knowing you are dreaming instead of being convinced its real) or to waking up.

In a parallel survey of 224 first year university students, I found that 83% claimed to have had a false awakening. In both the children and adults, the people who reported false awakenings were also more likely to have had sleep paralysis. Adults more often reported both of these experiences while the children more often reported seeing ghosts, seeing strange lights in their bedrooms or elsewhere, and seeing UFOs.

I am sometimes sent accounts of what people claim are psychic or paranormal experiences but that sound more like a false awakening to me. Here is one example.

In 1983 my Vicar rang and asked me if I would attend Holy Communion at 8 am next morning in honour of St. Teresa of Avila’s Feast Day. I agreed happily as she is one of my favourite Saints.

Well, I set my alarm for 7.30 am but as I had gone to bed late I was still very sleepy when the Alarm went off and decided to have a few minutes more … this was fatal as I went into a deep sleep.

During this time I had a Dream in two parts (of course I didn’t know it was a Dream) In the 2nd part I heard our phone ringing on the window cill downstairs. I got out of bed to answer it and was annoyed when I heard the Receiver being taken off the hook. (who was in our house so early in the morning?). I looked over the Bannister and saw a middle-aged lady in grey with grey hair scraped back. She was talking into the phone … ‘Oh its you Father! Yes! Mmm!’ – then still holding the phone and cricking her neck to look up at me she said in a very stern, plummy voice, ‘Are you going to Church this morning?’

My eyes flew open – my clock said 7.52 (fortunately it was 2 minutes fast) so I jumped out of bed, washed, dressed and ran up to Church (3 minutes away) just in time for the Service … this was delayed for a few minutes anyway because a Builder followed me into Church wanting the Parish Hall Key from the Vicar as he was doing some repairs starting at 8 am. (This confirmed part of my Dream)

Relating the above to a spiritually-aware friend she said she was sure the lady had been St. Teresa herself. That was when I remembered that as she spoke to me I noticed a black decay spot on a front tooth. Biographers state that in her latter days Teresa’s teeth were decayed down to the roots yet her breath was never unpleasant – a lovely fragrance was known to issue from her mouth.

But who had been speaking to her on the other end of the line? As I thought about this I remembered a Vicar (Fr. Totterdell). who was only with us for 2 years when he died – used to ring me up every morning at 7.15 to make sure I was there for 7.30 am Holy Communion (as I had missed one morning), Alarm did not go off. I used to let the phone ring three times but not answer it, of course. So I’m sure it was he.

This lady clearly wanted to find an explanation of her strange experience. She concluded that she was visited by the spirits of a saint and a vicar. As we learn more about borderline states of consciousness I think other explanations become more likely.

Sleep Paralysis

During normal dreaming sleep your brain is very active, your eyes move rapidly about (this stage of sleep is called REM or rapid eye movement sleep) and all your main bodily muscles are paralysed. They are not stuff and rigid but rather very relaxed. They are paralysed because the signals coming from the brain are unable to stimulate them into action. This paralysis is necessary because otherwise you would act out your dreams.

Normally you, consciously, know nothing about the paralysis. However, occasionally something goes wrong with the mechanism, for example if you are very tired, over-worked, excited, or worried. You may then find yourself slipping into the paralysis before you are properly asleep, or waking up and finding yourself still paralysed from dreaming. This is called “sleep paralysis”.

Here is a simple, but typical, account from someone who frequently experiences this weird sensation.

I am suddenly aware that I am partially awake, can hear noises outside, can even try to call out, but cannot move at all. Unfortunately, I know that if I could allow myself to drift back into a deep sleep again, all would be well, but there is a complete panicky feeling that if I do this I will die and it is only by sheer mental willpower that I make myself wake up – feeling almost exhausted with the effort.

Although sleep paralysis has been recognised for many years there is very little research on it. For example there is some evidence that people who suffer from sleep paralysis are psychologically well adjusted, and there is no evidence of pathology or illness associated with it. A Japanese survey found that about 40% of people claimed to have experienced it and the researchers developed a way of inducing the paralysis in the laboratory. In my own surveys I found that 34% of the children and 46% of the adults reported having experienced it, which is reassuringly close to their figure. However, there are very few surveys and we do not know for sure how many people have the experience, who has it, under what conditions or what can be done to encourage or prevent it.

Many cultures have what are called sleep paralysis myths. For example the people of Newfoundland in Canada describe an “old hag” who comes in the night and sits on their chests, stopping them from moving, and the Vietnamese have a “Grey ghost”. The medieval incubus and succubus were demons which came in the night and seduced innocent people. They are now thought to have been sleep paralysis as are the stories of fairy abductions and changelings. Nowadays people are more likely to report that a four foot high alien with big slanty black eyes came and took them from their room at night and whisked them off to a space ship where they were operated on, or sexually manipulated and returned to bed with an hour or two of missing time. Could alien abductions be our modern equivalent of the sleep paralysis myth?

I suggested as much in a recent UFO magazine and have since been inundated with fascinating letters from people who have experienced sleep paralysis and did not previously know what it was. Many seem to be greatly relieved that at last they know what has been happening to them. Several even tried asking doctors for help but could find no one who knew what sleep paralysis was.

We have so far collected about a hundred descriptions of this experience and some remarkable findings are beginning to emerge. There are certain features which come up again and again. For example, there there are the strange whining noises, or the machine-like sounds or humming. One described “loud screaming and high pitch laughter” and another said “I experienced a roaring noise in my head:- as of high blood pressure.”.

Then there are the vibrations. People describe these in many different ways but are obviously trying to get at the same idea when they talk about shaking or juddering. One recounts ” it felt as if my whole body was vibrating at a high frequency and I could even feel my teeth vibrating together.” Another says “a strange deep vibration took hold of my being and literally turned me inside out.”

Other common features include strange lights seen in the room. These can be flashing lights, little stars, or glowing objects. In our survey we asked the question “Have you ever seen unusual lights or balls of light in a room without knowing what was causing them, or where they came from?”. This question was based on a famous 1992 Roper opinion poll, which concluded that nearly 4 million Americans had been abducted by aliens. 8% of the adults questioned in that poll had seen lights and this was taken to suggest they had been abducted. In my own survey even more reported such lights; 17% of the adults and 28% of the children. However, this seems less surprising now that we know how common strange lights are during sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is also often accompanied by the strong sense that there is someone there – even if you cannot see her, him or it. One explains “After a few minutes I seemed to wake once more … only to be aware of something or someone sat on my chest, pinning me down, while a second entity ran around my bedroom, mocking me.” One 28 year old woman explained that she has suffered with sleep paralysis since childhood and even now it still frightens her. Once she felt as though she was being grabbed around the waist from behind and thrown 50 feet up in the air. She could even feel the fingers squeezing her. On another occasion something grabbed her around the chest and forced her back down on the bed. We have had many descriptions from people who feel pressing, squashing or pulling sensations, feel an invisible person sitting on the bed, or even see the bedclothes being moved or pressed down.

Another woman described the worst of her many sleep paralysis experiences like this.

I awoke to see a tall black shape at the foot of my bed pulling at my feet through the covers. I could feel “it” pulling me out of the bottom of the bed and I managed to scream through my clenched teeth, sounding more like the neigh of a terrified horse than a human. This time my husband did hear and leaned over and thumped my shoulder saying “shut up”. I did wake up properly then.

It is known that the sense of presence can be created by stimulating the temporal lobes of the brain. These are above the ears on either side of the brain and are concerned with the integration of memory and experience, and with the body image, and many other functions. Epileptics often have the focus of their seizures in this area of the brain. Stimulating the temporal lobe (for example with electrodes or with magnetic fields) can give rise to out-of-body experiences, mystical experiences, sensations of floating and flying and also the feeling that there is someone there – even if you cannot see anything. The temporal lobe is especially active during some phases of sleep and so there may be a connection here with sleep paralysis.

Also some people have much more unstable temporal lobes than others. What is called “temporal lobe lability” can be measured, and people who are high on this scale (with unstable or highly active temporal lobes) tend to be more artistic. They more often report deja-vu, mystical, psychic, and out-of-body experiences, and more often have imaginary playmates as a child. It is not yet clear what connection there is to sleep paralysis or whether temporal lobe phenomena might be responsible for the sense of presence and the strange creatures.

A fascinating question arises here. Is the person really awake, with their eyes open, looking at their real room and hallucinating the invading creature? Or it could it be that they are actually dreaming the whole thing? The fact that people seem to see their room as normal and can hear noises in the street or on the radio suggests that they are awake, but they still might be lying with closed eyes and hallucinating the entire scene – their familiar room included.

Here is a case to illustrate the problem. A woman from Middlesex recounted her first experience of 53 years ago when she was 17 years old and a probationer nurse on her first stint of night duty.

This particular night I went along to our staff rest room at 2 a.m. and settled into a comfortable chair for my two hours. I always found it difficult to relax enough to sleep but usually managed “cat naps”. However. on this occasion I fell asleep. I was woken by the light being switched on and night Sister coming into the room with the senior consultant. To my horror I was unable to move or speak as the two of them crossed the room to discuss a patient. In those days nursing staff always rose if sitting whenever doctors or senior staff entered the room. So I was really panic stricken but they didn’t seem to notice me and soon left the room. The next I knew was that I was being shaken awake by my colleague saying it was time to go back on duty. When I reached the duty-room I was trembling and apologised to the Sister and explained about the paralysis. There was an astonished silence and suddenly she smiled and told me that no-one had been to the room while I was asleep and that what I had experienced was probably Night Nurses Paralysis.

Clearly this nurse had hallucinated the sister and the consultant but was she sitting there paralysed with her eyes staring open, as it seemed to her, or was the whole scene dreamed up? The only way to find out would be to observe sleep paralysis in the laboratory or to put recording apparatus on people who have it frequently at home. This is to be the next step in our research.

We are also interested in helping people who are frightened by their experiences. Of all the people who have told us about how they stopped being afraid, the majority have said that it helps to relax, forget about it and wait until it has gone away. Fighting the paralysis just makes it seem worse, trying to breathe deeper only makes you feel as if you are being suffocated (your automatic breathing control is best left to itself in this state!) and trying to scream can just give you a sore throat. If you do manage to relax the paralysis will just wear off of its own accord in a few seconds or minutes.

However, for many people, this advice is totally unrealistic. They are so afraid that relaxing is quite out of the question. And indeed for some people it just does not seem to work. For these people the best way seems to be to try, very carefully, to move just one thing. Some children say they learned to wriggle their little finger, or a toe. Others have tried twitching their nose or blinking hard. So, if you cannot relax, try to keep everything else still and just concentrate on one tiny movement.

Finally, some people absolutely love the experience and try to induce it on purpose. This can lead to out-of-body sensations, floating, flying and other pleasurable experiences. So if you want to explore your own inner worlds this is a drug-free, painless and fascinating way to do it – as long as the ogres and goblins don’t get you!