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My response to a Wired article on Sleep Paralysis

Posted in Personal by Will on Sunday, August 9th, 2009 ~ 1am

My response to a Wired article on sleep paralysis. My reply ended up as reply #51 on page 2, so I have no expectation that anyone will read it, aside from those advocates or followers of the outlandish theory that alien encounters are a modern version of the “old hag” sensation. Here’s my hastily written response:

This new study by Dr. French that describes sleep paralysis is very much how sleep paralysis was described in the 1980s.

I recall from earlier, identical studies that those few seconds or minutes of pressure and paralysis were offered as an explanation for alien encounters, even if the perceptions (and therefore the narrative) of alien encounters were substantially different from old tales of incubi and succubi sitting on one’s chest.

The main differences, just off the cuff here, were that while sleep paralysis has long been known as a hazy feeling of dread while you feel intense pressure on your chest for several seconds/minutes while you are paralyzed (the sensation for which the incubus and succubus and old hag and ghosts were blamed), alien encounters start with the visual perception of light, continues with paralysis (not involving one’s chest or one’s breathing which continues normally, but rather, paralysis of voluntary motion very much like in the moments before one awakens), continues with solid figures appearing (universally described in the same way), continues with the person being moved out of their environment, continues as paralysis ends, communication ensues, touching or engaging in other physical activity that feels real occurs, and ultimately ends when the person is brought back to their environment. Then, again unlike sleep paralysis which Dr. French notes “usually…doesn’t recur”, this tends to recur for years, always with the same figures.

The suggestion of similarity that has been made at least since the 1980s implies that the sensation of sleep paralysis somehow morphed into something far more complex in the last few decades. If so, you have to give the people of these decades credit for coming up with the most complex version ever — not only changing to a much expanded narrative, but changing the very sensations and perceptions to something that seems like it may well be a real event. If it is simply sleep paralysis, it totally outclasses every kind of sleep paralysis that was described before, stripping away the culturally consistent element of pressure upon one’s chest and a vague feeling of dread, and replacing it with what looks like a high-tech capture & release process.

Folks like Dr. French (who by the way is one of the UK’s leading “skeptics” on alien encounters) continue to promote the idea that they’re so similar that they must be the same. I’d like to believe his motivation is sincere, but I wonder if he’s just trying to keep people calm in the face of experiences that even he knows do not match sleep paralysis.

Addendum: Perhaps not surprisingly, “traditional” sleep paralysis — the same as described in centuries past — continues as well. So rather than saying that there’s been a replacement of one set of experiences for another, I should more accurately say that “traditional” sleep paralysis was joined by something else in recent decades, something which is similar enough to satisfy a few researchers that they’re one and the same, but not similar enough to convince those who have had first-hand experience.

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