Sleep Paralysis and Extraordinary Experiences

Sleep paralysis (SP) is a phenomenon which is experienced during falling asleep or awakening. In the terminology of sleep medicine, it has been classified as a parasomnia. SP can be a symptom of narcolepsy; however, it also can monosymptomatically occur as isolated sleep paralysis (ISP). Persons concerned are in a conscious state while the whole body is paralyzed with the exception of eye muscles, and muscles of respiration. Additionally, extraordinary experiences often appear. Examples are: severe feelings of anxiety, the perception of threatening, malevolent, or evil presences in the room, or other hallucinations in sensory modalities (buzzing and humming sounds, voices, footsteps, feelings of floating, lights, right up to detailed visual perceptions of persons, ghostly entities, or extraterrestrials). The paralysis usually lasts a few seconds or minutes. However, there are reports of prolonged experiences. Some people use SP as a method to induce positive experiences like, for example, lucid dreams, or out-of-body experiences.

Although sleep paralysis is an intercultural, and quite frequently occurring, phenomenon there is still relatively few knowledge about its prevalence, about coping with the associated extraordinary experiences, but also about its clinical relevance in Germany. As part of a pilot study, a comprehensive review of existing literature had been carried out. Additionally, an online survey at German sleep laboratories had been conducted in order to get an impression of the clinical relevance of SP in the context of clinical treatments of parasomnias.

In a second step, an online survey of concerned persons was conducted regarding the interpretation and biographical integration of related extraordinary experiences as well as fears of or dangers from social stigmatization. The analysis of the results of this survey has so far led to two papers. A further article on coping strategies with sleep paralysis experiences is in preparation. The latter topic will also be explored in more depth by a new survey that psychology student Franziska Metz will conduct as part of her master's thesis.

A short German-language summary of the survey results so far can be found here.

Fuhrmann, M. & Mayer, G. (2016). Schlafparalyse. Phänomenologie - Deutungen - Coping. Zeitschrift für Anomalistik, 16(3), 275-306.

Mayer, G. & Fuhrmann, M. (2021). A German Online Survey of People Who Have Experienced Sleep Paralysis. Journal of Sleep Research. DOI: 10.1111/jsr.13509 Eine Pre-Print-Version des Artikels findet sich hier.

Mayer, G. & Fuhrmann, M. (2022). Sleep Paralysis and Extraordinary Experiences. Journal of Anomalous Experience and Cognition. In press.

Project leadership: Dr. Gerhard Mayer

Research associate: Max Fuhrmann