Monday, March 19, 2012

Does Sleep Paralysis Explain Alien Abduction?

Sleep paralysis has become widely known as a common sleep disorder in which the body becomes paralyzed (as it commonly does during dream sleep to protect people from injury) but the person falling asleep is not totally asleep yet.

Instead, during sleep paralysis, the experiencer is trapped in a state of twilight sleep, somewhere in between full consciousness and dreaming.

While in this between-state, the person typically experiences terror, the sense of a malevolent presence in the room, and a heaviness or pressure on the chest or body, as if being held down or paralyzed by that entity.

In some cases the person is only dimly aware of a sinister presence and sees nothing except, possibly, a shadow. In other cases the person sees what look like alien creatures, demons, or paranormal entities. The experience ends when the person wakes up or falls asleep completely.

Sleep paralysis is often put forward as an explanation for alien abduction reports. Before aliens became the bete du jour, people reported being 'hagged' (ridden by an old hag, which was understood to be form of witchcraft), or said they had been attacked by an incubus or succubus--demons that preyed on a semiconscious person's sexual energy.

It's tempting to say, "oh well, now we understand that this is a medical problem called sleep paralysis," but in fact, as long ago as 1989, respected academic folklorist David Hufford was making a reasoned argument that 'sleep paralysis' is a descriptive term for what appears to be a consistent discrete phenomenon that we don't really completely understand.

Hufford's book, The Terror that Comes in the Night, based on his academic study entitled "An Experience Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions." revolutionized the academic study of folklore. Previous to Hufford's careful philosophical analysis, it was assumed that folkloric tales were primitive (read: false) ways of understanding things that science could easily explain better.

In fact, science does not have a great explanation for some things that trigger folkloric explanations, and neither does the study of folklore.

Sleep paralysis or 'hagging' (in the language of folklore) is one these cases.

The casual and superficial debunking of paranormal and UFO or alien phenomena often includes scientific 'explanations' that are actually descriptions that are no more accurate than the folklore explanations that preceded them, of phenomena that we just don't understand very well.

A description is NOT an explanation, and it is even less an argument against the validity of an experience.

Sleep paralysis is a fascinating phenomenon. I myself have experienced it several times when I was much younger. It really is a terrifying and weird experience, but the leap from that experience to the experience of an alien abduction is huge, despite the intriguing similarities.

Before we start snickering at these things, it would be so great if we could look into them with an open mind. And I need to mention here that many respected scientific and academic minds have ask for the same attitude.

We might just discover something nobody expects.

And isn't that what science is supposed to be about?