One of the most terrifying experiences a human being can have is a sleep-related phenomenon. Known as night terrors, they have the technical name of Hypnogogic or Hypnopompic Hallucination. One refers to them happening at the beginning of sleep (gogic) and the other is it happens at the end of the cycle (pompic).
Here’s what happens: The brain paralyses the body in preparation for REM sleep. That way, you don’t run around your home reenacting your dreams and risk injury. At the end of the REM cycle, the paralysis lifts and consciousness returns, in that order. Sometimes, this doesn’t happen quite so neatly and consciousness can return before the paralysis lifts. When that happens, you are still in a slight dream state and will often sense you are dreaming in the very room that you are sleeping in. But the paralyzed body throws you into a state of panic and, unable to move, you may dream of being choked, unable to move and sometimes that there is a presence in the room, often sitting right on top of you.
This is utterly terrifying, hence the lay term “night terrors.” It is more common in children than adults and is the likely source of the boogeyman or the monster in the closet. When taken to an extreme, this can be considered a sleeping disorder and there are people who suffer this experience every night. Medication can help, but comes with serious side effects. Neurobiology explain this phenomenon with some certainty and that pleases the scientist in me. And typical of science, the door is shut on the mystery of this state and that, as they say, is that.
However, this is where the mystic in me gets a little riled up. Even the use of the word “hallucination” rubs me the wrong way – it implies that the imagery that people experience when this is occuring is somehow just imagined. Science describes what we know, but often dismisses the use of imagination and intuition to wonder about what we don’t know.
This fugue state exists halfway between consciousness and unconsciousness. It is truly amazing and I believe that so much more is happening here than we could possibly understand at this moment of our scientific development.
In this spirit, I am always on the lookout for stories that dreamer’s share with me that exemplify the strange and wondrous things that can happen in this state. Here’s one from dreamer George J:
Many years ago, I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep (my sleep at that time was characterized by nightmares, now seldom, but not vanished). I propped up on one elbow and lit a cigarette. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the …bed sheet and cover which draped almost to the floor, “move”. There wasn’t a breeze, so I was slightly concerned. The sheet and cover moved again…there was someone under the bed. Able to defend myself, so not needing to arm myself, I reached down (knowing that there was someone there), and pulled back the sheet and cover. There was a man laying partly on his back, and partly on his side, staring up at me, with eyes that looked like a dog with rabies. The face was mine, the figure under the bed, me. I’ve never leaped so far, so fast to escape the room…which motion woke me up, heart pounding, and in a cold sweat!
Is there a dream interpretation here? Perhaps. Since this dream happened many years ago at the beginning of this man’s adult life, it is possible to interpret the imagery to represent the notion that the very thing we’re doomed to be saddled with (and terrified of) is our very selves. I’ve often told people who suffer from dreams of being chased that they ought to consider turning around and facing their pursuer; perhaps they are just trying to give you your lunch money. The scariest person on our journey is always our self.
Dream or psychic phenomenon? Both? Who knows. I have more fascinating tales from dreamers on this topic and will share about them in the future. If you have any of your own, please pass them along; I am always on the lookout for more dream data!