I’ve always wanted to see a ghost. Not because I think it would be that much fun. I wouldn’t be surprised if it caused me to scream shrilly and piss myself. But it would be interesting to have some confirmation that weird, supposedly supernatural stuff (along with the truth) is really out there.
I thought for a while when I was much younger that I might have the confirmation. One hot, sunny afternoon during my undergrad years in college I took a nap and, upon awakening, I felt like I couldn’t move. Couldn’t raise my head, couldn’t lift my arms, shift my legs, nothing. Oddly, perhaps because I wasn’t fully awake, this didn’t disturb me very much. I just kept trying to move and then, abruptly, I sat up. Good. No problem. Until I felt a little funny and looked back over my shoulder to see myself still lying there. The moment was just as vivid, real-seeming, as my experience of typing these words and seeing them appear on the screen in front of me.
So what did I do then? Did I stand up the rest of the way? Float off to explore the world a bit before returning to my body as in so many of the OBE stories we read? No, and this is why I’m betting on the shrill scream, etc. I panicked and lay the hell back down as fast as I possibly could—whereupon, thank goodness, I was able to move normally.
I regretted that lack of courage for years, since I was never able to reproduce the opportunity. I seriously entertained the possibility that I’d actually experienced being out of my body and had blown the chance to have some fun with it.
Then I read about the research in sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis occurs when the brain and body aren’t quite synched up as you sleep. During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, dreaming is frequent, but the body’s muscles are relaxed to the point of paralysis, perhaps to keep people from acting out their dreams. Researchers have found that two brain chemicals, glycine and GABA, are responsible. Sleep paralysis occurs when you start to wake up while your muscles are still that relaxed.
Some people find themselves experiencing sleep paralysis frequently, according to surveys, while others wake up paralyzed only once or twice in their lifetimes. The good news is that sleep paralysis is ultimately considered harmless.
Apparently I was one of those people who do it once. But…how does that explain the OBE, you ask?
According to the research, episodes of sleep paralysis are frequently accompanied by hallucinations. For instance, people may sense a malevolent presence nearby (which is the likely explanation for alien abductions). Further, some sleep paralysis episodes come with feelings of falling, floating or, yes, feeling dissociated from your body. An OBE.
Out-of-body experiences can occur during relaxed and wakeful states, or during migraines or temporal lobe seizures. About 10 percent of people in the general population have experienced an OBE, according to the Wikipedia entry on the subject. In college undergraduates, this number is double (researchers don’t know why), usually falling somewhere between 20 and 25 percent. So I guess my experience wasn’t even that unusual.
Of course, I can’t say for sure that I didn’t actually have an OBE. It could be coincidence that it so perfectly matches the description of the experience associated with sleep paralysis. But, you know, sleep paralysis is well-confirmed and OBEs are still basically in the realm of the supernatural.
There’s a classic experiment that has been performed many times, in many research environments. Have the person who thinks they are experiencing genuine OBEs sleep in a room with a small shelf built into a corner near the ceiling. Put a piece of paper on the shelf with something written on it they couldn’t possibly guess. Then simply have them float up there and look at it during their OBE. One accurate report of the words on that paper would turn the scientific community on its head. Hasn’t happened yet.
But I do wish I’d spent a little time floating around and trying to see something I couldn’t have seen otherwise. Wouldn’t that have been a kick?