The Devil's Grip
Very few are strangers to this awful experience. You wake up from sleep with vividly terrifying hallucinations only further to realise that you are having tremendous difficulty uttering any words at all and there is a terrible grave weight on the chest as if some form of demon is trying to strangle you. It becomes harder to breath and the movement of the body becomes a desperate struggle. But when the body finally prevails from such horrified rigidity, you only thank God that all these were simply proceedings of a nightmare. This frightening situation, in the traditional Bangladeshi perspective, is more commonly known as “Bobye Dhora”. Medically referred as Sleep Paralysis, the interpretation of this physiological phenomenon is often associated with demonic and mischievous goblins and numerous dark aspects of popular folklore throughout the world which makes it a creepy yet a mysterious experience which has been misread throughout the ages.
Photo: Zahedul I Khan
So, what is sleep paralysis in actuality? During the entire sleep process, the human brain and the body goes through several stages in which the physiological indices such as brain activity, heart and breathing rate gradually slow down and as the night progresses the sleeper enters the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep where most vivid of dreams take place. During these REM sleeps, the body turns itself off and disconnects from the brain which is a wondrous defensive mechanism of the human body so that humans do not act out while they are dreaming. And sleep paralysis occurs when the body is still in the REM sleep and thus paralysed and disconnected from the brain but the brain consciously awakes from the REM state. This is why during sleep paralysis one wakes up conscious however finds him/herself absolutely unable to move the body along with having partial or total skeletal paralysis which is why the sleeper mumbles during the incident, and this single handedly coined the term “bobye dhora” in our Bangladeshi context. This untimely mind-body disconnection leads to the bizarre mix of normal wakeful awareness and dreamy consciousness during which people experience terrifying hallucinations and helplessly feels a sense of grave panic as the nature of these hallucinations are viciously vivid and ominous. And it is these gloomy hallucinations that are perceived as nightmares which people endure during their sleep paralysis episodes. Fortunately this eerie sensation lasts for few seconds to few minutes after which the person is able to move again and reality prevails over hallucinations as the brain and body reestablishes their usual physiological routine.
And as for reasons behind the sleep paralysis, experts explain that it is very common phenomena endured by many and there is nothing paranormal about this experience. The most common factor that increases the likelihood of sleep paralysis is the Supine position of the body which is sleeping lying down with the face up. Research have also found out that people lying in that position are five times more likely to experience the attack of sleep paralysis than people sleeping sideways. Beside this, other causes includes increased stress, sudden change of the environment and lifestyle, jetlag, irregular sleeping schedules, sleep deprivation that interrupts the normal REM patterns and during the episodes of lucid dreams (when a person is aware that she/he is having a dream). Sleep paralysis is most common amongst the teenagers and people who suffer from narcolepsy (a medical condition characterised by uncontrollable bouts of deep sleep).
Efforts towards scientific explanation of sleep paralysis were first initiated by American psychologist Weir Mitchell in 1876. Before that as eccentric as it sounds, this condition was explained throughout times all over the globe in terms traditional urban and rural mythology that was always centered on something demonic. Some of these “evil spirits” frequently associated with sleep paralysis includes Greek demons Mora, Vrahana or Varypnas (Meaning: ones who leaps upon and tries to steal the victim's speech), Proto-Indo-European demon Mora (a goblin or succubus that causes nightmares), the Thai, Laotian and Cambodian demons Pee Umm and Khmout Sukkhot, the Chinese Pinyin (the ghost that presses on the body) and the Japanese Kanashibari (being fastened in metal in sleep by the evil spirit). From Africa, the Madzikirira of Zimbabwean Shauna culture, Dukak of Ethiopia and from the southern United States, the “Old Hag” where the frightening event of sleep paralysis is thought to be a sign of an imminent tragedy. And as for Bangladesh, the Bobye Dhora is considered as an encounter with evil spirit and often thought to be caused by black magic instigated by foes.
Even though this absolutely normal medical phenomena of sleep paralysis is harmless in the physiological sense but it is that brief period of intense fright which gave sleep paralysis its fearsome look. But experts suggest that by maintaining decent sleep hygiene one would be able to avoid the episodes of sleep paralysis. Other suggestions include, going to bed at a regular schedule, eat healthy and exercise regularly, avoid sleep deprivations and reduce stress, develop the habit of sleeping sideways and avoid sleeping on one's own back and lastly get sufficient sleep. But what if despite these prevention measures one experiences the attack of sleep paralysis? In these cases it is advised to stay calm as much as possible and remember the facts that although it feels dangerous but in actuality it is not as the situation will improve almost momentarily. Although in the midst of sleep paralysis, the major muscles of the body are completely paralyzed but smaller muscles like toes and fingers are less so and it is advised that movement of those smaller muscles brings a quick end to this appalling episode. And if anybody is unfortunately having repeated episodes of sleep paralysis then it is suggested to get up and move around for a brief period of time before trying to get back to sleep.
No matter how bizarre and terrifying sleep paralysis is, one has to remember that it is extraordinarily normal, an experience that most of the people of the world endure and there is nothing mystical about this incident, no matter how peculiar the hallucinations are. It is perhaps just another wonder of the human physiology. As long as these are kept in mind, nights will be scare free and sleeps will be resonant. Till then, Sweat Dreams!