Understanding Sleep Paralysis, with Neuroscientist Baland Jalal

Baland Jalal is a neuroscientist at Cambridge University (Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine), and has previously been a Research Fellow at Harvard University and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at San Diego. He has worked with the renowned neuroscientist VS Ramachandran (TIME magazine 100 most influential people in the world) since 2012. Baland Jalal’s work has been featured widely in the international press, including The Today Show, The Guardian, New York Magazine, Prevention Magazine, Fox News, Discovery, Discover Magazine, VICE, Science Daily, International Business Times, YAHOO!, The Times of India, Fusion, Business Insider, Daily Mail and more.


Sleep Paralysis is the temporary inability to move or speak when falling asleep or upon waking despite being conscious.

Episodes usually last for a few seconds to minutes, with the inability to move while being conscious. People have also claimed to feel an evil presence watching them during the episodes.


I’d like to begin this interview with asking how you got started on your career, and if you always knew you wanted to work in researching sleep paralysis?


As a kid growing up in Copenhagen, Denmark I never had any appreciation for science—or any other subject in school for that matter! Science was taught in a pedantic and dull fashion—deprived of all its magic and wonder—and I often found myself daydreaming during science lessons, drifting off to “fantasy-land” where I could be creative and where the world knew no boundaries. This was in many ways paradoxical because I was awfully curious about the world.

Not long after graduating from high school, I had an experience that would forever change the way I saw science. One early morning, while asleep in my bed, I found myself awake but unable to move or speak. Trapped in this “frozen state”, I desperately tried to scream for help but to no avail. Meanwhile, I had this creepy feeling that there was something very evil and sinister in my bedroom—a feeling that got more and more intense with every second. I suddenly realized that a demon was on my bed strangling me—I literally thought I was going to die! I eventually got out of the frozen state, but didn’t know what to make of what’d just happened to me. This “otherworldly” experience had me intrigued and took me on a long journey around the world to study this phenomenon—known as sleep paralysis. I was so captivated by my own sleep paralysis experience, that I went on to study it in North America, Scandinavia, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. I knew in order to really understand this mysterious phenomenon, I had to study it around the world—to see how people of various cultures are affect by it. I’ve done research on sleep paralysis since 2010, and what I’ve discovered have exceeded my wildest expectations.


How would you define sleep paralysis, its causes, and duration of episodes? About how many people are affected by sleep paralysis and what are the age ranges most affected? Can you describe the frozen state of sleep paralysis and how it affects the brain and body?


I always stress that to understand sleep paralysis, one must first understand REM sleep—one of the stages of sleep. Every night when we go to sleep, all of us are paralyzed from head to toe during REM sleep. While in REM, we have our most vivid dreams. These dreams feel so real because a part of our brain called the dorsolaterial prefrontal cortex (front top part of the brain) responsible for our ability to think logically turns off during REM. This also explains why dreams are so utterly bizarre, with time, people, and places being out of control—you can be drinking tea with the queen at Buckingham palace one minute and be on the moon wrestling with an alligator the next. If we were to act out these strange and intensely “real’ dreams, we would of course run the risk of hurting ourselves. So our brain has a brilliant solution: it makes our body temporarily paralyzed.

But sometimes we “accidentally” wake up while still in REM sleep. In a sense, we have a “switch” in the brain that tilts us between REM and wakefulness. It only takes a few neurochemicals to leave us stuck in this borderline state between sleep and wakefulness. This is how sleep paralysis happens.

Sleep paralysis is rich with mystery—but it actually only last between seconds and minutes. Anxiety, stress, and messed-up sleep habits can make it more likely. So it’s not surprising that people with anxiety disorders and college students have the most sleep paralysis. Around 10 to 20 percent of people have experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their life our own studies show.


What are some myths associated with sleep paralysis? How do you contribute supernatural sightings to your research?

Seeing ghosts during sleep paralysis is pretty common. This “creature” is usually lurking in the distant dark, slowly approaching in on the helpless sleeper. The ghost often chokes and suffocates the person by crushing his chest or pressing on his neck, and occasionally brutally rapes the paralyzed sleeper.

The “ghost” goes by different names around the world. My colleague Devon Hinton Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and I found that in Egypt, it’s thought to be a Jinn — a spirit-like entity (or evil genie) that can terrorize and kill its victims. We’ve discovered that among some Italians it is believed to be a malevolent witch or a terrifying giant cat, known as the Pandafeche. And in Turkey, we’ve found that it is known as a supernatural attack, or Karabasan (spiritual entities). Some space alien abduction cases also fit the sleep paralysis scenario: the person is laying in his bed paralyzed; suddenly the alien appears and begins to experiment on the sleeper’s sexual organs, collecting eggs and semen.

Our earliest studies looked at sleep paralysis in Egypt and Denmark. I thought it would be an interesting comparison because Egyptians generally have strong supernatural beliefs, and Danes are among the most atheistic—who often don’t think of sleep paralysis in mystical terms. Astonishingly we found that Egyptians fear sleep paralysis much more than Danes, have longer episodes and experience it three times more often. Our research strongly suggests that for Egyptians, their beliefs about sleep paralysis as something paranormal and dangerous have radically transformed their experience—an extreme form of mind-body interaction. We later discovered that Egyptians who hallucinate (say ghosts) during sleep paralysis are more anxious and traumatized—supporting the idea that sleep paralysis can perhaps lead to psychopathology.

Think about the staggering implications of this—just by sleeping you could potentially develop mental illness!


Have you and Ramachandran come up with any reasoning or solutions to the myths? Do you believe the supernatural sightings are caused by the episode of sleep paralysis?  Why do you believe one’s “body image” gets confused during sleep paralysis? Why does the brain trick us into seeing the ghosts?


In addition to seeing ghosts during sleep paralysis, one can have bizarre sensations of floating outside one’s body or looking down upon oneself from the bedroom ceiling. Not surprisingly, in certain cultures, these out-of-body experiences are attributed to the “soul”.

VS Ramachandran, the world-renowned neuroscientist who is not only a mentor but one of my closest friends – indeed a second-father to me – has had a major influence on the way I approach science. Together we’ve proposed theories for why one may see ghosts during sleep paralysis, and why one can have these strange out-of-body experiences.

We’ve hypothesized that parts of the brain called the parietal lobe and the temporoparietal junction (the top-middle part of the brain) are crucial for causing these hallucinations. These brain structures are important for creating a representation of one’s “body image” in the brain—the feeling I have of being anchored here and now in my own body.

When we’re paralyzed during sleep paralysis, the motor cortex in the brain can send signals to the rest of the body to move and to overcome the paralysis. It also sends additional signals (sort of like “CCing” when emailing) to the parietal lobes. Normally, there’s feedback from the body telling the brain how to build our body image, but not during sleep paralysis. The confusing signals received by the brain can influence how the brain builds our sense of “self”—and result in out-of-body experiences and indeed visions of evil ghosts. In other words, the ghosts and “shadow-people” seen are projections of one’s own body image.


Can you tell me more about the neuroscientific theories as to why you and Ramachandran believe people see ghosts during sleep paralysis? Can you tell me about your “mirror neuron” theory of ghosts”?  


Ramachandran and I have recently proposed that certain brain cells, called mirror neurons also can help trigger these hallucinations. Mirror neurons are a type of “mind-reading” neurons, important for reading other people’s intentions. They allow you to temporarily see yourself from another person’s point of view. Intriguingly, if your friend “Joe” in front of you is pocked with a needle, mirror neurons in YOUR brain will fire as if you’re being pocked—giving you “direct access” to his subjective emotions. Obviously, while you temporarily experience the world from another’s location—you don’t literally feel like you’re leaving your body (you don’t have an out-of-body experience). This is because these neurons receive information from your body (skin, muscles, joints etc.) “telling” you that your body in front of you belongs to you, and “Joe’s” body over there belongs to him—and so you feel fully anchored in your own body. In the absence of sensory feedback from your body, you’d likely begin to feel you were dissolving into your friend “Joe’s” body. In other words, the barrier between “self” and “other” would break down because of mirror neurons!

During sleep paralysis, there’s no feedback from the paralyzed body to keep these mirror neurons in check. So by you simply imagining another person in your head (say an evil bedroom intruder) that would in theory be enough to make your brain “project” your own body into this “other person’s” virtual (or imagined) body—paving the way for “ghost” visions.

One should not be all that surprised by the idea that ghosts seen during sleep paralysis are a projection of one’s own “body image”. All the villains, vampires, ghosts, and witches—and even hot chicks or dudes—you’ve ever met in your dreams, are actually a projection of yourself. So next time you have a romantic fling in your dream, you should ask yourself who you’re having a fling with!


Can you tell me more about how health professionals currently treat sleep paralysis? Can you tell me more about your treatment, Meditation-Relaxation (MR) therapy? When did you propose this treatment? How does your treatment, Meditation-Relaxation (MR) therapy differ from treatments that already exist?


Health professionals have traditionally treated sleep paralysis indirectly by helping people cope with their anxiety and asking them to fix their sleep habits; say, sleeping the same time every night and avoiding interruptions; some recommend anti-depressive medication.

Based on my neuroscientific theories and research in different cultures, I recently developed a direct treatment for sleep paralysis—MR Therapy. MR therapy is based on the following four steps:

(1) “Reappraising the meaning of the attack”: When sleep paralysis occurs, sleepers should not panic but instead remain calm and remind themselves that it is common and not dangerous. They should try to keep their eyes closed to avoid visual distractions.

(2) “Emotional and psychological distancing”: Sleepers should remind themselves that because the attack is temporary and not dangerous they shouldn’t be scared or worried.

(3) Meditation: They should focus their attention inward on a strong and emotionally positive “internal object”, such as a memory of a loved one or a happy moment, or comforting prayer.

(4) Muscle relaxation: When practicing inward-focused meditation, sleepers should relax their muscles, avoid controlling their breathing and avoid moving.


What is the connection between sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming? Can one go into lucid dreaming while under sleep paralysis?


Sleep paralysis can be a gateway to lucid dreaming. Both sleep paralysis and lucid dreaming are consciousness states that lie between REM and wakefulness; the former is dreaming while awake, and the latter, being awake while dreaming.

Neural circuitry associated with wakefulness, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex that helps us organize our logical thoughts, is turned off during REM. But it is more likely to become activated during sleep paralysis, and if it does, we enter into a type of hybrid consciousness that combines the surreal dreams and the rationality of wakefulness. And so, we become aware that we are dreaming — like a great Michelangelo we can create our own fantasy worlds composed of colorful landscapes and creatures of all kinds conjured by our minds.

I was once able to slide into a lucid dream during my own sleep paralysis. When I became aware that my “dreaming self” was walking around in my apartment, it occurred to me to do an experiment. I found a piece of scrap paper on the floor and put it in my pocket. I thought to myself, if it’s still there when I wake up, I would have to reconsider some of my own scientific theories about the role of the brain in favor of more supernatural explanations.

Although my pocket was empty when I woke up, I still get to joke with my colleagues that we’re among a select group of people who can say we’re working while sleeping.


Do you have any final remarks?


Sleep paralysis is truly one of the most fascinating conditions in the entirety of medicine, if not science. I mean think about it—here is a single yet common phenomenon that can make us see and become ghosts, have encounters with space aliens from distant galaxies, and plunge us into the exotic lands of lucid where we can create our own realities, and all this happens while we’re sleeping. It shows us firsthand how the feeling of a sense of self, as a unified entity separate from others, arises in the brain, and how vulnerable this feeling is to disruption. As a kid day-dreaming during science lessons, I couldn’t have dreamt of anything more exotic and intriguing than this!

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  1. This article was fascinating to read. I knew that this phenomenon existed but I did not know it’s scale! The hallucinations were total news to me. Needless to say- I never experienced sleep paralysis nor do I know someone who has.
    Reading about the out-of-body experiences reminded me strongly of what people who have died and were reanimated have described their experience to be like. Is there a link between these conditions?

  2. Demystifying the supernatural! I experienced the effects of sleep paralysis frequently 20 years ago after leaving a violent relationship. I perceived “demons”, which correlated with the cultural influences found,as I was highly involved with Christian church at the time.
    My son also experiences this, which was confused with his mental illness at the time. This article demonstrates if an individual experiences frequent sleep interruptions, “seeing things” during sleep paralysis van compound an already established mental health issue.
    This is vital to note because it can confuse a proper diagnosis & treatment.
    The cultural expression of this brain function is important to note, as its not going to “look the same for everyone”, and we must seek the biological before the superstitious to truly help individuals.