Up to 40 percent of people report experiencing sleep paralysis at some point in their lives, and a few, like Salma, hallucinate shadowy intruders hovering over them.
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Researchers say that sleep paralysis happens when a person awakens during a stage of sleep known as rapid eye movement REM. People in this stage of sleep are usually dreaming, but their muscles are nearly paralyzed, which might be an evolutionary adaptation that keeps people from acting out their dreams.
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It is harder to explain why a subset of people who experience sleep paralysis feel a menacing figure in their room or pressing on their chests. Previous studies have suggested that such a region may be a part of the parietal lobes, which are situated in the top-middle part of the brain. It is possible that during sleep paralysis, the parietal lobes monitor the neurons in the brain that are firing commands to move, but aren't detecting any actual movement in the limbs, which are temporarily paralyzed.
This may lead to a disturbance in how the brain builds a sense of the body image, Jalal said. The appearance of a bedroom intruder could result when the brain tries to projectthe person's own body image onto a hallucinated figure, he said. This idea, though intriguing, would be very difficult to test, Jalal said.
One way to gather evidence showing whether this is what is happening inside the brain during sleep paralysis would be to test people who have different body images. For example, if this idea is true, people who are missing a limb might hallucinate figures who are missing the same limb, Jalal said. Still, people with such different body images are likely a small subset of the population, and it would be difficult to conduct such an experiment, he said.
It's also possible that people's differing experiences of sleep paralysis are due to differences in their cultural beliefs. Previous research has suggested that certain ideas found in people's cultures could shape how they experience certain phenomena, Jalal said.
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