By David Wolpert
One night when I was seventeen years old, I awoke from a strange dream to the sound of a conversation being whispered outside my bedroom door. At first, my eyes screamed when I tried to open them. An unusual sensation was forcing them closed, as though they were shutters covering a window from the winds of a gale-force storm. My body seemed to feel much the same; strong currents flowed around my limbs, holding them firmly in place. A heavy weight descended upon my chest. As a sort of detached panic set in, I was able to wrench my eyes open with tremendous effort. I was lying in my bed, but the rest of my room looked completely alien. Instead of the red carpeted floor, there appeared to be warped wooden planks with harsh light streaming upwards through the cracks. The beams of light illuminated thick columns of swirling dust in the air. The whispering voices were becoming unbearably loud, yet their words remained somehow incomprehensible. Physical pain followed a slow electrical shock that blinded me as the door to my bedroom seemed to shatter inwards and someone stepped inside. The cold barrel of an invisible pistol dug into my temple. The assailant’s presence saturated the space around me but managed to always stay away from the edges of my field of vision. The noise intensified as the blood seemed to rush endlessly in my ears.
The words “sleep paralysis” may inspire mixed reactions. From that night onwards, I have experienced sporadic episodes of intense waking dreams. The experiences I’ve had from these episodes have varied from terrifying to mesmerizing. The sinking sensation and a continuous rush of blood to the head are always present. If I attempt to move, my disconnected limbs will refuse and panic will inevitably ensue, which sometimes can force full consciousness back again. There are times, more often now than before, where I am able to remain focused and in control to the point where these experiences can be explored, examined, and even enjoyed. On some occasions, however, many people who experience sleep paralysis will feel an invading presence that often brings with it a sense of claustrophobia. Some claim that this state is what precedes a lucid dream. The physicality of it, however, is that your body shuts down and enters something resembling REM sleep without first losing consciousness: hence the hallucinations and altered state of consciousness. Scientifically speaking the paralytic aspect of sleep paralysis is a natural mechanism that prevents you from physically acting out while you dream, which could potentially cause you to harm yourself.
As the whispering had become sharp and painful to my ears, everything immediately began to slow down. The very fabric of what I was experiencing slurred and distended like the sound of a record making its last, sluggish rotation before coming to a stop. Suddenly the walls and the floor had their color again. It was thirty seconds or so before sensation returned to my limbs and I could will my fingers to clench. Another thirty seconds still before the burning sensation of electricity in my muscles had faded to a tiny hum. Glancing at the clock told me that it was 6:00 a.m. The green digits glared; I added and subtracted them until they equaled one, a habit I had picked up to diffuse anxiety. My alarm was not set to go off for another half hour. I thought about calling to my parents for help, but at that point I was fine albeit somewhat shaken.
People used to blame these episodes on demons or ghosts, as depicted in old artistic renderings like Henry Fuseli’s oil-on-canvas, The Nightmare. Just because you understand something, however, does not mean that you can always be in control of it. Every time I feel the signs of an oncoming episode of sleep paralysis, I brace myself and try to remind myself that the whole event is definitively a hallucination. Rationalization is not always enough, however; once the sensation rises through your body, any hope of remaining objective disappears. The feeling that shoots through your very core at the loss of your body is vulnerability. Figures, faces, and forces all will pass you by; some you can feel inspecting you with a discerning eye. Maybe this is what some people perceive to be paranormal activity.
It has been theorized that the visual and experiential aspect of dreams is brought on by the release of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) from the pineal gland in the brain. This chemical is also released during near-death experiences as a mechanism to separate one’s consciousness from the difficult process of a seemingly imminent demise. DMT has powerful psychedelic and hallucinogenic properties when isolated from certain plants and ingested recreationally in minute amounts; in cases where it is done recreationally, as well as in cases of near-death, people commonly report seeing or talking to God, intelligent divine beings, and even aliens. Because sleep paralysis is closely associated with seeing strange figures, hallucination, and out-of-body experiences, there is speculation that DMT is an active component in the experience. It would account for the seeming ability to “see” while your eyes are shut, the multitude of other sensations, and especially the encounters with seemingly conscious entities. DMT is well-known for its illegality and hallucinogenic properties, but that seems to be where the common familiarity ends; there are lesser-known beliefs about its function as a naturally occurring chemical in animals and humans, specifically the facilitation of the “soul” in and out of the body.
Another night much more recently, I fell asleep facing the open door. The room was dark, the hour late, and I began to feel my body sink. My girlfriend, who was sleeping next to me on the full size mattress, seemed to vanish. The gap of black space between the door and the frame expanded as a ghastly face came into view. It did not appear to be a living face, but a pale mask smeared with brilliant carnival colors and no discernible body. “Somebody is holding this damn thing through the door on the end of a stick,” I remember thinking to myself. The thing bobbed back and forth towards me through the dark room, moving as though through a flip-page comic book. Indeed on the end of a stick, but with no hands holding it, the mask’s intense eyes and splitting grin faded into nothing within the space of a second as it reached the foot of the bed. I shot upright as my strength returned and felt relief that my partner was still next to me. I debated waking her up but decided against it. I did not want her to worry. For another hour, every time I laid my head down I would feel the state approach and force myself back up to avoid more eerie encounters. I don’t necessarily believe in spirits, but I do believe in the power of the mind… Realistically, which one has more potential to do harm?
Say, however, that hypothetically your soul was able to leave your body, as people often believe happens during episodes of lucid dreaming or astral projection. How would it see without physical eyes to absorb the images, and how would your brain process what it experiences? According to basic string theory (a prominent theory predicting multiple higher dimensions), as humans we exist in the fourth dimension (linear time) and perceive it mostly in the third dimension. That is to say that our lives follow a straight line, occurring only once, and we can normally only observe what happens within the three-dimensional spatial world that exists during that timeline. Theoretically, if we were able to perceive the fifth dimension it would be like looking at our lives as a two-dimensional drawing on paper; we would be able to observe or experience specific moments from our timelines by circumventing the need to experience them linearly in the fourth dimension. Then the sixth dimension would be divergent possible timelines from the one that we know as set in stone from that higher dimensional vantage point, and so on until it becomes mind-bogglingly complex. I needed to clarify these aspects of string theory before pointing out that often people believe dreams to be collages of past, present, and future events in our lives. If that is true, then your brain is able to piece together pictures from the vantage point of the fifth dimension (as though your life is a drawing on paper that you can hold). But here is where it gets really bizarre: if the spiritual or non-corporeal aspects of ourselves can exist on a higher plain of being (even if we have trouble comprehending it when it happens), then could there not already be conscious entities that exist there and even above? According to the drawing metaphor, would the person on that piece of paper be able to see the one holding it? Short answer: no. If you exist in the flatland of two dimensions then you can’t perceive the third. As such could the same not be said about us existing in the fourth dimension being seen by beings in the sixth dimension? If DMT can indeed project our conscious minds from our bodies, then maybe sleep paralysis, dreams, and lucid dreaming are all keys that allow us to perceive little windows into the higher dimensions. Maybe some of the figures that people are so terrified of when caught in the grips of sleep paralysis can see you, but as curious about you as they may seem, they cannot touch you in the way that you know touch. You are flat to them, and as such they cannot wrap their hands around you. There is a lot to think about when it comes to what we can’t see. I am no theoretical physicist, but I think that that makes this sort of speculation even more fun.
Historically people have created monsters, spirits, and ghouls in order to rationalize their anger, fears, and insecurities. Dreams in general don’t necessarily have any meaning outside of one’s self, but it is safe to say that they absolutely can be representative of a person’s mental state. But how must your conscious mind perceive subconscious activity from the fringes of sleep? Perhaps your brain constructs dreams and related hallucinations like a collage of stored sights and sounds; maybe there is no significance, just a regurgitated spew of memories. Lately sleep paralysis episodes have lost some of their more frightening effects on me; just like with dreams, I’ve found that sleep paralysis can be pleasant as well as unpleasant. It can be fun to experiment with what can happen during this state. I think I may have even had an out-of-body experience during it once, but I can’t really trust the kind of people who would validate that for me. The faces and figures have not appeared for several months, although I will almost always feel something invading my personal bubble. If I try hard to ignore that claustrophobic feeling, I’m able to have some fun seeing how long I can stand the overwhelming currents, inability to move, and hallucinatory state. I have very little understanding of what I’m doing, but I’ve started to appreciate that it happens. If the day ever comes where there is a real-world application for dreaming, I’ll be sure to apply what I’ve learned.
David Wolpert is currently majoring in nothing with a minor in bromeopathic medicine. He regrets this joke and would like it redacted immediately.