Monday, October 18, 2010

Neither Awake nor Asleep

by Conroy

Man sleeping...peacefully?
A couple of nights ago I had a terrifying experience. I was lying in bed drifting off to sleep. As consciousness was slipping away I suddenly became aware that I was falling asleep. My spontaneous reaction to this realization was to move my left arm, but to my arm didn't move. I tried again with the same result, no movement! I tried my right arm, and my legs...still nothing! I began to panic, I knew I wasn't paralyzed, I just needed to fully wake. I told myself to keep trying, keep trying, I could move...

Finally, after what seemed a long time, but was probably no more than a few seconds, my arms bolted from under to covers, I was awake and mercifully mobile.

This wasn't a dream, not in the normal sense anyway. I knew I was in my bedroom, I could see my room, I just couldn't move. This eerie state of semi-consciousness is something that I've experienced before, perhaps once a year since I became an adult. It has a clinical name, hypnagogia, and as I think my story conveys, it's a disconcerting experience. On other occasions when I've suffered these episodes, I have been convinced that "something" was in my room, that my legs were suspended above my bed, and like this most recent occurrence, that I was paralyzed. Often these sensations were accompanied by a confusing rush of sound. In all instances, once I regained consciousness (I won't say once I awoke, because, I guess technically I was awake, or at least not asleep) I am lucid, aware of my surroundings (always my bedroom, and always when I'm alone), but with a very strong memory of the event. It's nothing like a dream that fades upon waking.

Hypnagogia seems to occur at least once to a large percentage of people and chronically to a small percentage. It can be accompanied by dreaming and sleep paralysis, clearly symptoms I've experienced. I often dream immediately after falling asleep and during even very short naps, which is not consistent with the normal REM sleep / dreaming cycle. Perhaps my hypnagogic experiences are when my dreaming starts even before I sleep. Is this a possible explanation?

I would support the argument that the absurd claims of "visions", "hauntings", or "alien abductions" are all specious manifestations of this biological phenomena. I can attest that it sure felt like there was a "presence" in my room during one of my episodes, but wakefulness revealed a relieved solitude. Maybe others are more unsettled by these occurrences or maybe their experiences are more vivid. After all, why else would a normal-thinking person make the preposterous, laughable claim to have been visited by aliens?

Have you ever had a hypnagogic episode? What did you experience?


I know I don't sleep well, I often wake up multiple times at night, I sometimes have unpleasant dreams (rarely genuine nightmares). Hypnagogia may just be another symptom of my poor sleeping. Anecdotally, it seems that a great many people suffer from sleep problems. Why is this? I know I am productive and energetic when well rested. I can be taciturn and sluggish when chronically tired. How much more effective might we all be if we just slept better?


  1. I too have experienced this malady though it usually manifests itself during waking hours and almost always at restauarants. I am never alone and the paralysis only effects others coincident with the arrival of the check.

  2. An infamous Roper Poll from the early '90s suggested that as many as four million people had had an "Alien Experience." But, as Joel Best noted in his book Damned Lies and Statistics, the survey was really about sleep paralysis, not alien abduction. Not wanting to discourage people from answering the surveys honestly, the researchers set up their questions to get at the issue indirectly---a bit too indirectly---by inquiring into five specific abduction symptoms. Score at least four out of five, and you had been abducted!

    So, Conroy, have you ever woken up "paralyzed with the sense of a strange person or presence or something else in the room?" Yes, uh-oh, there's a one-in-four chance you were abducted by aliens! In fact, 2% of the respondents scored 4 or more points on this survey, and therefore the pollsters concluded that 2% of the entire population believes it has suffered through an alien abduction. This highlights the importance of choosing the measure.

    So we can add another "maybe" to the list, which is that maybe the survey that led to the claim that many people have reported alien abductions was itself a very poorly conducted survey that tells us more about how not to conduct a survey than it does about the depths of human credulity.

  3. Just came across your blog and read your entry "Neither awake nor asleep." I have the same sleep experiences just the way you described them!! (mostly during my twenties, but I still have them once in a while) I'm glad it's not just me and now I have a name for it. Thanks! Although I also have several times "seen" or felt something was sitting on my chest making it hard to breath. It's pretty weird. But the panic is real... and I don't think it's aliens.

  4. Anonymous,

    I had the same reaction as you did when I read about hynagogia. I said to myself, "other people are having the same strange experiences." I think for bewildering events like these, it's good to know that you're not alone.

    You make the point of having physical sensations accompany your hypnagogia. I have as well (though not the pressure you describe). This is certainly another reason that the experiences are so "real" and frightening.

    Thanks for reading and commenting and I hope you find some of our other posts just as interesting.