Night Terrors

Shelley R Adler. Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos and the Mind-Body Connection. Rutgers University Press, (Studies in Medical Anthropology). 2011.

Drawing from his own experiences and a wide variety of sources Shelley Adler explores the experience of the night-mare - his usage - to distinguish the original use of the term from its now common use as a generic term for all sorts of unpleasant dreams. This original night-mare is the name for aware sleep paralysis (ASP), or at least that very unpleasant subset of those experiences which involves not just a sense of paralysis, but also that of a pressing or crushing on the chest. He examines the experience in a variety of cultures and historical periods, tracing through mythical figures such as Lilith. He might, however, be going too far in linking the experience with that of the Greek god Pan. Pan seems much more likely to be derived from the mountain (or more generally wilderness) panics discussed by Andy Roberts in ‘The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui and other mountain panics’ in Fortean Studies 5, pages 152-171). Both experiences may be linked by a joint sense of numinous terror.

These severe cases of ASP (there is an even worse one than the classic pressing night-mare, in which sufferers feel as though the life is being throttled out of them) can induce feelings of overwhelming terror and a sense of supernatural awe, which it is difficult even for those who are aware of its physiological origin to dismiss, and, Adler suggests, can lead to symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

Shelley examines the possibility that alien abduction narratives derive, at least in part, from ASP and night-mare experiences. I should point out that these do not have to be restricted to people lying down in bed, as ASP can occur to people sitting, driving etc., where it is associated with microsleep and micro-REM. One version of this is night nurse paralysis, which Shelley suggests may also affect others with stressful jobs on night shifts, such as air traffic controllers and may account for some otherwise inexplicable accidents.

In the main, for most people the night-mare is horrible but ultimately harmless, but this may not always be the case. In the second part of the book Adler looks at the incidence of Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome (SUDS) among the Hmong, an ethnic group from Laos who fought on the American side in the Vietnam war, and were later forced out of Laos by the victorious communists, many whom then became refugees in the USA. SUDS is or was particularly prevalent among that community and connected in their own beliefs with their version of the night-mare. Adler suggests that the fear and dread associated with the night-mare may trigger fatal heart irregularities among people with a heart defect known as the Brugada syndrome. This is another welcome addition to the growing literature on ASP and related phenomena, and it makes one wonder how many other unrecognised parasomnias are out there. interpreted either as supernatural experiences or as some form of pathology, or indeed never discussed at all because all who experience them think they are unique to themselves. – Peter Rogerson.

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