Sleep Paralysis; The Psychology of demons, ghosts and aliens…………and zombies…maybe.

“One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams.” – Fuseli

Demons, ghosts and aliens, in that order, have been reported over 100’s of years as visitors in the night scaring not only children but adults too….are we being visited by those from other worlds and dimensions…or….could there be a simpler explanation?

In the ‘Nightmare’  painting by Fuseli a sleeping woman is visited by nightmarish visions of demons and a horseshead…Are these Freudian symbols of neurosis usually buried deep unconscious manifesting themselves or is there an alternative psychophysiological based explanation?

Sleep Paralysis 

Back to the future; Marty Mcfly wakes up his young father in the dead of night dressed as an alien

During sleep it is now well documented that the mind and body goes through a number of processes, the most well known is R.E.M  (and some stages of NREM) where the brain becomes active and where reports of dreaming tends to have the greatest level of frequency.  During this period the human body responds with its own sets of changes, one being the muscles become inactive and it is though that this is a mechanism to stop the dreamer acting out their dreams. This safety mechanism however can sometimes be out of synch hence phenomenon such as sleepwalking and even sleep-murder in rare cases.  During a period of where the body still thinks it is asleep and therefore paralysed  however the individual becomes conscious they can experience a dream like state whilst awake – an experience that is reportedly very frightening, especially as it is correlated with a crushing sensation on the chest from the inhibited muscle activity (back to the demon sat on the woman in Fuseli’s painting).

It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before,” recalls Hannah Foster from Brighton. “After a normal day at work, I went to bed around 11pm, as always, and the next thing I remember is waking up, basically paralysed.  It was terrifying. And the more I panicked, the more it felt like I couldn’t breathe properly.  The second time, I knew what was happening – but as well as the paralysis, I also saw a terrifying black figure.  It looked a bit like a demon – with a scrunched, ugly face, like a gargoyle. I tried to scream and move away from it.”  Source; Mail online

These hypnopompic hallucinations have been correlated with a timeline, those reporting the phenomenon 200 years ago would report demons or ghosts, whilst these still occur attempted alien abduction reports are now more common and represents fears that are culturally time bound.   In Canada the phenomenon is referred to as ‘The hag‘, in Mexico “Dead person on you” (Subirse el muerto) and in China “Ghost pressing down on you‘. Alien abduction attempts have also been explained as examples of traumatic sleep paralysis episodes.  It is interesting to note that you can now get ‘alien abduction insurance‘  for peace of mind.

The future of sleep paralysis experiences 

The Zombie apocalypse is a common theme in television, film and popular culture maybe we will see a rise in zombie related experiences in the dead of night where unsuspecting sleepers wake awkwardly with hypnopompic hallucinations to the face of an extra from ‘The walking dead’, a White Walker from Game of Thrones or the new revamp of the X-Files. 


Tea-break Psychology 3 – Projective Tests

On the go or short of time…but want a little Psychology in your day…..? Welcome to the latest feature on the blog tea break Psychology, quick, easy little snippets of thought provoking information to mull over with a cuppa and a biscuit.


Projective tests

with a strong psychodynamic basis projection is the process of respond to ambiguous stimuli, presumably revealing hidden emotions and internal conflicts projected by the person into the test. Here are some different types used over the years in Psychology. Pretty much are all now confined to the history books due to considerable issues with reliability and validity. Let us start with the most well known, the Rorschach test.

Giant beaver on a motorbike?

Thematic Apperception Test

Man with worlds smallest watch has ankle tickled by wife?

tat05 tatpic21 ZohQEVzi7cUBZBXUkjudwQ_m

The Blacky Pictures

Pavlov’s dog gets the Oedipus complex!

Others include……House-Tree-Person,  Word Association and Incomplete Sentences

Falsifiability as a scientific criterion; Was Freud really the enemy of science?

Science isn’t a subject, it is a process, a methodology for inquiry and developing knowledge and understanding.  But what counts as a science?  What criteria, what check-list is there to know if a subject can be counted as a science and having testable theories?

Essentially,  replicability- to repeatedly yield precise results using a highly controlled methodology to infer cause and effect from testable predictions. A theory should be simplistic in terms of its unification of explanation (Psychology has a multitude of paradigms that are contradictory- consider the social and physiological approaches). Theories should be falsifiable, the notion that whilst there may be evidence for them they just have not  been disproved…….yet.  This was classically illustrated by David Hume, “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.”  Often referred to as the induction fallacy.

Psychology has a vested interest in this argument as it is often viewed by the ‘pure sciences’ as wishy -washy, ‘let’s just sit around and talk about our feelings kind of subject.’  However, many of those in Psychological research would take the view that they have just as an equal right to be considered as a science – however with the paradox of having to ‘prove’ its worth, Psychology suffering from an inferiority complex on a collective level.   An interesting article in the Guardian explores some of the finer point further here.

hypothetico-deductive model

The in joke to summarise this view is that Psychology has been suffering from ‘Physics envy’.  A play on words of a Freudian concept that is used to exemplify the position of Psychology.  Freud and the Psychodynamic approach has been the perspective in Psychology which has been the material used most effectively to reinforce this point.   Philosopher Karl Popper has been attributed with being the most vocal on his views particularly on Freud.  The scientific process is now based on the hypothetico-deductive model  Popper (1935).  Popper suggested that theories/laws about the world should come first and these should be used to generate expectations/hypotheses which can be falsified by observations and experiment.


Have a watch of this insightful video which discusses the Psychodynamic approach and other examples of methods used within the history of psychology that are examples of a non-scientific approach.  The answer to the question posed to the beginning of the post?………. history will answer yes.  Psychologist researching in Universities tend to work from a multidisciplinary perspective collaborating on research rather than working in isolation from a specific approach and taking a more applied stance.  Here is an example of what modern psychological research looks like....a long way from the Freudian model often wrongly considered to be the remaining foundations of the subject.

Temporal validity? Back dating The Health Belief Model to the 14th century………..

99ee996fd98675364d236798b7f98c43 I can only imagine a frosty atmosphere this morning at breakfast, as Kevin the Gerbil and Roland Rat receive news on who actually should be blamed for the Black Death…

Often you hear people refer to issues in their life in terms of ‘first world problems’ which are nothing more than a range of trivial or minor frustrations that impact certain economically developed countries, such  as computers crashing or not being able to access Wi-Fi (surely there is a case for a new foundation layer to be added to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), but how about 14th Century problems?


For most of us  the ‘Bubonic plague’ was nothing more than a trip to Eyam and a (most likely incorrect) recounting of ‘a ring a ring a roses’….However today’s news of the story of the plague AKA as the Black death (if ever there was a name of a disease to ensure that perceived seriousness should always be high, it’s this one), especially when there were 800 confirmed cases by the WHO in 2013 of which a significant number were fatalities’. Healthbeliefmodel   Consider how our knowledge about individual’s belief’s regarding our health could have impacted upon the epidemic (1/3 of all those in England died) – if we had Becker’s model to hand at the time would it have been different?, it is very difficult to say, however it is difficult to argue with the fact the more we understand about the dangers to our health the more informed choices we can make. However, such anxiety can in some go too far and become an illness in itself, Health Anxiety Disorder historically referred to as Hypochondrias can be explained using a range of psychological theory from the early work of Charcot and Freud to more Cognitive based theory such as the Health Belief Model.  From Psychoanalysis to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy it is a long road for sufferers.  A recent article highlighted in the Guardian just how debilitating it can be.