Last night I watched a documentary about sleep paralysis. The unfortunate individuals who suffer from this rare condition all seem to share similar experiences, which include an inability to make any voluntary movement and the belief that shadowy figures enter their bedrooms and threaten them. What each of the eight sufferers all agreed on was that they were fully conscious but incapable of alerting anyone to the perceived threat or defending themselves from it.
Sleep is a mysterious but essential activity. Mammals deprived of sleep for more than three days have a tendency to develop psychoses, immune system failure and can die. Dolphins avoid drowning by allowing only one hemisphere at a time to sleep. Swallows do the same thing, which is why the little chaps are able to carry on with their epic migratory flights, without the need to find a landing strip.
So, why do people experience sleep paralysis? It is during rapid eye movement sleep phases (REM) that we dream and that’s when the brain needs to be disconnected from it movement centre. Sometimes this lockdown mechanism doesn’t work efficiently and that’s when we are vulnerable to sleepwalking or, in the case of Regina vs Parks, a murder charge. In 1987 Kenneth Parks climbed out of bed, drove 14 miles to his parent-in-laws’ home and attacked the couple, leaving his mother-in-law for dead. He then handed himself into the police but was acting strangely. He was unresponsive to pain, despite severing tendons in both hands and seemed to be in a somnolent state. He came from a family who had a long history of parasomnia.
I have, since acquiring my adult teeth, suffered from bruxism (nocturnal teeth grinding). My molars, particularly on the left side are worn flat on top and I had to have both my upper and lower sets realigned when I was in my forties. For the past twenty years I have worn retainers, which don’t prevent the grinding but they do inhibit the damage to my teeth, jaw and marriage. But what they also reduce is the vividness of my dreams. I always dream. They are big, adventurous, scary and more importantly in technicolour. I register reds and greens most frequently, can detect sounds, smells and feel movement. I am also aware that I am dreaming, rather than experiencing reality.
What I learned from my orthodontist, who picks up the pieces, is that it is possible that the pain caused by my jaw clamping and tooth grinding, stimulates my brain to produce endogenous enkephalins, which produces a similar dream-like high to that produced by morphine and heroin. So, I suppose I could describe myself as a drug addict but probably less The Wire and more the River Cottage type.