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Abstract

Literature on sleep paralysis in the anthropological world is surprisingly hard to find. There is a small group of authors who have studied the phenomenon in depth, and so the amount of differing perspectives and hypothesis are limited in the academic world. Because these episodes are so easily explained away as superstition or folklore, they are often skimmed over in many ethnographic studies. Unfortunately, this also holds true in the western world. Sleep paralysis is often interpreted by sufferers as a spiritual experience, but because of preexisting concepts influenced by the prevalence of western protestant ideas, many do not share these experiences due to a fear of being categorized as mentally ill. The United States also has no traditional culture term for the experience of sleep paralysis, which, when combined with the fear of being labelled as ‘crazy,’ leads to a significant drop in reported incidence rate. In countries in which there are established cultural terms and often folklore surrounding these experiences, they are common knowledge and part of the fabric of everyday life. This does not make them any less traumatizing when the episodes do occur. In many cases, these episodes are explained as supernatural intervention in the lives of humans. Demons, spirits, and night hags are the most common culprits, and these are cemented with strongly held beliefs that the supernatural exists in our own reality.

It cannot be argued that sleep paralysis is definitely influenced by the culture of the experiencer, but there is some disagreement among anthropologists, psychologists, and others studying the phenomenon as to how much one’s cultural background may shape their experiences. In most studies, preliminary research is done on what the local folkloric background is related to sleep paralysis. These almost always identify a set pattern of symptoms associated with the sleep disorder. While some have argued in the past that these episodes are part of a culture bound illness, many researchers believe that although many cultures have different understandings of these biological processes, they are all experiencing the same event with the same symptoms. Once it became more accepted that this sleep disorder was common worldwide, it was hypothesized that the differences in sensation, hallucination, and feelings could be explained by ingrained cultural concepts which are projected during the episode. For example, if someone had been raised in a specific rural area in Brazil, listening to stories about the Pisadeira their entire lives, they may experience the Pisadeira attacking them during their sleep paralysis episode. This hypothesis seems straight forward and makes sense, until you factor in Hufford’s observations, which point out that- even though some sleep paralysis episodes do seem to work this way- it does not explain how Americans with no cultural knowledge or explanation of sleep paralysis and no religious affiliations are experiencing sleep paralysis and interpreting the episodes as spiritual experiences. Hufford also observes that, rather than this biological event becoming inspired by the culture around the person and their previously held beliefs, these events lead people to create their own spiritual beliefs afterwards. Instead of a product of religion and spiritualism, these events inspire them.

It is also observed that individuals who know how sleep paralysis works physiologically and understand the phenomenon from a scientific aspect can still hold spiritual beliefs surrounding their experience at the same time. This leads to the theory that how we perceive and conceptualize pertaining to science and spirituality may not necessarily be the way we have always assumed- as opposites. The study of this phenomenon in relation to culture, psychology, and how humans understand otherworldly experiences may teach us much more about how our own minds work.

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