The human mind is an amazing thing, and it's surprising how little science really understands it. Brain scientists have made some headway into understanding the brain's remarkably complex physiology, but many important concepts still elude them.

Still, we do know enough about the human brain to understand that there are a number of physiological and psychological factors that can influence perception of paranormal events. Some of these are quite common and some less so, but all can lead to experiences that seem extremely real and paranormal to the person having the experience.

That's not to say all paranormal experiences can be explained away by psychological or physiological factors. Some paranormal experiences truly lack logical explanations, and those are the ones we hope to focus on as paranormal researchers. 

With that in mind, I wanted to share some common physiological/psychological causes that may lead one to believe they've witnessed the paranormal. In this blog, we'll discuss one of the most common causes of paranormal experiences, Old Hag Syndrome. The medical term for this is sleep paralysis, although I like "Old Hag Syndrome" because of its descriptiveness. 

Old Hag Syndrome is responsible for a number of types of paranormal sightings including some reports of alien abductions, some incubus and succubus experiences, and others. It is called Old Hag Syndrome because one of the common experiences associated with it is waking up to an scary old lady hovering over the bed or nearby. An early explanation of this phenomenon was that a witch or old hang sat on the chest, waiting to attack the experiencer.

Sleep Paralysis experiences often display the following common elements.
  • They occur immediately upon waking (hypnopompic sleep paralysis)or just before drifting off to sleep (hypnagogic or predormital sleep paralysis)
  • Feeling completely conscious or aware
  • Inability to move or speak
  • The feeling something heavy is pressing down on your back or chest, pushing you into the bed
  • Feeling of breathlessness or suffocation
  • Hallucinations
While these experiences can feel very real, they have a perfectly normal explanation. During an episode of hypnogogic sleep paralysis, your mind may remain aware while your body grows deeply relaxed. While you are still conscious, your body prepares to sleep by slowing respiration and relaxing the muscles including your diaphragm. The result is your inability to move or speak in spite of feeling awake.

During hypnopompic sleep paralysis, you awake during your body's REM cycle. Since dreams can be vivid, if your body was not deeply relaxed and temporarily paralyzed, you would act out your dreams in your sleep. When you awake during a REM cycle, your awareness may awaken more quickly than your body. This results in the feeling of being unable to move or speak. Deep relaxation of the diaphragm results in the feeling of chest/back heaviness, as well as the feeling of suffocation or difficulty breathing. Stress or fear due to this temporary paralysis can trigger hallucinations, which often have a cultural component to them. That is, what your culture believes, you are likely to see. 

Sleep paralysis has several specific triggers, which include stress, changes in sleep schedule, alcohol or drugs, some medications, and sleep disorders. 

A friend once told me once that appears to be a classic example of sleep paralysis. He was lying in bed on his back. He awoke and couldn't move. He felt like someone was sitting on his chest, and he was terrified. He opened his eyes and saw a purple old woman sitting there, staring him in the face. He didn't know how long he laid there looking at the woman, before he was able to break free of the paralysis and sit up. When he did, the purple woman shot to the corner of his room and then disappeared.

Another friend shared a similar experience. He was in bed lying on his stomach. He felt someone sitting on his back and he was unable to roll over for what felt like several minutes. When he found his voice, he yelled, "Get off me!" The weight lifted, and he rolled over and saw a misty woman on the corner of his bed. He took one look at her and dove out of bed. As he did, she disappeared.

Both of these display the classic signs of old hag syndrome, right down to a phantasmic woman. That doesn't mean they weren't paranormal experiences (and both of these friends were profoundly affected by their experience), but the most logical explanation for the experiences is sleep paralysis.