Sleep paralysis is commonly offered as an explanation for alien abduction in skeptical circles. I’ve experienced sleep paralysis numerous times before, and I’ve written about it several times on my blog. I find sleep paralysis fascinating, and I am always wishing I could find more (solid) information about it (books, scholarly articles, etc.). I’ve never had any particular interest in or knowledge of alien abduction, but I can totally imagine someone mistaking sleep paralysis for alien abduction, especially if it’s the first time they’ve experienced it (or they have had multiple experiences that are consistent with each other), and they don’t know what it is. I mean, my first sleep paralysis experience was freaky enough when it was obvious (after I was fully awake, anyway) that it couldn’t have been real.
So, I decided to do some research on alien abduction to see if sleep paralysis really does stand up as a good explanation for alien abduction stories. I figured it would likely explain some, but not all, alien abduction stories. There were a few specific things I was looking for when trying to decide if sleep paralysis was a likely explanation for a particular story. Most obviously, was the person paralyzed during their abduction experience? Paralysis is, not surprisingly, kind of vital to being able to describe an experience as sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis happens while one is waking up or falling asleep, so another thing to look for was whether the person was lying down or falling asleep or waking up before or after or during their experience. There are a lot of other factors which can variously be present during sleep paralysis. People not uncommonly describe feeling a ‘presence’, often an evil one, in the room during an episode of sleep paralysis, and some people describe hearing a buzzing or rushing sound during the experience. People may hallucinate to varying degrees during sleep paralysis, and they usually have a much higher level of awareness than during a dream, perhaps almost as high as when awake. Usually, a sleep paralysis episode occurs on a time frame of a few minutes, although it can be shorter or longer, up to an hour or more.
So, I started googling to find some abduction stories and see how well they matched up with the sleep paralysis explanation. It became obvious fairly quickly that I should expand my repertoire of possible explanations to include confabulation and false memories (one story I found involved memories “recovered” under hypnosis, which completely undermined any credibility the story might otherwise have had, in my opinion) as well as other sleep phenomena like hypnagogic hallucinations, vivid dreams, and perhaps lucid dreams. Hypnagogic hallucinations occur in the drowsy state between waking and sleeping (this can occur either while falling asleep or waking up, although the latter are technically referred to as hypnopompic hallucinations). I have experienced both hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, although they are only rarely particularly noteworthy, as in the time I hallucinated a spider at least two feet across while sitting up in bed after waking abruptly from a sleep paralysis episode. Usually it is minor stuff, like thinking I see a bug or a spider crawling across the wall in the half dark, when I can’t quite tell if there is anything there or not until I turn on a light. As for hypnagogic hallucinations, when I’ve reached a point where I can’t quite tell if I am hearing a voice or if it is just in my head, that is an excellent sign that I’m right on the edge of sleep.
So, anyway, the stories that came up most easily on google tended to be the famous cases, and I doubt those are particularly representative alien abduction stories. Plus, it was hard to find the level of detail I wanted to test my hypothesis on some of these famous stories. News stories talking about specifics of what the aliens looked like were pretty useless for my purposes, considering that much of the detail I was looking for was specifically about context, such as whether the person was abducted when they had just lain down to take a nap, or whether the story ends with them waking up in bed. Eventually I found a site called phenomena log, which lets people submit stories of weird or unexplained phenomena and categorizes them by type, time, location, etc. In a slightly more scientific than cherry picking stories on google analysis, I decided to look at the five most recent stories filed under alien abduction and see how many of them could best be explained by sleep paralysis or other related sleep phenomena. In my opinion, 3 of the 5 seemed very consistent with sleep phenomena (specifically sleep paralysis, hypnopompic hallucination and vivid/lucid dreaming). I wasn’t quite sure what to think about the other two stories. There should be multiple witnesses for both stories if the events were not dreamed or hallucinated, but I only had the account of one witness to work with in each case. A lot of the details could be consistent with sleep phenomena, but there could be better explanations (including plain old vanilla hallucinations, hoaxes, or *shrug* actual aliens), and without more detail or any corroborating evidence (such as accounts from the other people present), I don’t feel comfortable coming to a specific conclusion.
If this small sample is representative of alien abduction stories (a big if), then it’s likely that the majority of alien abduction stories are a result of various sleep phenomena. This is pretty consistent with my initial hypothesis (that sleep paralysis is a good explanation for some, but not all, alien abduction stories), although other sleep phenomena such as hypnagogic/hypnopompic hallucinations and vivid/lucid dreaming should be included with sleep paralysis as possible explanations for alien abduction stories.