Search Terms!

So, while dusting off my old blog and getting back into the rhythym of writing again, I was looking at the various search terms people used to find my blog while I wasn’t blogging, and the search terms that hit my blog in 2015 were:

  • is lucid dreaming pseudoscience
  • do aromantics date
  • straw man arguments against christianity
  • pseudoscience of dreams
  • is liquid dream is pseudoscience
  • straw man arguments against religion
  • is lucid dreaming a pseudoscience

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Pain in Dreams

So, yesterday I said “I have a very odd idea of what comprises an awesome dream–the one yesterday was distinctly unpleasant, but it was also very interesting and unusual…” I think I’ll write about that dream, today.

As it turns out, you can actually feel pain in dreams. I’ve had a few dreams where I’ve experienced pain, but I could count the number of them on the fingers of one hand. The most interesting of these was the one I had the day before yesterday. It started out as a fairly normal variation on the (oddly common) dream theme of having one’s teeth rot/fall out. I broke my two front teeth, somehow, and I was left holding the little bits that had been knocked out. I was worrying about what I would do, and if the bits of teeth in my hand could be put back in, if I didn’t lose them (so of course the bits kept crumbling or otherwise being on the verge of being lost). It didn’t hurt at first, but the dream kept going on with me worrying about my teeth and wondering how to get this fixed and trying to find a dentist. When it did start to hurt, it was this throbbing, sharp pain shooting through my two broken front teeth. Later it was more of a throbbing, dull pain. At some point, I was thinking about something I saw on tv a long time ago about a guy who fell (like off a short cliff/dropoff) and hit the ground face first and broke most of his teeth, and he was in so much pain from his broken teeth.
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Ok, short post***. I should be sleeping, but this was just too good not to write (and I’ve been neglecting my blog more than I like, anyway).

I’ve been having some fairly awesome blog-worthy dreams the past couple of days, but there is one bit I want to mention now even if I don’t get around to all the rest, yet. Also, I have a very odd idea of what comprises an awesome dream–the one yesterday was distinctly unpleasant, but it was also very interesting and unusual…

But that’s not the snippet I talked myself into writing about before I go to sleep. This is.

I was in my room, and my door was open a little ways (normally I always have it closed, but hey, dreams). I saw Alice* out in the common area. I wondered if my other roommate (who is out on vacation in waking life and I don’t know when to expect her back because I didn’t ask) had come back and brought Alice with her. Alice looked at me, probably. I just closed the door. There was some pushing from the other side of the door, but I just kept pushing until it was shut. I didn’t care what she did once I got the door shut. I was just closing it and that was it, and it was staying closed even if Alice yelled at me and banged on the door. She didn’t, though. Nothing happened after I closed the door (well, the dream continued, and the rest of it was very interesting, too, and in fact I got lucid** a bit later, but I can write that in another post).
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Sleep Paralysis as an Explanation for Alien Abduction

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.

Random/Scary Dream Stuff

I woke up in a surprisingly good mood today, considering I’d had a nightmare. Probably something to do with switching from run and hide tactics to stand and fight. And holding my own. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I was a kid, I was terrified of dogs. I’m mostly over it by now (unless they’re barking or growling, my reaction to dogs these days is usually “awww cute” instead of “eek! a dog!”), but a rather high percentage of the nightmares I have still feature dogs. I can think of two off the top of my head that were just normal random dreams until I saw a dog, which lunged at and/or bit me, and I woke up right after, still freaking out. (One of the dogs was a hellhound. I knew this because it was painted red. Heh, dream logic…) Today’s dream was a lot more drawn out than that.

I was in the backyard, seducing some cats. I think I made friends with a dog, too. Another dog comes along, though, and it is not the friendly type. I retreat towards the garage door, and when it gets close I shoot it (weird dream stuff–I have no idea where I got a gun, or what happened to it after I used it), but the dog’s still coming after me. I only succeeded in making it angry. I manage to close the door before it reaches me. It tries to push through, but I lock the door, too. I’m not sure how long it will hold though, so I go into the house to find a better hiding place. Of course, all of the rooms have windows. I end up deciding to hide in the bathroom, because it has the smallest and highest window. Then, after I lock the door, I notice that the glass pane is missing from the window. I freak out and retreat further into the house, trying to figure out where I can hide. The dog gets in, somehow, but I manage to bash its skull in with a sauce pan, hitting hard and repeatedly until I’m sure its dead. There’s blood everywhere. I wash it off me, but I’m sure the other dogs can still smell it, and they won’t like what I’ve done.

Sure enough, another dog attacks me later, when I’m in the backyard again. I decide to fight this one without weapons. Maybe I’ll avoid the same mistake I made with the gun. I put up my fists and wait for it to come. It lunges at me and bites my left arm and holds on (more dream weirdness–it doesn’t hurt, although I know it’s possible to feel pain in a dream, because it’s happened to me before), but I beat the dog with my free right arm. It decides to leave after that.

So, I’m not a big fan of violence and fighting, but, in the immortal words of Malcolm Reynolds, “Someone ever tries to kill you, you try to kill ’em right back!” It felt really good fighting those damn nightmare dogs instead of just running away or being attacked, like usual. I felt all sorts of empowered and strong. Yea, I’m a badass. Don’t mess with me, nightmare dogs, I’ve got a mighty sauce pan!

Speaking of scary dream stuff, I had a more scary than usual sleep paralysis experience the other day. The usual level of scariness of sleep paralysis is pretty low for me, though, since I’m so used to it by now, and I don’t usually hallucinate things that are all that creepy while it’s happening. I was drifting in and out, between sleep paralysis and groggy wakefullness, trying not to move too much when I did seem to be awake, since I was hoping for a lucid dream. It’s really hard to tell when I’m properly awake or not when it’s like that, and it’s supremely difficult to use my favorite reality checks, which involve being able to move, while paralyzed.

So, I saw a bird flying in my room. It was just a harmless sparrow, and I’m not at all afraid of birds, but I couldn’t move, and I wasn’t sure if I was awake or not–if I was seeing things that were really there or not. It landed near me on the bed, and I was freaking out, trying to move with no success. Then I saw it sorta go through part of the blanket, and I think that’s about when I figured out it wasn’t real, since when I’m awake, multiple objects tend not to be able to occupy the same space at the same time.

Sometimes I wonder. It’s this hard to figure out when I’m awake or not when I’ve got loads of experience with sleep paralysis. My first sleep paralysis experience was long before I figured out what it was or that there’s a name for it or that it’s harmless and even normal. If during my first experience I had hallucinated little grey aliens instead of a giant spider, if I’d seen something such that it would have been no more weird to see run away away and disappear through a wall (after actually waking up) than to see it in the first place, I wonder if I would be an alien abduction believer? I mean, the most obvious explanation for a spider disappearing through a wall is that there isn’t really a spider there, or that it didn’t really disappear through a wall. But with little grey aliens, there is another obvious explanation, which is that they just have some really amazing technology (which would be kind of necessary for them to be there in the first place). I mean, the thing that made me certain that I didn’t really see a giant spider in my bedroom was that it couldn’t have run away through the wall. If I’d seen aliens, the only reason to think they weren’t real (in absence of knowledge about sleep paralysis and hypnagogic/hypnopompic hallucinations) would be that they were aliens, and, frankly, we can’t know yet that aliens don’t exist.

I guess I’m just saying that I can kind of relate to people who have experienced weird stuff and interpreted it as proof of some manner of woo that skeptics scoff at (even though I am a skeptic), because I have experienced, and still do experience, a lot of weird stuff sometimes. I mean, it’s unreasonable to stick to such woo when presented with all sorts of evidence to the contrary, but I can understand how someone would believe the woo in the first place, if they’d had just the right (or wrong) sort of experience.

Dream Pseudoscience

I’m always a little worried, on this blog, that people will find their way here from the atheosphere and then dismiss me because I talk so much about dreams and lucid dreams (dreams in which the dreamer knows they are dreaming). To be honest, lucid dreaming is connected with a whole lot of pseudoscience stuff. It’s often talked about together with things like astral projection and out-of-body experiences. Then there’s ideas like shared dreaming, which would be pretty cool if it could happen, but I’ve never seen anyone produce any actual evidence of it. Most of the time when I go to the library to find books on lucid dreaming, I find shelves full of books on dream interpretation* and unlocking the unconscious mind and New Age-y sounding stuff (there are maybe one or two books about lucid dreaming, if I’m lucky). There’s also the people who claim to have precognitive dreams. The lucid dreaming forum I hang out on has a few separate sections for most of these topics (which I think is great, because it makes it very easy for me to avoid them).

It really bothers me that there is so much woo surrounding dreams. It seems like, in this culture at least, dreams are either dismissed as insignificant or treated as an important spiritual and/or psychic thing. Neither of these attitudes is likely to result in much good research about dreaming.

I keep thinking I should write an in-depth post about this or that kind of dream woo. It’s kind of a natural topic to pop up in a blog that combines the topics of atheism and lucid dreaming, after all. In this post, though, I just want to establish that I am not a fan of woo, and that lucid dreaming (which I am a fan of) is actually a real thing that has been proven scientifically. Here’s a link to a study by Stephen LaBerge about lucid dreaming. LaBerge, who hasĀ  Ph.D in psychophysiology, came up with a technique to prove the existence of lucid dreaming using eye movement signals. During REM sleep (which is the part of sleep during which most dreaming happens), the body is paralyzed, but the eyes move. These eye movements seem to correspond to the direction of gaze in the dream. For the experiment, eye movements of the dreamer were monitored and when the dreamer became lucid, they used a previously agreed upon eye movement signal to indicate that they had become lucid.

* While there is probably some meaning that can be gleaned from dreams (even if it’s nothing more complicated than, gee, maybe I had a dream about pizza because I have been absolutely obsessing about pizza lately), I’m really skeptic of the majority of people/books that claim to be able to interpret dreams. This is probably something I’ll write an in depth post about later, but for now, I’m just going to link to somebody else who wrote about some of this stuff, starting with Freud. I haven’t finished reading it, but it looks quite useful from what I’ve read so far, and the presence of references for further reading is always a good sign.

Pseudo Sleep Paralysis?

I had a dream this morning that made me wonder if there is really all that much difference between sleep paralysis and a lucid (or at least vivid or memorable) dream in which you cannot move, especially in cases where the one turns into the other. I have had more than one wake-initiated lucid dream which started with sleep paralysis and then became a lucid dream in which I could not move or had great difficulty moving. I usually have a very hard time telling where the sleep paralysis ends and the dream begins. I often wonder if some of my earliest sleep paralysis experiences were really wake-initiated dreams which began with sleep paralysis. I wouldn’t be surprised if it just isn’t always possible to tell the difference between the two based only on subjective experience (I wonder if there are any good objective measurements to specifically indicate a sleep paralysis state?). I can definitely imagine someone who has experienced sleep paralysis having a dream (lucid or not) about being in sleep paralysis.

I’ve decided to post the relevant bits of this dream verbatim from my dream journal, even though it includes bad grammar, abbreviations, and jargon, and things are written out of order (it was sufficiently confusing and repetitive that I don’t know what order most of the things happened in, anyway). FA stands for false awakening. That’s when you dream that you’ve woken up. RC stands for reality check. I made extensive use of the nose plug reality check during this dream (if you plug your nose and you can still breathe normally, then you’re dreaming). Extra notes I’ve added for this post are in [square brackets].

Lucid. False awakening. Very convinced I’m awake. In own bed, seeing own ceiling. Check anyway. Nose plug fails [as in, I can still breathe, so I must be dreaming]. Paralyzed, struggle to move. FA. Repeat about a dozen times… Sometimes during, felt like floating- then back in bed. Heard music, but thought nothing of it for a while. Then realized it’s a good sign of being asleep. Try to ‘stabilize’ dream. See ‘stabilize’ write itself in red on the ceiling, one of the times I actually made it out of bed- then back to being stuck. Floated through walls/through floor at least once each, followed by FA. Strong pressure felt on shoulders most of the time. Constantly reality checking with nose plug because it’s so easy to think I’ve just woken, or just opened my ‘real’ eyes. Still wonder how I moved my hand enough to do that, while feeling paralyzed so much. First time, was trying to figure out how to test if I’d just woken up without moving, but did nose plug RC anyway. As time went on, felt more and more like I had a stuffy nose. I wanted to wake up or at least dream something where I could move.

So hard to remember what came before, while I was first lucid [I couldn’t remember at all what came before the false awakenings and paralysis when I first woke, even though I knew I was lucid before the first FA]. Don’t know where I became lucid. Taco Bell. Go to use the restroom. Leave my backpack with whoever I’m with (a lady and her daughter, I think?). I realize that was dumb, because I have no idea what she looks like. When I reach the restroom, I find my backpack hanging on the back of the door. I figure the lady stopped being in the dream, and so the backpack defaulted to another location.

Back at Taco Bell. I had a taco and a burrito earlier, so I order two tacos and a soda (I still have the one taco left over in my backpack) to complete the meal.

At one of the booths. Two people are having an interesting conversation in the next booth. The one I am back to back with is very [big?] and has a mask or something creepy like that. No, a ballcap, and she is a scarily large woman with long blond hair (I am not using large as a euphemism for fat). My point of view doesn’t quite match up with my ‘body’. It’s the point of view I would have if I were sitting next to myself and looking up and back to see the woman.

My shadow! [remembering more about the FA/paralysis stuff now] My shadow was keeping me in place, but I couldn’t even move my head to see it! If only… At times I saw random weird stuff, like a drawing bouncing around on the ceiling. At least it wasn’t spiders this time… My p.o.v. [I got tired of writing out point of view] didn’t match my body that one time. I was trying to edge myself back, lean my body against the headrest, edge myself up even if moving was so hard. It worked, except my p.o.v. remained firmly directed at the ceiling, which was kind of disoriented. It occurred to me at some point to concentrate more on senses other than sight (it was dark part of the time, or my ‘eyes were closed’). So I concentrated on hearing. I don’t think I heard anything interesting, so maybe this was before the music. I don’t remember which songs played, although it seemed obvious at the time. I thought it was coming from my computer until I realized I would have had to get up and turn it on for that, and I hadn’t.

This dream has a great deal in common with my experiences that are more obviously able to be called sleep paralysis. I was in my own bed, looking at the ceiling I look at every morning when I wake up. I could not move (the few times I did seem to be able to move, it was very limited and with great difficulty). I had just “woken up” from a lucid dream before it started, and if I had not managed to reality check constantly throughout, I would have no idea it was a dream (as opposed to being awake or in ‘actual’ sleep paralysis). I felt a strong pressure on my shoulders, as if someone were holding me down. At one point, I felt as if some frightening, malevolent ‘other’ was holding me there (my own shadow). I hallucinated odd things (such as the drawing bouncing around on the ceiling- which I just now realize I didn’t actually write down in the dream journal entry). I may even have been in the same position when I woke up as when I was dreaming (on my back), although I can’t remember for sure. It also occurred on a day when I had overslept (I fell back asleep after waking because I did not get up for a while).

There are only a few things I can think of to distinguish this from most of my sleep paralysis episodes. The most obvious of these was that I was aware throughout that it was a lucid dream, due to constant reality checks, but this is also the first time I have even thought to reality check during something that seemed like sleep paralysis. It also had a suspiciously long duration for sleep paralysis. I’m a little uncertain of how long sleep paralysis is supposed to last, though, and this website suggests that while a sleep paralysis episode usually lasts between a few seconds and a few minutes, a person’s sense of time can be distorted during an episode. Possibly the most telling difference, which I did not even realize until I was mostly done writing this post, was the lack of a certain ‘rushing’ sound or a certain pressure in the back of my neck. While I find this sound/feeling very difficult to describe in words, it is a very distinctive sound/feeling that seems to always happen during sleep paralysis (and only during sleep paralysis) for me.

From a practical standpoint, as someone who is into lucid dreaming as a hobby, it would be really nice to learn how to not get stuck in this pseudo sleep paralysis state. I often having trouble moving and/or being able to see in lucid dreams that start with an episode of sleep paralysis (usually wake-initiated lucid dreams). It’s really disappointing when I’m trying to have fun and explore and experiment in a lucid dream, but instead I spend the whole dream trying to figure out how to move my legs and/or make everything not be so dark. Sometimes I am able to transition from sleep paralysis into a lucid dream that isn’t hobbled, though. I wish I could figure out what is different, between the times that I can, and the times that I can’t. Well, at least I have gotten past the point of being scared by sleep paralysis (knowing that it’s not real and that it will end soon makes a world of difference). Even that one recent time where I saw a spider inches from my face while in sleep paralysis, I didn’t freak out. Though, even when it’s not ‘real’ sleep paralysis, it can get pretty unpleasant when I can’t move, and I can’t wake up, and it seems to last for something like ten minutes or half an hour. I’m still wondering if it was a real episode of sleep paralysis after all. It’s not like I have a polysomnogram (and my google-fu isn’t strong enough to figure out how much that would be able to tell me, anyway, which is kind of frustrating).