It’s amazing how creepy the nighttime can be, so it’s perhaps no surprise that people tend to experience more paranormal activity after lights out. According to new research, an inability to sleep well could make the night appear even more alive, leading to stronger beliefs in ghosts, demons, aliens, and the afterlife.
A number of previous studies have linked such convictions to specific sleep disorders. These include sleep paralysis, which entails a temporary inability to move upon waking or falling asleep; and exploding head syndrome, characterized by hearing loud bangs while nodding off. Given that both these conditions are associated with hallucinatory phenomena – including the sudden appearance of shadowy figures by one’s bedside – it’s understandable that those who experience such somnolent mischief might be more inclined to believe in the paranormal.
Indeed, such ideas are even encouraged by numerous cultural explanations for these sleep disorders. In Egypt, for instance, sleep paralysis is often said to be caused by nefarious spirits call jinn, while some Italians blame the condition on an evil cat-like witch called Pandafeche.
Taking a more scientific approach, the study authors analyzed the responses of 8,853 people to a survey about sleep quality and paranormal beliefs. In particular, they sought to determine how sleep impacts people’s convictions regarding the existence of ghosts and demons, the continuation of the soul after death, and the possibility of aliens having already visited Earth.
Overall, they found that such beliefs are more common among those who get fewer hours of sleep per night, take longer to fall asleep, struggle with insomnia or report “lower sleep efficiency.” Most strikingly, they found that around two-thirds of those who experienced sleep paralysis or exploding head syndrome were convinced that aliens had already walked amongst us, compared to just 3.4 percent of the total sample.
Just under 60 percent of participants who had undergone sleep paralysis also said they thought near-death experiences prove that the soul lives on after death, while those with stronger insomnia symptoms were more likely to believe in the devil.
“As [sleep paralysis] involves different types of hallucinations, including auditory and visual, and [exploding head syndrome] typically involves a bang, our findings suggest that the belief in aliens may be associated with sleep disturbances that produce sounds or images,” write the study authors. “One explanation for these associations is therefore that someone experiencing sounds or images associated with sleep could interpret this as evidence that aliens or other supernatural beings exist.”
Further research will be required to test this theory and examine the causal associations between sleep quality and paranormal beliefs. In the meantime, the researchers say their findings could help clinicians diagnose sleep disorders among patients who endorse such ideas.
Ultimately, though, they say that the “mechanisms underlying these associations are likely complex, and need to be further explored to fully understand why people sometimes report 'things that go bump in the night'.”
The study appears in the Journal of Sleep Research.