OBEs and sleep paralysis

Susan J. Blackmore
Department of Psychology
University of the West of England
St Matthias College
Bristol BS16 2JP

Paper presented at the 23rd International Conference of
the Society for Psychical Research, September 1999

Sleep paralysis is defined as “a period of inability to perform voluntary movements either at sleep onset or upon awakening” It has been given many other names, including ‘Daymares’ and ‘cataplexy of awakening’, and many cultures have “sleep paralysis myths”, such as the Old Hag in Newfoundland or “Kanashibari” in Japan. Common features, apart from feeling paralysed, include buzzing and humming noises, a sense of presence, feelings of pressure on the chest, fear and, sometimes, floating or flying sensations.

This may sound quite different from the out-of-body experience – in which a person feels as though they have left the body and can see the world from a location outside it. However, OBEs and sleep paralysis have much in common. For example, Sylvan Muldoon describes how his first experience began when he was twelve years old, and he awoke to find himself unable to move, a condition he later called ‘astral catalepsy’. A floating sensation then took over and then a vibration and pressure in his head, after which his sight cleared and he was able to look down on his body.

Oliver Fox describes how he learned first dream control and then astral projection to avoid the unpleasant experience of becoming temporarily paralysed with everything ‘going wrong’ around him. He claimed that when in the paralysed state all you have to do is try to move to find yourself “out”.

Rogo describes a combined experience of OBE and SP, and Muldoon and Carrrington’s collection contains several such cases. In surveys, Green found that 5% of OBErs reported paralysis at some stage, and Poynton found 7%.

Several methods for inducing OBEs include the suggestion to use paralysis. Fox suggests keeping the mind awake while the body falls asleep, and Monroe emphasises a ‘vibrational state’ that sounds much like the vibrations and noises reported in SP. Given these points of comparison between SP and OBEs we decided to investigate the relationship further by comparing the features of two case collections.

The SP paralysis cases came from two sources; first 201 letters received in response to advertisements; and second 184 letters originally sent to the X Factor magazine. We compiled a database of the features of these experiences and reported the results at the 1997 SPR conference. In the first set 128 respondents reported SP. The two most common features, aside from paralysis itself, were a malign presence (45%), and vibrations or buzzing and humming noises (41%). Tactile sensations were reported by 20% and the experiences were often unpleasant or frightening. Many people felt pressing, squashing or pulling sensations, felt an invisible person sitting on the bed, or saw the bedclothes being moved or pressed down. 21% of these cases included an OBE, such as this one.

I was lying down on my sofa watching television. It was late night and I felt myself dropping off to sleep. I also felt myself going into the sleep paralysis state – which I don’t like … I felt myself sort of rolling off the sofa and then sort of floating round the living room.

Among the X-Factor letters, there were 68 cases of sleep paralysis. The most common categories were again malign presences (59%), and vibrations or noises (38%), and 12% included an OBE.

For the comparison, OBE cases were taken from the collection of letters I have received since the publication of my book Beyond the Body in 1982. Until now I have never analysed their contents in any systematic way, but the SP study suggested the possibility of applying the same categorisation system to these OBE accounts. The letters included 104 first hand accounts of OBEs. These were independently coded by two coders using the same system of categories they had used for the SP cases.

Not surprisingly the most common feature in the OBE cases was flying or floating sensations (71%), the next most frequently reported features were ones common in sleep paralysis, that is voices or laughter (25%), lights (24%), and benign or neutral presences (23%). Paralysis was reported in 18% of cases, including one very frightening experience with sensations of trembling and teeth grinding.

These results suggest that there is considerable overlap between the two experiences of OBEs and SP. In our SP collections 21% and 12% respectively reported having an OBE as part of the experience, and among the OBE case collection 19% included paralysis. In addition such features as the sense of presence, strange noises and vibrations, lights, and feelings of being pulled or touched occur in both. Oddly enough vibrations, which are a well known concomitant of OBEs, were more often reported among the SP cases. The most notable differences are that in SP the presences are far more often malign while in OBEs they are more often benign or neutral. In general sleep paralysis is a much more unpleasant experience than an OBE – only very few OBErs reported being scared or terrified.

There are many limitations to this study, including the use of unsolicited and highly variable accounts, and the limitations of the coding method used. However, we have made a first step towards finding out how similar the two experiences are.