Does Sleep Paralysis Have a Religious Explanation?

Demons, Ghosts, and the Devil Are Sometimes Blamed for Common Event


If you have ever experienced the terrors of sleep paralysis, you may not be surprised that some people attribute the phenomena to religious experiences. Does sleep paralysis have a religious explanation? Learn what science may tell us about the events that occur between the transition from sleep to wakefulness.

As a person of both science and faith, the question deeply intrigues me. Though I have never experienced sleep paralysis myself, I have reviewed hundreds of accounts of the phenomena.

This informal analysis reveals some common themes that might make someone more likely to ascribe the experiences to some sort of supernatural intervention.

To better understand people’s experience of sleep paralysis, I have systematically analyzed the descriptors used in these accounts. These findings also served as the inspiration for other articles on sleep paralysis, one describing the symptoms and the other regarding people’s beliefs about the underlying causes.

Though some may posit a religious explanation for their experience of sleep paralysis – citing the devil, demons, spirits, and ghosts – it is more likely that the phenomenon of sleep paralysis has a scientific explanation.

Sleep paralysis occurs when there is a breakdown between the separation of the states of sleep and consciousness, so that elements of the dream state (REM) can intrude upon wakefulness. In this mixed state, people will experience sleep paralysis (in fact, it can be triggered by disrupting REM in a sleep laboratory).

Parts of the brain that are often activated during REM can produce the fear and even religious experiences that people report (areas of the brain such as the amygdala and temporal lobe, respectively, are likely responsible for these symptoms). As an example, people with temporal lobe epilepsy often are highly religious (called hyperreligosity) and this part of the brain seems to be important to our experience of religion and our seeking faith.

The word hallucination is used medically to indicate an experience that does not have a basis in reality, presumably generated by the brain itself. Hallucinations may often be visual, auditory, or even tactile, all of which occur in sleep paralysis. We also understand now that parts of the brain may be in different states of consciousness at the same time. Though you may have returned to wakefulness, the region of the brain that might be driving the hallucination could persist in its state, resulting in the continued experience. (As a related example, some people have auditory hallucinations that occur in wakefulness in a condition called Exploding Head Syndrome.)

Though the phenomenon of sleep paralysis and its cause is certainly intriguing, I am hesitant to give it a supernatural or religious explanation. Although we may not fully comprehend it, as we learn more about the brain and sleep, I believe we will be able to solidify our understanding.

What do you think? Can sleep paralysis be explained through neuroscience?

Or does it represent a religious or spiritual experience? Share your thoughts through social media via the links.


Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." Elsevier, 5th edition.

Continue Reading