I was just poking around the internet, when I came upon a wikipedia link to an entry on “sleep paralysis” and the article is pretty interesting.

Apparently, this is a real condition in which a person is paralyzed (except for eye movement) for a few seconds or minutes after waking up. The condition is frightening in itself, but is usually compounded by the presence of extremely disturbing hallucinations.

I find this interesting on several levels.

First historically. Many scientists think that sleep paralysis is the cause of some reports of alien abductions and may have been the cause of some reports of demonic visitation or visitation from witches during the time of the Salem witch trials. Many hypothesize that the Salem witch trials were brought on by a kind of social hysteria that spread through the population via paranoia and prejudice. This sort of phenomenon makes me wonder to what degree “physical” diseases can really be separated by social surroundings. Others have made this point before by pointing out that tuberculosis used to be fashionable in the 1800s and that the cultural attitude toward it contributed to its spread.

Also linguistically and culturally. The word nightmare derives from the Latin/German/other romance language word for goblin or incubus (demon) and was culturally associated with a demonic visitation in which the person awoke with the demon sitting on their chest, making the person paralyzed with suffocation. I found it UNBELIEVABLE how consistent nearly ALL cultures are on this point. In almost every language and culture, the nightmare phenomenon is connected with demonic visitation (which is not surprising given ancient spiritual systems) but that it is nearly always connected with pressing and suffocation.

Lastly, I think there’s a general point about why I find philosophy interesting, which is that it always looks behind things. I thought nightmares were just bad dreams, and furthermore, I naively thought there was some cultural connection with nightmares involving the steeds of evil spirits (a mare is female horse). But now I see that the reality is much more complex and that nightmares were never originally even about dreams even though we use that word for that purpose these days.

It also connects with a further theme on this blog, which is that the world is not becoming more boring due to the advance of science; it is not becoming “disenchanted” as some social commentators like to say. I think rather that as science advances on many fronts, the unsolvable, the inexplicable, and the truly bizarre are revealed to an even greater degree. The world’s richness unfolds even more tenaciously as we try to assimilate all of its wondrous happenings to theory.


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