Sleep Paralysis – South African cultural interpretations

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Sleep Paralysis – South African cultural interpretations

Our bodies are usually paralysed during REM sleep.  This is probably necessary so that one does not respond physically to what one is dreaming about in that time. This paralysis is supposed to end once a person awakes, but this is not always the case and occasionally a person becomes fully awake, but is left with the paralysis of the head, limbs and trunk.  Along with the paralysis, persons typically experience respiratory difficulties and anxiety.

This transient experience is fairly common and is called Sleep Paralysis.  What makes it very interesting, though, is that different cultures have been found to have different interpretations of the experience and the explanations they give typically fall in the realm of the supernatural.  People experiencing Sleep Paralysis tend to explain it as a very fearful experience in which they sense an evil presence near them and experienced pressure on the chest (as if something is sitting on their chest or trying to suffocate them).

Research has shown that the supernatural explanations of the experience of Sleep Paralysis tend to be grouped culturally.  In other words, persons within certain cultural groups tend to have similar beliefs regarding the cause of Sleep Paralysis.  For example, persons from Newfoundland in Canada are likely to blame the “Old Hag”, persons in Thailand will blame the “phi am” (a certain ghost)(Cassaniti, 2011), and those in Egypt will blame if on the Jinn (malevolent spirit-like creatures) (Jalal, 2013).  Similar cultural groupings of explanations have been found in Mexico (Sharpless & Doghramji, 2015), Japan (Kukuda, et al., 1987), Ethiopia (Sharpless & Doghramji, 2015), Brazil (Adler, 2011), China (Yeung, et al., 2005), Nigeria (Aina & Famuyiwa, 2007), and more.  Reports of “alien abduction” have also been attributed to the cultural interpretation of Sleep Paralysis (Shermer, 2011).

It seems that cultural interpretations of Sleep Paralysis have not been explored in South Africa yet, though.  With such diverse cultures in South Africa, such research is likely to yield very interesting results!

Idea for research:

  • Explore the prevalence of Sleep Paralysis in different South African cultures and their cultural interpretations of such experiences.

Variation on the theme:

  • Explore the effect on experiences and levels of anxiety in sufferers of Sleep Paralysis if they are given a biological explanations of the Sleep Paralysis experience.

Please leave a reply/comment below, especially if you are thinking of doing this research.


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  • Adler S. R. (2011). Sleep Paralysis: Night-Mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and. London: Rutgers University Press.
  • Cassaniti J., Luhrmann T. M. (2011). Encountering the supernatural – a phenomenological account of mind. Relig. Soc. 2 37–53.
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