On dreaming, sleep paralysis and consciousness
I’ve found that if I’m asleep and dreaming while there is light on my eyes, I experience the illusion within my dream that my eyes clamp tight shut and won’t open again no matter how hard I try. I was terrifying for the first 20 or so years, but now I’m used to it it’s not so bad.
I’ve experienced sleep paralysis a few times before (mostly in my twenties, I haven’t had it in years) but there’s plenty of scope for explanation with in the current neurophysiological models of consciousness. One of the best models I know of for explaining both dreams and consciousness is the idea that we (well, our brains anyway) are, inherently, predection engines. We have an internal model of the world, and senses that rectify this internal model with the external, and when we interact within the real world, the connections between neurons that make up this model change depending on how well the 2 match up. We call this learning and I think that what we think of as our sense of self is primarily this learning/prediction mechasim in operation.
When we dream (or consciously visualize), we test the internal model against itself, and against memories of the external, and we continue to learn without actually interacting with the real world. This is easily explained with the evolutionary advantage that simulating risk brings over experiencing risk. It explains the power of nightmares. It’s important, though, when in this mode, that our actions within the simulated space produce no actions in the real world. There must be a mechanism within our brain for flipping the input to this prediction mechanism from our stored memories to our waking senses. When this flips early, we get input from some of our real-world senses, often mixed with input from our stored memories and at the same time the mechanism that stops us from thrashing around too much when we dream is still firmly in the off position.
The reason I’ve gone to such lengths in one single comment (copied out as blog post) is an attempt to explain the difference in sleep paralysis as described by my mother, who gets the full-blown illusion that there are creatures or home invaders just out of her sight, that she can hear and “sense” in other ways. She usually gets SP when waking from nightmares, and I think it’s simply that she is conscious (brain in learning mode) while her sensory input is flipping from imaginary to real, and sometimes it does so in stages instead of instantly.