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Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection, book review

Updated on April 9, 2016

Case studies that entertain theories regarding sleep paralysis and nightmares beyond terrestrial explanations are difficult to find. Sure, there are the random forays into the supernatural by laymen and blog posts littered throughout the internet from personal experience, but a scholastic study that includes more esoteric observances is very uncommon indeed.

Given that this book, Sleep Paralysis: Studies in Medical Anthropology, was written as a case study by a medical practitioner, the information inside, one would hope, could exceed the boundaries of haphazard speculation and lean toward a more didactic and logical approach. The answer to that speculation is, unfortunately, a bit of both.

Sleep Paralysis historical accounts

Historical accounts of sleep paralysis

The authors descriptions from historical accounts are sound; the references a palpable example of the occurrences many individuals still experience in modern times. For example this reference to a second century physician:

“The sleeper feels that somebody is sitting on his chest or suddenly jumps upon it or that somebody climbs up and crushes him heavily with his weight. The sufferer feels incapacity to move, torpidity, and inability to speak. Attempts to speak often result only in single, inarticulate sounds”—Soranos

Such mentions leave the reader appreciating and perhaps relieved by the fact that the results of sleep paralysis have been occurring for centuries. Also the author’s inclusion of Lilith and Ephialtes, the female and male antagonist often referred to as the culprits behind the more horrific forms of sleep paralysis and the nightmare, provides unique insight into the religious aspects of the time.

Entities/Visitors of the night in other forms?

From there she describes other entities defined as the offender throughout different cultures, with the Succubus and Incubus being two of the more prevalent aggressors known. She goes into the historical witch trials as well. Her medical references end on a high note with the following:

“Imagination cannot conceive the horror frequently given rise to, or language describe it in adequate terms…Everything horrible, disgusting or terrifying in the physical or moral world is brought before [the victim] in fearful array; he is hissed at by serpents, tortured by demons, stunned by the hollow voices and cold touch of apparitions…At one moment he may have the consciousness of the malignant being at his side…its icy breath is felt diffusing itself over his visage, and he knows he is face-to-face with a fiend…Or, he may have the idea of a monstrous hag squatted upon his breast—mute, motionless and malignant…whose intolerable weight crushes the breath out of his body.”—Robert Macnish, The Philosophy of Sleep, 1834

A practical guide on dealing with Sleep Paralysis?

Despite such weighted historical examples, the author doesn’t distill the information into one cohesive piece that can be described through the evaluation of a total theme. Therefore, even though the accounts she has uncovered are intriguing, they lack any bearing on discovery in and of themselves. The reader could possibly be left with a much better historical understanding of sleep paralysis or a waking nightmare but little information on how to deal with it.

A little to much on the etymology of sleep paralysis

Regarding what the author is attempting to provide in her book, from the beginning she goes a long way toward attempting to prove her views with the use of language. Initially this seemed intriguing enough but shortly afterwards she spends a huge portion of time on etymology to the point that the text comes across as pseudo-intellectual and exhaustive. The employ of terminology is relevant for a time, but to go to such lengths without real cohesion or focus weighs the book down considerably.

Internet posts and cross-cultural examples

Once the author crawls out of those pages and begins to focus on the topic in a broader sense, she utilizes an array of internet posts from random individuals mixed with cross-cultural examples in order provide information on the subject. This again presents an air of presumption, disregarding a more studied application and in turn obfuscating the author’s authority.

Hmong and possible hereditary aspects

Outside of the book not providing any novel or contemporary insight regarding the nature of the subject, her study on the Hmong was interesting. Her view on the possible hereditary aspects of sudden death due to nightmares and visions after arriving in the United States was a well established read that deserves further research beyond what she’s written. Despite the secularist view, an approach to the perceived spiritual nature of such attacks on an entire grouping of people would be a study of great interest even though the decline in these occurrences may prove to be too impactful on the possible accrual of appropriate data.

Coping mechanisms and the lack of people coming forth

By the end of the book, Sleep Paralysis: Studies in Medical Anthropology provides a conclusion that exposes the regrettable reality of learning more about this subject through a scholastic means. She admits that all too many individuals don’t come forward with their information, leaving the medical industry to primarily focus on coping mechanisms instead of delving into the realities that may be causing sleep paralysis issues in so many people across the globe.


She ends her book with a bare and truthful statement that wraps her sleep paralysis and nightmare research up succinctly:

“After enduring for more than five thousand years, there is no indication that the nightmare will ever loosen its tenacious grip. This phenomenon that has afflicted human beings and plagued our sleep from earliest antiquity until the present day is not only a part of our heritage, but it is, apparently, a permanent companion. The nightmare—a link between our biological and cultural selves—will persist.”—Professor Shelley R. Adler

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    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 

      10 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

      This sounds like a fascinating read.


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