Jan 21, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

A Wide Awake New Study Looks at Sleep and the Paranormal

There are few things more annoying than for someone you just shared an intimate belief with to respond by saying, “It’s all in your head.” Those who believe in one or more facets of the paranormal world – ghosts, UFOs, cryptids and the like – know this feeling well. But … what if it is true? A new field of study known as “Anomalistic psychology” devotes itself to researching extraordinary phenomena of behavior and experience, including those labeled "paranormal".  It attempts to explain paranormal and related beliefs and paranormal experiences in terms of known psychological and physical factors. Goldsmith’s College, part of the University of London, conducted a new study on paranormal beliefs and found an interesting connection to a certain physical condition. Is it something you should lose sleep over? (Hint: that’s a hint.)

This is not a study that will put you to sleep.

“Previous studies have found significant associations between paranormal beliefs and sleep variables. However, these have been conducted on a small scale and are limited in the number of sleep variables investigated. This study aims to fill a gap in the literature by investigating paranormal beliefs in relation to a wide range of sleep variables in a large sample.”

In the study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, members of the Anomalistic Psychology Unit at Goldsmith’s were led by Professor Christopher French, co-author and the former editor of The Skeptic Magazine. It begins with the widely accepted fact that the majority of paranormal experiences occur at night. Previous studies capitalizing on this connection resulted in the idea of sleep paralysis - a brief inability to move during the transition period  between wakefulness and sleep – and exploding head syndrome (EHS), which is characterized by loud noises or a perception of an explosion in one's head during those transition periods. French and the team wanted to expand this paranormal-sleep connection in three ways: first, by conducting tests with a large number of participants; second, by focusing on six paranormal beliefs; and third, by associating them with six sleep quality variables. The six paranormal beliefs were in the form of questions:

  • “Do you believe that you have a soul that will live on after you die?”
  • “Do you believe in the existence of ghosts?”
  • “Do you believe that some people can communicate with the dead?”
  • “Do you believe that near death experiences are evidence for life after death?”
  • “Do you believe in the existence of demons?”
  • “Do you believe that aliens have visited earth or have interacted with humans?”
  • (Numerical responses ranged from 1 (Definitely not) to 5 (Definitely yes).)

A total of 8,853 adults with an average age of 45, responded to a survey launched by BBC Science Focus Magazine, in which they listed their demographics, sleep disorders and paranormal beliefs. The six sleep quality variables were sleep efficiency, duration, latency, insomnia symptoms, isolated sleep paralysis (ISP) and exploding head syndrome (EHS). People with mental disorders or illnesses were disqualified from the study. The report gives interesting breakdowns by gender and age, as well as for those who firmly believed in paranormal phenomena. Of those:

  • 12.7% believed in life after death;
  • 8.1% believed in the existence of ghosts;
  • 5.6% believed that certain people can have contact with the deceased;
  • 4.7% believed in the existence of demons;
  • 3.4% believed that aliens have visited the Earth or communicated with humans.

On the sleep analysis side, 3,286 reported at least one episode of exploding head syndrome, and 3,523 reported at least one episode of isolated sleep paralysis. With that data in hand, the researchers then looked for associations between sleeps problems and specific paranormal beliefs.

“The results demonstrated that various anomalous beliefs were associated with ISP, EHS and subjective sleep quality (i.e. sleep efficiency, sleep duration, sleep latency and insomnia).”

Here are some of the specifics. The belief that aliens have visited earth was more common in those who reported ISP or EHS compared with those who did not. The researchers found this interesting since the hallucinations are so different – ISP is auditory, visual and physical, while EHS is generally just a loud bang. The belief that near death experiences are evidence of life after death was more prevalent in those reporting ISP – something the researchers say they will investigate further. They also found that exploding head syndrome was not associated with the other paranormal beliefs.

Participants who reported stronger beliefs in the soul living on after death, the existence of ghosts, communicating with the dead, that demons exist, and that aliens have visited earth also reported lower sleep efficiency, longer sleep latency, shorter sleep duration and increased insomnia symptoms. Strong beliefs in the devil were especially indicative of high insomnia symptoms.

Forget near death experiences - we'd just like some near sleep ones.

One possible explanation proposed for these associations between sleep and paranormal belief is anxiety – people who worry about being visited by ghosts, devils and demons create an environment where they are too tense or too afraid to fall asleep. That’s an easy one. On the other hand, how do you link belief in the soul and in life after death to insomnia or other sleep disorders? The study suggests other factors which were not evaluated – depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance – could affect both seep and paranormal beliefs. The study also left out factors such as education, personality differences and religious beliefs. In other words, more research is needed.

Finally, the researchers emphasize that small effects accumulate into complex psychological issues - most behaviors and attitudes have a lot of small causes rather than one big one.

“Understanding these links may represent a first step towards obtaining information that could potentially be provided as part of psychoeducation aimed at supporting certain people struggling with sleep problems.”

The conclusion is not exactly “It’s all in your head.” The focus of the study was obviously slanted towards the sleep problem side and rightly so – sleep issues are very common across all demographic categories. What this study actually does is give sleep disorder specialists a tool to aid in reducing or controlling their causes.  

“In summary, our findings demonstrate that there are significant associations between a wide range of paranormal beliefs and sleep variables.

The study findings can help support patients' experiences by increasing healthcare practitioners' understanding with regards to people reporting such events. In addition, these findings may decrease misdiagnosis of psychiatric disorders that share similar features with various sleep experiences. Future research is encouraged to provide unique insight into the causal relationships between sleep and the paranormal.”

Believing in the paranormal is not a psychiatric disorder but it can help doctors treat sleep problems. Nothing is “all in your head” ... even if it is exploding.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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