Time distortion. Out-of-body experiences. Sleep paralysis. Hallucinations. Astral projection. We’ve seen these phenomena in sci-fi movies and shows like Donnie Darko, Flatliners, Charmed and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. But what (besides magic) could really be behind the warped sense of time Donnie experiences or Ambrose’s feeling of leaving his own body behind?
What sounds like a mystical experience can be really traumatizing. Scientists are starting to get an idea of what might be causing these eerie sensations. A new study by an international team of researchers has found a possible link between disordered REM sleep and near-death experiences, or NDEs, and how the human brain wakes and dreams.
REM sleep is that phase of sleep when your eyes move rapidly and your brain functions as if you were awake. This is when you have the most vivid dreams. Your body is also paralyzed because the brain transmits a signal to the spinal cord to keep your limbs from moving. Most people aren’t aware of that because, you know, they’re dreaming.
Frighteningly enough, NDEs — which affect a startling 1 in 10 people — are experienced just as much by those who have gone through something life-threatening (as in someone on the brink of drowning seeing a white light) as those who are in no danger at the time of the phenomenon.
The researchers found that REM sleep disorders like sleep paralysis mean a greater chance of NDEs. While sleep paralysis isn’t actually dangerous, it can feel like you’re on the verge of death. The sleeper will wake up unable to move and even breathe in some cases. Hallucinations often happen right before falling asleep or upon waking in that paralyzed state.
"Sometimes I wake at night, and I can't move,” reported one subject from the study. “I see strange things, like spirits or demons at my door, and after a while I see them coming beside me. I can't move or talk, and they sit on my chest."
So could that explain why Donnie Darko kept seeing the deranged rabbit otherwise known as Frank? The researchers hypothesized that the brains of people prone to such experiences tend to merge waking and dreaming states.
"Our central finding is that we confirmed the association of near-death experiences with REM sleep intrusion,” said neurologist and lead researcher Dr. Daniel Kondziella. “Although association is not causality, identifying the physiological mechanisms behind REM sleep intrusion into wakefulness might advance our understanding of near-death experiences."
While fascinating, these findings still barely dive deeper than the surface of the immeasurably deep ocean of consciousness. It’s still all really nebulous, just like a dream.