Sleep Paralysis, Extraordinary Experiences, and Belief in the Supernatural | Gerhard Mayer

Gerhard Mayer studied psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Since 1996, he has been working as a researcher at the IGPP in Freiburg, Germany. His research interests concern cultural studies relating to the border areas of psychology, shamanism, magical practices and beliefs, the biographical integration of extraordinary experiences, and scientific approaches to astrology. He is director of the Gesellschaft für Anomalistik and chief editor of the Journal of Anomalistics.


We investigated sleep paralysis (SP) with an online questionnaire and used a selected sample of subjects who had had at least one SP experience, with a total of 380 subjects. On average, the participants experienced 10–20 SP episodes. We created our own questionnaire on SP experiences by taking items from two already existing questionnaires, the Waterloo Sleep Experience Survey (WSES; Cheyne & Rueffer, 1999) and the Unusual Sleep Experiences Questionnaire (USEQ; Paradis et al., 2009) and adding some items of our own given our emphasis on interpretation, coping strategies, and paranormal aspects of SP. In addition, we have applied three further questionnaires, the Fragebogen zur Phänomenologie außergewöhnlicher Erfahrungen (PAGE-R-II, in press) to measure extraordinary experiences; a German translation of the Belief in the Supernatural Scale (BitSS; Schofield et al., 2018); and a German translation (Ritz et al., 1993) of the Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS; Tellegen & Atkinson, 1974) to measure the personality trait absorption.

SP is usually experienced as very unpleasant and anxiety-provoking. In addition of being unable to move, many of the concerned have auditive, visual, or tactile perceptions such as hearing voices, seeing strange objects or entities of various kinds, feeling pressure or weight on the chest, being choked, feelings of floating or falling, out-of-body experiences, etc. From the point of view of sleep medicine, the specific quality of such experiences is considered hallucinatory and harmless, and therefore does not require greater attention. However, Belz and Fach (2012, 2015) took a different approach. They included SP as a specific ExE in their model of fundamental categories of exceptional phenomena. They theoretically derived four classes of ExEs, assigned to the four quadrants formed by the dimensions “external–internal” and “coincidence–dissociation.” In their model, SP is placed in the quadrant built by the external and the dissociation poles, i.e., experienced as external and disconnected from normal body function. We used their questionnaire, the PAGE-R-II, to assess the extent to which people with SP have had other extraordinary experiences. We expected positive correlations between the frequency of SP and the experience of “External Phenomena” and “Dissociation Phenomena.” This hypothesis was confirmed regarding the “dissociation” pole but not regarding the “external–internal” dimension.

Together with some other findings, this led to the assumption that there are two main types of experiencing SP: a “classic” one associated with anxiety and an external attentional focus, and another one with more inward focus, more often associated with positive feelings. We explored this thesis by conducting two factor analyses. The 3-component-solution suggests two general types of SP experiences as suggested above. However, this hypothesis requires further investigations.

Many Western scientists consider SP experiences to be one of the sources and causes of human belief in ghosts due to the specific perceptions mentioned above. Based on previous research, we expected a positive correlation between belief in the paranormal and frequency of SP, using a German translation of the BitSS. This hypothesis was not confirmed. The absence of significant correlations between supernatural beliefs and frequency of SP in our study tend not to support the assumption that SP is a major source of human belief in ghosts – at least this is true for our sample coming from a secular Western society.

Program chaired by John G. Kruth. Download the Abstracts at


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Published on September 22, 2023