Published on May 9th, 2016 | by MARKUS TORSTAD
THE FALLING ILLUSION
Imagine yourself in this position. After a long day of studying, you are finally home in time for supper. After finishing your meal, you go brush your teeth and head towards your bed. When in bed, you are starting to fall asleep. Your muscles are fully relaxed when suddenly, you find yourself in free fall. You wake abruptly, confused as f***. This is actually pretty normal.
There is a brief time between waking and sleep, where reality begins to warp around you. Conscious thoughts start to dissolve into the early waves of dreaming, and the whole situation becomes a little more hallucinatory. This state is known as the hypnagogic state. A recent series of studies have renewed interest in this twilight period, with the hope it can reveal something fundamental about consciousness itself.
In earlier studies, the hypnagogic state has been studied as part of the sleep disorder narcolepsy, where the brain’s inability to separate waking life and dreaming can result in terrifying hallucinations. But it is also part of the normal transition into sleep, beginning when our mind is first affected by drowsiness and ending when we finally lose consciousness.
The electrical activity of the brain became steadily more predictable the longer a person lay still, something that is entirely normal for sleep entry. Unexpectedly though, the hypnagogic intrusions were preceded not by sudden bursts of complex brain activity, like sparks in a fading candle, but by sudden changes to a more orderly brain state. Researchers are working on the hypothesis that when we enter sleep, the brain steadily dismantles the models and concepts we use to interpret the world, leading to moments of experience unconstrained by our usual mental filters.
Some researchers also believe that the falling illusion is a result of minor epileptic events. The fancy word: hypnogogic jerk is just that. When you are about to fall asleep, the body jolts itself awake. This is caused because as you fall asleep, the muscles relax, and some part of your brain that is still awake notices that it feels like you are not supported anymore – you must be falling. Therefore, the brain sends out a huge signal, causes all your muscles to twitch. This may be the answer regarding why the falling illusion occurs.
What is good to know, is that these hypnagogic jerks may be frightening, but they are not dangerous. Think about this the next time you find yourself jolted awake by your brain: It is just your scumbag brain playing his or her tricks again!