Science Daily peeks into the weird world of Exploding Head Syndrome, a surprisingly common condition in which young people are suddenly awoken by an ear-splitting boom:
Brian Sharpless, a Washington State University assistant professor and director of the university psychology clinic, found that nearly one in five — 18 percent — of college students interviewed said they had experienced it at least once. It was so bad for some that it significantly impacted their lives, he said. “Unfortunately for this minority of individuals, no well-articulated or empirically supported treatments are available, and very few clinicians or researchers assess for it,” he said.
The study also found that more than one-third of those who had exploding head syndrome also experienced isolated sleep paralysis, a frightening experience in which one cannot move or speak when waking up. People with this condition will literally dream with their eyes wide open. The study is the largest of its kind, with 211 undergraduate students interviewed by psychologists or graduate students trained in recognizing the symptoms of exploding head syndrome and isolated sleep paralysis.
“I didn’t believe the clinical lore that it would only occur in people in their 50s,” said Sharpless. “That didn’t make a lot of biological sense to me.” He started to think exploding head syndrome was more widespread last year when he reviewed the scientific literature on the disorder for the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews.
The disorder tends to come as one is falling asleep. Researchers suspect it stems from problems with the brain shutting down. When the brain goes to sleep, it’s like a computer shutting down, with motor, auditory and visual neurons turning off in stages. But instead of shutting down properly, the auditory neurons are thought to fire all at once, Sharpless said.
“That’s why you get these crazy-loud noises that you can’t explain, and they’re not actual noises in your environment,” he said. The same part of the brain, the brainstem’s reticular formation, appears to be involved in isolated sleep paralysis as well, which could account for why some people experience both maladies, he said.