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Arts @ U of W
Arts @ U of W
Psychology faculty member's research is used to explain the science behind the world of Harry Potter
Photograph of Professor Al Cheyne
When UW and Faculty of Arts professor Al Cheyne learned his research was being cited in the book The Science of Harry Potter, he figured he'd better find out what all the fuss was about.
Having never read a book by J. K Rowling or even seen a film about the young wizard, he
went out and bought a copy of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone (Philosopher's Stone).
"I felt like it was really getting into the head of a nine-year-old."
In The Science of Harry Potter, author Roger Highfield turns to Cheyne
and other scientists and academics to get into the science behind the magic of Hogwarts.
As the dust cover explains, "Much of what strikes us as supremely strange in the Potter books can actually be explained by the conjurings of the scientific mind."
In explaining such mysterious phenomena as how owls remember addresses or how the Nimbus Two Thousand defies gravity, Highfield attempted to create "a perfect guide for parents who want to teach their children science through the adventures of their favourite hero, as well as for the millions of adult fans of the series intrigued by the factual foundations of its marvels and mysteries".
That's where Cheyne
-- soon to become chair of the UW
psychology department -- comes in. In Chapter 9, he
is one of the experts called upon to illuminate the workings of "The Greatest Wizard": the human brain.
One of Cheyne's
research interests is sleep paralysis, a condition often induced by stress and accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations, a feeling of pressure on the chest and the sensation of spinning or floating.
It occurs just before falling asleep or awakening when the person is conscious and awake -- but completely paralyzed.
has studied some 15,000 cases from around the world in the Waterloo Unusual Sleep Experiences Survey.
"There is a good chance that Harry Potter, sleeping in his
four-poster bed in the tower dormitory, may have also experienced the effect," notes Highfield in his
book, referring to Harry's nocturnal visit by an old hag who ate raw liver in the Leaky Cauldron.
"The basis of the experience is very physiologically driven," explains Cheyne
, who sees sleep paralysis as "a kind of spin-off, a misfiring of the dream mechanism.
While the physical symptoms experienced by people around the world having sleep paralysis hallucinations are remarkably similar, "the only thing that varies is the cultural interpretation" of those sensations of dread and malevolent intent, he
"People made sense of them by drawing on what seemed plausible at the time," Cheyne
is quoted as saying in The Science of Harry Potter.
"Hundreds of years ago, these interpretations included witches forcibly taking victims for a ride on a broomstick... Today, people are more likely to report alien abductions if they have seen movies or read books discussing the topic."
hypothesizes that such a dream state represents a "simulation mode" in which neural circuitry can be exercised while the body is paralyzed.
As children use play to practice moving the body in space in protected situations, to explore limits in a relatively safe manner, perhaps dreaming is also a kind of test of the real world, he
isn't sure how Highfield found out about his
sleep paralysis research, but he
was happy to have been included in the text.
"It's important because people have the experience and worry about it," he
The explanation in The Science of Harry Potter may allay some of those fears; it may also generate new volunteers for his
"People will draw on the most ...
"People will draw on the most plausible account in their repertoire to explain their experience," said Al Cheyne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. "Trolls or witches no longer constitute plausible interpretations of these hallucinations.
The notion of aliens from outer space is more contemporary and somewhat more plausible to the modern mind.
So a flight on a broomstick is replaced by a teleportation to a waiting spaceship."
said that in a survey he
had worked on involving more than 2,000 people identified as experiencing sleep paralysis, hundreds described experiences similar to alien abduction.
"A sensed presence, vague gibberish spoken in one's ear, shadowy creatures moving about the room, a strange immobility, a crushing pressure and painful sensations in various parts of the body - these are compatible not just with an assault by a primitive demon but also with probing by alien experimenters," Dr. Cheyne
The Institute of Paranormal Research - Night of the Crusher
In the past 10 years, psychologist J. Allan Cheyne of the University of Waterloo in Canada has collected more than 28,000 tales of sleep paralysis.
"A small number of people, while acknowledging fear during initial episodes of sleep paralysis, come to enjoy the experience," Cheyne
runs a Web site (http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/~acheyne/S_P.html) where visitors fill out surveys about their experiences during sleep paralysis.Several thousand individuals also provide online updates about recurring episodes.
It doesn't surprise Cheyne
that those who contact him seem to be average, emotionally stable folk.In surveys that he
has conducted with large numbers of college students and other volunteers, about 30 percent report having experienced at least one incident of sleep paralysis.
Two brain systems contribute to sleep paralysis, Cheyne
proposes.The most prominent one consists of inner-brain structures that monitor one's surroundings for threats and launches responses to perceived dangers.As Cheyne
sees it, REM-based activation of this system, in the absence of any real threat, triggers a sense of an ominous entity lurking nearby.Other neural areas that contribute to REM-dream imagery could draw on personal and cultural knowledge to flesh out the evil presence.
A second brain system, which includes sensory and motor parts of the brain's outer layer, distinguishes one's own body and self from those of other creatures.When REM activity prods this system, a person experiences sensations of floating, flying, falling, leaving one's body, and other types of movement, Cheyne
"The hypnagogic experiences are ...
"The hypnagogic experiences are remarkably consistent with what we know about the underlying neurophysiology of REM states," says Dr. Allan Cheyne, former chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, Canada.
Researchers have categorized the most commonly experienced sleep paralyses into a three-pronged model.
All of which include immobility.
The first called "The Intruder," referring to visual and auditory hallucinations and the fearful sensation of a nearby presence.
According to Dr. Cheyne
, these feelings of intense terror are triggered by the activation of fear centers in the brain, which is a known characteristic of REM sleep.
However, according to Dr. Cheyne
about 25 percent of Americans report having experienced sleep paralysis at least once.
research on sleep paralysis, Dr. Cheyne
has collected more than 40,000 accounts from around the world and he
believes reasons for the obscurity of this condition may be found in cultural stigma.
"The difference between traditional and industrialized cultures in knowing about these experiences is striking," Dr. Cheyne
, whose name is plastered on seemingly every research article on the subject, has used his
years of research to craft a simple explanation for the phenomenon.
"Susceptibility to sleep paralysis appears to be a relatively minor problem of the coordination of transitions between different physiological states.
On one hand, the transition between waking and sleep, and on the other, the transition between REM and non-REM states," he
Inside Toronto.ca Network ~ Toronto Community News
Al Cheyne, a retired professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo has been researching sleep paralysis for 10 years.
"It's a dream hallucination," Cheyne
said."It's an intrusion of dream-like imagery into your waking life.That's why it tends to occur around times of falling asleep or waking up and waking up in the middle of the night in this state where you can't move."
People report a sense of something or someone in the room, and a sense of terror is common, he
Some people will wake up and not be able to move for a few seconds, he
"For others, more elaborate types of hallucinations happen," he
said."Some are extraordinarily elaborate like full-fledged dreams.For others there's a sense of something there."
Sleep paralysis happens most often in the bedroom because that's where people do the majority of their sleeping, Cheyne
"But people have reported it happening to them in libraries when they've dozed off, or in their cars when they've pulled over on the side of the road for a rest," he
said."It can happen in various situations when people are tired.It's usually when they're about to fall asleep or just waking up."
Some can have a once-in-a-lifetime brief episode or it can be an elaborate experience, he
has a website (http://watarts.uwaterloo.ca/~acheyne/) where people can get information about sleep paralysis and are also invited to e-mail him with their experiences.He
has collected more than 28,000 tales of sleep paralysis from all over the world. SEVERAL TIMES
"In my sample I have a large number of people who have it quite regularly night after night for weeks on end," he
research has led to three types of sleep paralysis: the intruder, the incubus and bodily experiences.
"It feels like you're floating off the bed," Cheyne
said."You might even feel like you're leaving your body so it's an out-of-body experience." Cheyne
recalls a case in which a woman thought she
had come out of a dream and tried to turn on the light switch and found it wouldn't work.
"Suddenly they find themselves back in bed," he
said."This can repeat itself several times.It's called a false awakening."
Although the out-of-body experience can be quite disturbing, Cheyne
said people are attracted to idea of floating and flying out of the room or over houses.
"Some people who experience sleep paralysis associate it to astral travel, which is the belief that people leave their bodies during the night to visit friends," he
said."Some might contact me asking how they might produce these experiences."
But, most people who contact Cheyne
ask him how to make episodes of sleep paralysis stop.
"I offer advice on how to cope and possibly prevent them," he
said."For many people it's simply avoiding lying on their backs when they're falling asleep because that's the most common position." He
said some people will have the experiences no matter how they're lying.
"For a lot of people it exclusively happens when they're lying on their backs," he
said."I have no idea why that is.It's one of the most intriguing things about it.We have ideas and theories of why, but nothing particularly convincing." Cheyne
stumbled into his
sleep paralysis research project when talking with a university student who was writing an article on alien abductions.
was trying to come up with some psychological explanations for why people thought they were being abducted by extraterrestrial aliens," he
said descriptions of people's so-called abductions sounded a lot like sleep paralysis.
Thoughts on dreams or hallucinations depend on how they are interpreted.
"People have different kinds of world views," he
was told vivid details of a man's experience with aliens he
encountered during sleep paralysis.
"The man woke up paralyzed and felt himself floating and being levitated up to some sort of space ship," Cheyne
recounted."There were alien creatures that came in and did various kinds of experiments on him.He
described all the feelings of pain very vividly.He
was quite adamant throughout his
recollection that he
didn't believe it for a moment.He
had a most elaborate kind of experience and he
didn't know what it was when it happening, but he
was convinced it must have been some kind of dream or hallucination." Cheyne
said other people who share their stories with him had nothing more than a brief period of paralysis and they're convinced they were abducted by aliens.
"It's interesting that some people would take almost nothing and give it a very vivid and what most people would think is very far-fetched interpretation," he
said."Other people can have the most vivid, compelling kinds of experiences and just think it's a bit weird and that's the end of it for them."
It's the diversity in people's reactions to sleep paralysis that interests Cheyne
"What people do with those experiences depends a lot on their belief systems and also the culture that they live," he
said, adding personality characteristics play a part as well.
A fantasy-prone personality, which is related to the ease a person can be hypnotized, has a direct affect on how they interpret their experience.
"I've looked most at a fantasy-prone personality," he
"They might think it's a stroke, a neurological disorder and maybe they're going crazy," Cheyne
Over time people have reported that their hallucinations can become less, Cheyne
"Some say even after seeing his
website and reading about it the experience becomes less vivid," he
The majority of emails he
receives are from people who are grateful that he's
doing the research and has put up a web page, he
"They've been suffering from this for years and years and have not told anyone or maybe they did and the person thought it was very weird it didn't happen to them and it was very strange so they shut up about it," he
said."People will often say they've got tears in their eyes when they're writing me because they've had this horrible experience for years and years and had no idea what was happening to them," he
Most people who find his
website find it reassuring that they're not the only one, he
"It's remarkable how often people will say that," Cheyne