Maria Popova discusses 3QD's own Sam Kean's new book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery in Brain Pickings:
Four years after The Disappearing Spoon, his wonderful chronicle of crazy tales from the periodic table, science writer Sam Kean returns with The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (public library) — a mind-bending tour of the mind, which Kean opens with a fascinating example, at once very personal and powerfully illustrative of the brain’s humbling complexity:
I can’t fall asleep on my back — or rather, I don’t dare to. In that position I often slip into a fugue state where my mind wakes up from a dream, but my body remains immobile. In this limbo I can still sense things around me: sunlight trickling through the curtains, passersby on the street below, the blanket tented on my upturned feet. But when I tell my body to yawn and stretch and get on with the day, nothing happens. I’ll recite the command again — Move, you — and the message echoes back, unheeded. I fight, I struggle, I strain to twiddle a toe or flex a nostril, and it does no good. It’s what being reincarnated as a statue would feel like. It’s the opposite of sleepwalking — it’s sleep paralysis.
The worst part is the panic. Being awake, my mind expects my lungs to take full, hearty breaths — to feel my throat expanding and my sternum rising a good six inches. But my body — still asleep, physiologically — takes mere sips of air. I feel I’m suffocating, bit by bit, and panic begins to smolder in my chest.
But Kean, who is usually able to awaken his body within a few minutes, considers himself lucky — for others suffering from sleep paralysis, it can take hours of tortuous toiling. Some even slip into this half-asleep state in the middle of their day, while others have out-of-body experiences in the midst of trying to awaken their physical being. This is where Kean’s most fascinating point comes in — sleep paralysis may explain not only why a good deal of supernatural mythology came to be, but it also helps illustrate how the healthy brain works.