Monster Alert: You Might Have EXPLODING HEAD SYNDROME

Photo credit:, in an article about what happens to your duvet when you don’t wash it enough. There’s a picture. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

URGENT: EXPLODING HEAD SYNDROME IS A THING. How have I not heard of this until this morning? Well, let’s move into it calmly and rationally.

Let’s Start with Sleep Paralysis: It’s Already Scary Enough

In an article published in LiveScience, Alice M. Gregory discusses how science can explain supposedly paranormal events we experience as we are sleeping. She begins with an explanation of sleep paralysis* and how it causes the feeling, described by people throughout the ages, of being threatened by an intruder while being inexplicably paralyzed, glued to the bed, terrified, and helpless.

For Catholics, it was demons. For protestants, it was demons. For others, it was Satan herself, or demons. There were also imps, elves, succubi, vampires, ghosts, fairy-folk, kidnappers**–whatever parents could use to scare their children so they would stop running around and being noisy and happy and stuff.

Rare photo of an actual succubus

You guys, I have had sleep paralysis many times, always when napping on the couch. I think I’m awake. Someone (the iconic “intruder,” or as I like to call him, “the bandit”) breaks into the house, steps into the room, and tries to “hurt me.” Like, stands over me menacingly. I try to move and open my mouth to scream, but can’t. Sometimes I wake myself up with weird, low moaning sounds that are actually me trying to yell out “BANDIT!”

Suddenly I’m awake, and I think, “Oh. That was a dream. Thank F*CK. Didn’t FEEL like one. But now I can go have a nice espresso that might might make up for the oh-so-relaxing NAP.”

Maybe with a little vodka. Quiet you, I’ve had a fright!

But Let’s Get to the Important Part

As you’re falling asleep, you may hear what sounds like something heavy crashing to the ground, or an auto accident, or fireworks, or your bro-friend practicing a sick riff on his electric guitar right next to your head. (Dude, quit it! I told you, turn off the amp after 11 pm!)

Anyways, a neurologist named JMS Pearce, a very serious person named after a ship who would never say anything silly, coined the term “EXPLODING HEAD SYNDROME” to keep everyone calm and sensible.

Captain Dr. Mr. JMS Pearce, MD, Esq. III

Gregory summarizes Pearce’s official scientific theory, which was published in The Lancet, so we have to believe it:

When we fall asleep, the reticular formation of the brainstem (a part of our brain involved in consciousness) typically starts to inhibit our ability to move, see and hear things. When we experience a “bang” in our sleep this might be because of a delay in this process. Instead of the reticular formation shutting down the auditory neurons, they might fire at once.

Aha, a-hahaha, I get it. So you’re not “hearing” anything. It’s just all your auditory neurons exploding in your brain as your subconscious strolls ten feet ahead with cool, steely, macho-man ‘tude safely into dreamland. I always knew I was The Rock in a previous life.

*Link goes to WebMD. As you know, searching for a condition on WebMD will immediately cause said condition.

**It just hit me: “kid” and “nap” together, No wonder I don’t wanna go to bed!

Photo credits: Creative CommonsMeowingtons, and

About taoreader

Writer and Editor. Pianist and singer. Feminist and proponent of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. I don't get it either. I wish I could have dinner with Marie Curie.
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14 Responses to Monster Alert: You Might Have EXPLODING HEAD SYNDROME

  1. hotspur says:

    Sleep paralysis sounds terrifying and FUN, like being in a great horror movie. Possibly though . . . I’m house-sitting at the moment and every time there is a slight noise, I suspect the place is on fire and I have failed. That’s bad enough. Maybe I don’t need the added fun of hallucinated bandits.

    A friend of mine mentioned a documentary about this, tying it into alien abductions iirc. I mean not actual abductions, but that being what people thought happened to them. It sounded super disturbing and it’s on my list of things to see.

    I’m glad you wrote this post about exploding heads, tao, thanks for advancing human knowledge.

    • taoreader says:

      It is my goal to disseminate the most sensible and practical information out there.

      I first heard about sleep paralysis as related to alien abductions. I may have even seen that documentary. When I heard the explanation, I was like, “Hey, that’s ME!” Not that I thought I’d been abducted (I don’t need that added to my giant list of weird) but all the symptoms of being frozen and speechless and convinced someone was in the room. And convinced I’m totally awake.

      I can imagine if someone had that experience, then some woo faux psych dude helped them “recover memories” of being abducted by the green aliens, that would be pretty convincing.

    • taoreader says:

      Found this: Alien Abduction or Sleep Paralysis?

      Oh, it’s on my list now.

      • taoreader says:

        Ooh, also this: Room 237. This describes sleep paralysis in eight different people who, despite not knowing each other, all saw the same shadow man. Only something paranormal could explain it!

        The article about it also mentions night hags.

        • hotspur says:

          I will check that out. My friend adivides me the documentary was The Nightmare. See it… if you dare.

    • Sleep paralysis is very much not fun, trust me.

  2. Tracey says:

    I’ve never heard a bang or loud crash while falling asleep, is that something that most people experience? There is a weird noise in my building late at night that sounds like a ghost riding a roller coaster but I hear it while I’m still awake and reading or whatever.

    • taoreader says:

      I’ve never had that either. I’ve had a thing though where I’m falling asleep and I suddenly jerk myself awake, like a body spasm or something. Often I’ve just started to dream I was walking, and just as I’m about to walk off a cliff, I wake up all spastic. It’s brief though.

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