“Exploding head syndrome” is a real thing suffered by many college students, and it may not be what you think.
Symptoms don’t include one’s head actually exploding, but it refers to the startling illusion of hearing a massive blast inside your head just as you are falling asleep.
According to a study published by Washington State University psychologists, it’s most often found among college students. Overall, one-in-five of the 211 undergraduate college students interviewed for the study suffer from the syndrome, the researchers found.
“At present there are little systematic data on exploding head syndrome, and prevalence rates are unknown,” said the U.S. National Health Institute agency. “Exploding head syndrome episodes were accompanied by clinically significant levels of fear,” it added.
The researchers think the disorder takes place due to problems when the brain is shutting down for sleep, and one’s auditory neurons fire all at once.
Professor Brian Sharpless said this could be behind “why you get these crazy-loud noises that you can’t explain, and they’re not actual noises in your environment,” according to the university’s WSU News.
The syndrome is mostly harmless but it’s fairly frightening for those who are woken up to the sound of a loud bang. It can lead to feelings of distress and impairment, the researchers found.
More than a third of those who experienced exploding head syndrome also experienced sleep paralysis, the study said.
“I didn’t believe the clinical lore that it would only occur in people in their 50’s,” said Sharpless. “That didn’t make a lot of biological sense to me.”
Although it may last only a few seconds, it’s alarming and some people may think they’re having a seizure or a brain hemorrhage, or something even worse is going on. “Some people have worked these scary experiences into conspiracy theories and mistakenly believe the episodes are caused by some sort of directed-energy weapon,” he said.
Isolated sleep paralysis and exploding head syndrome are often interpreted as unnatural events, Sharpless said. In the Middle Ages, people may have mistook hallucinatory experiences under sleep paralysis as being caused by witches or supernatural entities.
“In 21st century America, you have aliens,” explained Sharpless. “For this scary noise you hear at night when there’s nothing going on in your environment, well, it might be the government messing with you.”
“They may think they’re going crazy and they don’t know that a good chunk of the population has had the exact same thing,” he said.
The results were published in the Journal of Sleep Research.