Exploding Head Syndrome: The Weird Sleep Phenomenon That’s Way More Common Than You Thought


If you’ve ever heard a loud “boom” in the night, don’t worry, you’re not going crazy — it’s just a sign of this strange sleep condition. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ever hear an “explosion” in the night that didn’t seem to exist? One that you never told anyone about, for fear they’d think you were going insane? According to Washington State University researchers, roughly one in five people experience the psychological phenomenon known as “exploding head syndrome,” which involves being awakened by an inexplicable loud – yet nonexistent – noise.

Exploding head syndrome generally happens when a person is falling asleep, and scientists believe it’s the result of a kink in the brain’s mechanisms as it’s turning off. You can think of the brain shutting down like a computer would: Motor, auditory, and visual neurons begin to flick off in stages.

However, the “exploding head” phenomenon occurs when, instead of shutting down gradually and slowly, the auditory neurons crash all at once — and with a bang. “That’s why you get these crazy-loud noises that you can’t explain, and they’re not actual noises in your environment,” says researcher Brian Sharpless, an assistant professor at Washington State University and the director of the university’s psychology clinic, in a press release.

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Before this current research, the phenomenon was generally believed to occur among the 50-plus age set. Now, it’s clear that’s not the case.

In this new study, which was published in the Journal of Sleep Research, psychologists trained at identifying exploding head syndrome interviewed 211 undergraduate students, finding that 18 percent said they’d experienced the phenomenon at least once. Roughly one-third of that group also said they’d had isolated sleep paralysis, a condition where a person can’t move or talk upon waking, dreaming with their eyes wide open.

With exploding head syndrome, some people wake thinking they’re experiencing a ruptured brain aneurysm, a seizure, or something else entirely. Exploding head syndrome and isolated sleep paralysis are also sometimes confused as outside or unnatural events or even hallucinations. In the Middle Ages, people may have thought they’d seen witches or demons. Today, it’s aliens or government interventions.

“Some people have worked these scary experiences into conspiracy theories and mistakenly believe the episodes are caused by some sort of directed-energy weapon,” Sharpless says.

This also explains why so many people stay mum about these explosions in the night and waking dreams — they think they’re going crazy but don’t realize that their experiences are actually quite common.

Related: What It’s Like To Need Hardly Any Sleep

Treatments for exploding head syndrome and isolated sleep paralysis are few but do exist. For instance, drugs for those loud bangs in the brain are often aimed at dulling the noise, if not eliminating it.

However, Sharpless makes an important point: “There’s the possibility that just being able to recognize it and not be afraid of it can make it better,” he says.

Which is why we’re telling you — in case you’ve heard that boom in the night.

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