Medical researchers have
developed a new drug
which promises to
A Cure for Casper
by D. Trull
Science fights to improve the human condition on two simultaneous battlefields: combating discomfort and disease on one hand, and ignorance and superstition on the other. The weapons most deployed in the former conflict are technology and medicine, and in the latter, education and insight on how the universe works. But in some skirmishes, there's an arms trade between the two militaries that results in an unexpected victory.
Case in point: researchers have developed a new wonder drug which amazingly promises to eliminate ghosts. To be more specific, it alleviates a medical condition that makes people likely to think they see ghosts, and aliens and big scary monsters, too. The end result is that this completely non-magical pill should be able to stop hauntings more effectively than any exorcism ever could.
A large percentage of ghost sightings take place at night, just as the eyewitness is beginning to fall asleep. The subject is likely to describe a mysterious figure entering his bedroom, an apparition which calls his name or attempts some other interaction, although the subject himself feels paralyzed in the visitor's presence, and can only stare in astonishment. The encounter commonly ends with the subject drifting peacefully to sleep, instead of breaking the paralysis so they can scream bloody murder or run like hell.
These are all characteristics of hypnagogia, an odd neurological phenomenon which basically involves the brain slipping gears while falling asleep. A hynagogic dream occurs when a person prematurely lapses into rapid eye movement sleep, while still partly conscious. During REM sleep the brain stem shuts off all voluntary motor control except for the eyeballs, which accounts for the sense of paralysis. Bizarre dream imagery can then be intermingled with the subject's actual surroundings, producing hallucinations that seem intensely real. Hypnagogic dreams are also known as waking dreams, or night terrors. Similar episodes that take place while one is waking up at the end of the sleep cycle are called hypnapompic dreams.
One estimate indicates that about six to ten percent of all people experience some degree of hypnagogia. While not everyone interprets a waking dream as a supernatural encounter, a lot of "strange sighting" trends throughout history seem attributable to the condition. The medieval notion of demonic succubi and incubi stalking their slumbering prey is suspiciously hypnagogic in nature. Nighttime threats from ghosts and witches also fit the bill, although in recent years, the nocturnal visitors are more likely to be construed as extraterrestrials.
Hypnagogia is a frequent symptom of narcolepsy, the sleep disorder that causes people to fall asleep almost instantly at unexpected times during the day. Narcoleptics shift from light sleep into REM sleep much more abruptly than normal, making their unpredictable sleep patterns fertile ground for waking dreams. The traditional treatment for narcolepsy has been plenty of pep pills -- caffeine, amphetamines and other stimulants. These kinds of drugs have to be used with caution because of their potentially hazardous side effects.
Which brings us to our big scientific breakthrough. Sleep researchers have introduced the first new medication for narcolepsy in the past 30 years, a non-stimulant drug that will help narcoleptics stay awake, and indirectly lessen the incidence of hypnagogic dreams. An invisible man's sleeping in your bed -- who you gonna call? Modafinil!
Clinical tests at the University of Chicago at Illinois showed that modafinil enabled narcoleptic test subjects to stay awake about 50 percent longer than those in control groups, helping them attain a normal sleep pattern without taking stimulants. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Cephalon is marketing modafinil under the trade name Provigil. Cephalon is promoting it specifically as a prescription drug for narcolepsy, although tests have shown it also to be effective at increasing wakefulness in ordinary people. Modafinil might later come into wider use among the general public, hopefully being of benefit to non-narcoleptics prone to hypnagogic dreaming.
I guess this is kind of bittersweet news for folks who believe in ghosts. A bottle of pills isn't exactly the kind of ghostbuster they'd prefer to hear about. And all the abductees and alien-watchers out there might have cause for concern as well. I'd like for Whitley Streiber to take two modafinil with his Communion and call me in the morning.
Sources: The Times (London); Electronic Telegraph; CSS Online/Connecticut Skeptic Society (http://www.theness.com/hypnagog.htm); EurekAlert! web site; PhACT, the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (http://www.voicenet.com/~davek/phact/terms.html)
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