Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Hypothermia

A person’s body temperature is always maintained between 36.5~37.5°C. This is because enzymes, which are crucial in all physiological reactions in the body, work most efficiently at this temperature. As physiology is essentially a series of chemical reactions, it is heavily dependent on temperature. If the temperature falls, chemical reactions occur slower and vice versa. When body temperature falls below 35°C, metabolism becomes too slow and it poses a risk to the person’s health. This is known as hypothermia.

How does hypothermia affect the body? Hypothermia is categorised into three classes depending on the severity.

  • Mild hypothermia (32~35°C) leads to the slowing of bodily functions, tremors and difficulty in walking. The patient’s speech is impeded and other neurological symptoms such as decreased judgement skills and confusion start to appear. Also, blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate rise.
  • Moderate hypothermia (28~32°C) causes paralysis of muscles and extreme fatigue (they may complain of being sleepy). As blood (carrying heat) is rerouted to major organs, the skin (especially lips and extremities) become white or purple and very cold. Neurological symptoms worsen with amnesia, memory loss, severe confusion and delusion beginning to show. As sustained hypothermia leads to the tremors stopping, one should not take the lack of tremors as a good sign. Heart rate becomes irregular and arrhythmia may occur.
  • Severe hypothermia (20~28°C) leads to chemical reactions becoming so slowed that physiological functions that support life decline dramatically. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all lower to dangerous levels and the heart and lungs may stop functioning. As the patient’s major organs begin to shut down, they enter a state of unconsciousness and eventually, clinical death.

As you can see, hypothermia is a highly dangerous situation that can kill. There are some other fascinating facts about hypothermia.

20~50% of hypothermia death cases are associated with paradoxical undressing. This is a strange phenomenon where the person begins to take off their clothes due to confusion and a lack of judgement from the hypothermia. One theory suggests it is related to the cold damaging the hypothalamus (which controls body temperature), causing the brain to think that the body temperature is rising. Whatever the reason, it is extremely dangerous as it worsens the hypothermia.

As explained above, severe hypothermia leads to death. But interestingly, hypothermia also protects organs. This is why organs for transplanting are transported in ice. Similarly, there are examples of people who “died” from hypothermia recovering with no brain damage. Because of this, medical professionals traditionally say: “they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead”. In fact, if there is something wrong with the patient’s circulation and there is risk of damage to their organs (such as in surgery), sometimes the patient’s body temperature is forced down with ice water injections and cooling blankets, known as protective hypothermia.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Hypnagogia

Every person has had the experience of having a few seconds of brilliance just before their consciousness slips into sleep. During this short moment, we have some of the most creative and innovative ideas. Unfortunately, this is all lost by the time we wake up. This state is known as the hypnagogic state and has been well known since ancient Greece. Many philosophers and writers such as Aristotle and Edgar Allan Poe have written on the subject and how they received some of their greatest ideas in this state. 

Recent researches show that during hypnagogia, thought processes and cognition vastly differs to normal wakefulness. It appears that hypnagogic cognition is more based on the subconscious mind, with people in this state being more open to suggestion (e.g. hypnosis). Ideas seem to flow in a fluid yet illogical way and they are based on external stimuli, thus explaining the heightened suggestibility as the brain incorporates the surrounding into its thought process. The thought process is also less restricted, leading to openness and sensitivity. A process called autosymbolism occurs where abstract ideas that we are thinking are converted into concrete images. This explains the artistic inspiration seen in hypnagogia.

One of the more pronounced phenomena of hypnagogia is insight. It has been noted by many people throughout history that the moment before sleep is when we have the best ideas. For example, a chemist called August Kekulé realised that benzene was a ring structure after seeing an image of snakes biting each other’s tails to form a ring. Because of this, many famous artists and inventors tried to harness the power of hypnagogia through techniques such as the Dalí nap. Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, Beethoven and Richard Wagner also practised similar techniques to gain insight into a problem that they were trying to solve or bring fresh ideas.

Another fascinating side of hypnagogia is the strange sensory phenomena associated with it. As in the case of sleep paralysis (which usually occurs in hypnapomp – the state between sleep and waking up), people often report strong hallucinations in the form of bright colours, geometric shapes, or even nightmarish visions (such as a ghost sitting on your chest). Other senses are affected as well, such as hearing whispering (commonly associated with the nightmarish hallucinations mentioned above) or out-of-body experiences. Hypnic jerks are also common, where the person jerks awake just before drifting off to sleep. This is thought to be caused by the brain misinterpreting sleep as “death” or the body shutting down, leading it to jolt the system back to life. 

Finally, an interesting psychological phenomenon is the Tetris effect, where people who have spent a prolonged time on one activity cannot stop seeing images and thinking about that activity in the hypnagogic state. This was seen in people who had played too much Tetris seeing coloured bricks before they went to sleep. Other common versions of the Tetris effect include chess boards and pieces, feeling waves after being at sea and seeing words and numbers after working on documents for a long time.

The combination of insight, creativity and sensory illusions leads to hypnagogia causing strange “experiences”. Ergo, hypnagogia is now thought to explain many supernatural experiences such as ghost sightings, UFO abductions, premonitions and visions.

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Posted in History & Literature

Succubus

A succubus is a demon that takes the form of an attractive human woman to seduce men, tempting them to have sex with her. Through sex, the succubus leeches away the man’s life force until he wilts away. They tend to visit men in their dreams and use their beauty and charm to lure and enchant their victim. A famous example of a succubus is Lilith, the first wife of Adam. There are other similar demons throughout the world, such as the nine-tailed fox in Asia (kumiho in Korea, kitsune in Japan and Hulijing in China). A similar demon is an incubus – the male equivalent of a succubus.

The origin of the succubus may be explained medically. It is well known that sleep paralysis is related to vivid hallucinations in the hypnagogic state, with countless cases of alien abductions and supernatural sightings ascribed to the phenomenon.

However, another explanation may be that the succubus is an allegory of the femme fatale. Femme fatale – French for “deadly woman” – describes a mysterious and seductive woman who uses her womanly charms to ensnare and manipulate men. A femme fatale is highly able in utilising the various tools at her disposal: beauty, charm, sexual allure, music, seductive dancing, persuasive language, deception, coercion, hypnotising and generally toying with a man’s reproductive instincts.

There are many examples of how different femme fatales – ranging from the biblical Eve to the spy Mata Hari – made an impact in history through the elaborate manipulation of men to their advantage. This is reflected in folklore through the concept of witches and enchantresses who use “magic” and sexual charms to have men do their bidding, essentially having them on a leash.

Essentially, the moral of the story of the succubus (that is, to men) that women can be deadly and are completely capable of sapping a man’s life away if she wished so. That is why men should know when they are actively being deceived or being controlled by a woman with (false) promises of love and sex. Perhaps the flipside moral of the story for women is that with the power of sex, a woman can have a man do anything for her – a valid strategy that has proven to be effective for all of recorded history.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Locked-in Syndrome

Imagine that one day, you wake up, but then no matter how hard you try, you cannot move a single part of your body. Trying to roll out of bed, lifting your arm, or even moving your fingers is impossible. You think it is merely sleep paralysis, but you soon realise that it is not as simple as that, or even a dream. No voice escapes your throat.
The only thing you can do is blink and roll your eyes around.

Welcome to the world of Locked-in Syndrome (LIS), a neurological condition where your brain has no connection to all the muscles in your body. The actual symptoms list is: quadriplegia, paralysis of most facial muscles, inability to speak, with complete preservation of cognitive function (sometimes sensation too). In simpler terms, a LIS patient’s mind is essentially trapped inside an unmoving body, with only the senses and eyes to interact with the real world.

It is caused by damage to a part of the brainstem known as the pons, which not only carries motor nerve fibres to the spinal cord (where it then carries on to supply the muscles of the body), but is also the origin of some cranial nerves. This explains the symptoms of paralysis, even the face (e.g. damage to the facial nerve, or CN VII). More specifically, the damage only affects the pons and not the brain itself, meaning that cognition (thinking), intelligence, memory and sensation (if the fibres are spared in the brainstem) are completely functional.
This can be caused by trauma, stroke, drugs, degenerative neuropathies, or anything that can selectively damage the pons.

Due to the nature of the disease, there are no treatment or cures for LIS. Prognosis is very poor and most patients are not expected to regain motor control. This can be very distressing news to LIS patients, as it essentially means that they will be trapped in a motionless, voiceless body for the rest of their natural lives, which could feel like eternity. Although over 90% of the patients die within 4 months, some continue to survive for much longer periods. To improve their quality of life, methods have been developed to allow the patients to communicate, such as Morse code (by blinking eyes) or alphabet boards. Technology is allowing even better options such as eye-tracking and brain-computer interfaces, where a machine tries to interpret a pattern in brain activity, trying to relate a certain action to a pattern. This may allow simple communication such as yes/no answers.

Because of the almost complete paralysis, even professional neurologists often miss this condition, diagnosing the patient as being in a vegetative state.
What would it be like to be trapped in your own body – or “living corpse” as described by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo – and not be able to tell others that you were still in there?

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine, Special Long Essays

Lucid Dream

Dreams are wonderful things. Within a dream, nothing is impossible and the mind unleashes its full potential creativity. Is there a way to harness such power? The short answer is: yes.

Lucid dreams are defined as the state of being aware that you are in a dream. This means that unlike normal dreams, you know that you are dreaming. Although this may sound easy, it is quite hard to enter and stay in a lucid dream. Many people experience a lucid dream a few times in their life, but tend to pass it off as a normal dream or some paranormal event (many “out-of-body” experiences can be explained as lucid dreams).

The major difference between a normal dream and a lucid dream is the ability to control your dream. This concept is explored in detail in the movie Inception, where characters utilise the creative power of dreamspace, tricking the victim that they are in reality to manipulate information out of them. Inception is actually a great example of what a lucid dream is like: the architect can manipulate the dreamspace to her wishes, even going as far as ignoring the laws of physics and conjuring objects out of nothing. This ability is not exclusive to movies – you too can exert this power within your own dreams, every night.

The most important point to remember is that lucid dreams are based on memory. Reason being, if you cannot remember the dream, then it might as well not have happened. Also, you need the ability to distinguish a dream from reality, as otherwise it will pass you by without you realising. There are a few tips and tricks that can help the induction of a lucid dream.

Firstly, keep a dream diary – a record of every dream you have in excruciating detail. This not only trains your ability to remember dreams in detail, but also lets you prepare for when a lucid dream comes. So every morning when you wake up, record whatever you can remember from the night’s dream. Many people complain that they never dream, but this is false – they are merely forgetting it. After keeping a dream diary for at least a couple weeks, you will find that the frequency of dreams increase dramatically, with increasing creativity.

Secondly, look for dream signs. You will notice from your dream diary that certain things appear often in your dreams. This may be a certain person, an impossible object (such as the staircase from Inception), meeting a deceased person or something happening (e.g. falling). A classic example is a clock. In a dream, when you look at a clock (preferably digital) and blink, time suddenly leaps around, such as 3pm suddenly becoming 6pm. Looking for these signs in your surrounding can easily alert you to the fact that you are dreaming.

Lastly, do reality checks as often as possible. These are actions that confirm that you are in reality, or conversely if the check fails, that you are dreaming. Reality checks are represented as totems in Inception, and although the risk of “getting lost in a dream” is close to nothing in a lucid dream, it is an extremely useful tool. Reality checks (RC) are based on the fact that the laws of reality do not function in dreams. For example, a common RC is bending your fingers backwards. In real life, your fingers will only go back so far. In a dream, the fingers can touch the back of your hand: a definitive proof that you are not in reality. Other examples include breathing through a pinched nose, pinching yourself (no sensation in a dream) and… anything creative actually. The general rule is: “habituate what is not your habit” – i.e. make a habit of something that is not usually your habit, so you can do it in a dream as a RC.

After a few weeks practising using the above skills, prepare your mind for a lucid dream. Every night before going to sleep, keep thinking “I will dream” or “I will stay awake in my dream”. Continuous reinforcement directly increases your chance of “waking up” in your dream, and allows you to begin your journey into lucid dreams.

As mentioned above, within a dream, you have almost godly powers as you can manipulate the entire dreamspace to your will. However, there is a catch: you have to control the dreamspace. This may sound absurd, but it will be relevant when you have your first lucid dream. Dreams are like wild mustangs – they will spiral out of control as soon as you try to take control. For instance, a novice lucid dreamer (or, in Greek, oneironaut) will find that as soon as they acknowledge that they are in a dream, they will instantly wake up. This is a form of defence mechanism as the boundary of reality and dream is faded, causing your brain to become confused.

There are methods to help your stay in dreamstate. It has been suggested that when you notice signs of waking up (e.g. the surroundings become blurred and slowly disappear), spinning on the spot can prolong the dreamstate. Rubbing your hands together also helps. The duration you stay in the dream becomes longer as you become more proficient in lucid dreaming.

This is only the first step. The more you manipulate your dream, the more your brain will “reject” your dream-self. Again, this is seen in Inception (it is actually quite an accurate depiction of lucid dreaming). You will find that through practice, you not only lengthen your lucid dream, but also increase the power to manipulate things. In the advanced stage, you will not only be able to completely recreate the world around you, but also achieve flying and the ability to summon people.

A final point to learn about lucid dreaming is that there are two ways into a lucid dream: DILD and WILD.
The first, and the most common, type is Dream-Induced Lucid Dream. This is by far the easiest method. In DILD, you “wake up”, or become self-aware, in a dream and then continue to dream the same dream (except now it is lucid). It is easier to achieve this during a nap or when you go back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night.

The second, and more advanced method, is the Wake-Induced Lucid Dream. WILD is when a lucid dreamer can go straight into a lucid dream from a state of alertness. This lets you enter a lucid dream anytime at will, and can be more powerful than a DILD. However, there is a catch. WILD easily induces sleep paralysis (see Sleep Paralysis) due to the forced induction of REM paralysis. This can be a horrifying experience for the unprepared, especially due to the nightmarish hallucinations it brings. But after practice and the correct mindset, you can easily vanquish this state with willpower, and freely enter a lucid dream. Sleep paralysis should not deter you from attempting lucid dreaming, for it is only a temporary side effect.

Lucid dreaming is one of the most useful skills one can learn. Not only does it let you explore your mind freely, you can go deeper to discover your subconscious (often through imagery), solve complex problems you couldn’t in real life and relieve the stress built up from reality. An interesting feature about dreams is that time is completely relative; this means you will enjoy a lengthy dream much longer than your actual sleep, giving you a better rested sleep. If you are lucky, you may even enjoy the delightful experience of a “dream within a dream” (or go even deeper).

Oneironauts, dream on.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Sleep Paralysis

Sometimes just before you fall asleep, or just after you wake up, it is impossible to move any muscles. The panic caused by this sudden paralysis is soon followed by a sense of impending doom and unknown horror. When trying to look around to figure out what is happening, you see a ghost or demon sitting on your chest, pinning you down.
This is a typical scenario of sleep paralysis. It occurs when the mind wakes up before the body (in loose terms) and is experienced by everyone at least once throughout their life. 

Sleep is divided into two phases: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. These two phases cycle to make up sleep at a 1:3 ratio (i.e. about 90 minutes non-REM, 30 minutes REM, repeat). NREM sleep is often thought of as “shallow sleep”, but this is incorrect as the third phase of NREM is literally “deep sleep”. This is followed by REM sleep, characterised by relaxation of muscle tone and the eyes darting in all directions (rapid eye movements). The brain cuts off motor signals to the body during REM sleep to prevent it acting out the movements in a dream (without this, many people would injure themselves or others during sleep). For example, patients suffering from diseases such as Parkinson’s disease with REM sleep disorder show vigorous movements during sleep, often hitting their partners in the process.

The problem occurs when the onset of REM atonia (relaxation) comes before the person fully falls asleep, or fails to disappear after waking up. As the motor system has been shut down, the muscles cannot be moved yet the person has regained consciousness. The more frightening thing is that sleep paralysis is usually accompanied by an intense visual and auditory hallucination, which is almost always related the person’s worst nightmares and fears. This explains why so many cultures associate it with demons and ghosts, and it is also possibly the cause of alien abduction experiences and ghost sightings. Reason being, the hallucination is so vivid the person easily believes that it actually happened.

Sleep paralysis can be caused by excessive drinking, stress or the induction of lucid dreams, but tend to be spontaneous and can happen to you on any day.

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