Stupid Question ™
July 5, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: How come when I wake up in the morning I am conscious but can’t hear the TV for a few seconds?
—Chris Walker, Columbus, Ohio
A: As always, I can’t answer about you specifically, but I can talk generally about sleep phenomena that sound much like what you are describing. They may or may not be relevant; you can ask your doctor.
I also must issue the Official Sleep Question Caveat my readers have heard many times before. While I could easily write 100 pages about sleep studies, the fact is that nobody knows why we sleep, and barely anything about how. Just about everything involving sleep is a mystery, worsened by its connection to definitions of the mind and consciousness.
So, I can give a name to the phenomenon you’re describing. And science has made some efforts to quantify its frequency and physical effects. But no one can really give you an explanation at this point, I’m afraid.
It isn’t sexy and exciting, but the strength of science is its willingness to admit its ignorance. (Well, most of the time anyway. You can still find a lot of sleep-disorder discussions that seem to think slapping a Latinate name on something equates an explanation of it.)
I’m going to make a presumption about your condition, and challenge one of your own. I’m presuming your auditory-blocking experience occurs while you’re still lying in bed. And I’m proposing that you are not actually conscious—that is, not fully conscious—when it happens.
These vast presumptions in place, your experience sounds like a mild form of hypnopompic sleep paralysis.
“Hypnopompic” just means “during waking up.” Its flip side is “hypnagogic,” which means “during falling asleep.” (“Hypnagogic” is often used generically to describe both states.)
When we fall asleep, the mind and body seem to shut down in fairly discrete stages. Consciousness wanders and fades, then the body begins a deep relaxation of the skeletal muscles. The process reverses, more or less, upon waking up.
The mind, of course, never stops working completely and in most people produces dreams and so forth. Sometimes, the conscious mind can even become active and self-aware while the body remains deeply relaxed—with the sleeper even looking around at the room and so on. This state is called sleep paralysis, because the body “can’t” move even though the mind is there thinking about it. (This is a stronger version of what almost everyone experiences when they wake up—a period of drowsy, not-quite-awakeness that gradually becomes full consciousness after a few minutes.)
Various studies show that perhaps 5 percent of the population suffers sleep paralysis on a regular basis, and as much as 50 percent experience it at some point in their lives.
People who suffer from narcolepsy are especially prone to it, and it correlates with disrupted sleep schedules and panic attacks. (I was going to make a joke about your propensity for sleeping with the TV on, but on second thought I wonder if it indicates problems getting to sleep, which could produce a sleep paralysis effect.)
The consciousness that becomes active in sleep paralysis is still not full consciousness. (Studies show it sometimes accompanies a Rapid Eye Movement, or deep dreaming, state.) It is most famous for being accompanied by hallucinations (and often a sense of fear or panic) that undoubtedly explain stories of fairies, alien abductors, “night hags,” and the like.
Auditory hallucinations are most common, but visual hallucinations aren’t rare. Most people can open their eyes during the experience.
Hallucinations are colorful and exciting stuff to write about and thus dominate the sleep paralysis literature. However, some people experience a shut-off of some of their senses—including hearing—during the paralysis state. In short, they could lie there and look at the TV, but not be able to hear it.
A less extreme possibility is that for some reason—sleep schedule disruption is the most common cause—you are waking up in the middle of a deep dreaming state, similar to what sleepwalkers experience. You are conscious at a functioning level, but your mind is still shutting out external stimuli and churning away on your dream material.