This weekend, a friend of mine sent me an article on “Exploding Head Syndrome” and asked me if I knew what it was. Alarmed by the name of the syndrome, I decided to look into it. Although I pictured someone’s brain exploding, it is actually something quite common. Exploding Head Syndrome is when you are in the moment before falling asleep, and suddenly experience an extremely loud noise, such the sound of banging or a gunshot. Some people will also see flashes of light or other visual phenomena. As you can imagine, it is quite terrifying to wake up to this. People always talk about sleep paralysis as being a frightening experience to wake up to, especially if you don’t know what is, and Exploding Head Syndrome is quite similar in that degree. Interestingly, new research has shown that not only is Exploding Head Syndrome more common than previously believed, but it is often linked with sleep paralysis, which is quite unfortunate for the people that experience both phenomena.
Researchers at Washington State University found that among undergraduate participants, 18% had experienced Exploding Head Syndrome, and 16% had experienced it multiple times. Many had experienced sleep paralysis as well. Fortunately only 3% of people who had experienced Exploding Head Syndrome reported that it interfered with their lives. Some people, however, claim to have believed they were experiencing a seizure or some other type of medical emergency. The researchers described Exploding Head Syndrome as a “hiccup” in the reticular formation, which is a set of interconnected nuclei that maintain arousal and wakefulness. Therefore, the fact that this phenomenon occurs when someone is in between sleep and wakefulness is not too surprising. Essentially, what occurs, is that instead of shutting down the brain’s auditory neurons (which is what is supposed to happen), the “hiccup” causes them to fire, leading the person to experience auditory hallucinations.
This is similar to the “hiccup” that occurs in sleep paralysis, in which the parts of the brain that keeps the body paralyzed are delayed for a few seconds after the person wakes up. I wonder if a similar hiccup happens in other strange experiences such as deja vu. It would also be interesting to see if Exploding Head Syndrome is correlated with any psychological disorders or personality traits, as sleep paralysis has been found to be tied to anxiety disorders. Hopefully people who experience Exploding Head Syndrome will become less alarmed by the frightening condition if they learn that not only is it harmless, but it is also quite common.
Sharpless, B. (2015) Exploding head syndrome is common in college students. Journal of Sleep Research