Happymore Chibvura

An all-things Psychology blog

Understanding Sleep Paralysis

Understanding Sleep Paralysis

Man Suffering From Sleep Paralysis At Home

Have you ever found yourself tangled in the enigmatic explanations that shroud psychological phenomena like sleep paralysis, known as “madzikirira” in our vibrant Shona culture? The echoes of attributions to bewitchment and supernatural forces aren’t unfamiliar, right? But, hold tight, as we venture into the depths of understanding this phenomenon.

When I started my undergraduate studies in Psychology, some of the modules that fascinated me the most were (i) Psychobiology and (ii) Consciousness. It is within these two courses that I first interacted with the sleep paralysis phenomenon from a psychological, psychobiological and neurological point of view. Before then, I only thought of “madzikirira” as a spiritual phenomenon.

Now, sleep paralysis might have often been painted with the hues of spectral encounters, but oh, how the landscape shifts when we turn to the realms of sleep science and neurology.

When the REM (rapid eye movement) phase dances its dreamy waltz, our bodies enter into a spellbinding state known as REM atonia. Here, what I am simply saying is that, during REM sleep, a phase where vivid dreaming occurs, our bodies undergo a natural process known as REM atonia. This is a natural defense mechanism, gently suspending muscle activity, lest our dreams lead us to unintended movements. This implies that the REM atonia mechanism involves the suppression of muscle activity to prevent us from acting out our dreams.

“But how does REM atonia achieve this exactly?”, you might ask. This is where psychobiology and neurology come into play. Remember what we would say when we meet someone who is so intelligent? We would say, “idzi dzine medulla oblongata inodhonza” (he or she has a very effective medulla oblongata). Little did we know that the medulla oblongata has nothing, at all, to do with intelligence. You might now be wondering what is responsible for intelligence. Don’t worry, we will talk about that and more in future blogs.

The function of the medulla oblongata, unlike what you presumed, is basically to ensure that it keeps vital parts and functions of our bodies, such as breathing, digesting, etc., awake whilst it makes sure that the rest of our bodies are asleep. We call these functions autonomous functions. Imagine if this did not happen, people would probably kill themselves whilst asleep as they will be acting out their dreams. This is why we also consider sleepwalking as a sleep disorder. I will delve a little deeper into this particular disorder in my next blogs.

Now, back to a more detailed explanation in scientific terms. The maestro orchestrating this dance? The brainstem, particularly a vital player called the medulla oblongata which is the connection between the brainstem and the spinal code. This medulla oblongata, the crown jewel of the brainstem, conducts an orchestra of life-sustaining symphonies – heartbeats, breaths, and muscle toning. In the realm of REM atonia, it takes center stage. The medulla oblongata quiets the movement by silencing motor neurons, the conductors of muscle action.

But imagine this: what if the brain’s curtain rises a bit early, stirring consciousness while the REM atonia lingers? Voila, sleep paralysis! You’re awake and aware, but temporarily bound by the lingering inhibition of your muscles. Well, what am I saying? I am simply saying that, sleep paralysis or madzikirira can occur when the brain partially wakes up before the REM atonia wears off, resulting in a state where you’re awake and aware, but temporarily unable to move due to ongoing muscle inhibition.

We mustn’t forget the sidekicks that influence this enigma – irregular sleep schedules, sleep debt, and life’s crescendos of stress. These factors can choreograph episodes of sleep paralysis.

As we tread this labyrinth of insight, my aim is to unravel the threads of this phenomenon, laying bare the intricate neurobiological mechanisms in play. Let’s cast off the shroud of mystery and replace it with the robe of understanding. As you have seen, by understanding the intricate neurobiological mechanisms at play, we indeed can demystify madzikirira and offer practical insights for managing sleep patterns to at least avoid the experience of this phenomenon.

Join this voyage with your voice – share your thoughts and musings in the harbor of comments. This, dear comrades, is our journey. And it starts with you, me, and the whispers of psychology.

In shared enthusiasm, Happie, a zealous Psychology Graduate Student. #IntoThePsyche


Pepukai Muchazondida Svinurai

Quite interesting Happy that you introduced this very important topic, which knows no boundary as it often affects all, the rich, the poor, even those spiritually strong. Quite interesting that your write up glaringly gave clarity on explanations that are normally difficult to explain. Considering the strong perception and belief in the Indigenous Knowledge Systems, perhaps it’s still important to also investigate the origin of the indigenous/natives perception to madzikirira, and possible solutions to reduce the challenge as well e.g to what extend does witchcraft contribute to Madzikirira. Remember, based on the traditional/indigenous knowledge systems perception, most people lose a lot of resources attempting or solving it the traditional way, how do they do it and why??, is it that they lack the scientific definition??, to what extend does the tradition solutions work??, and the scientific solutions, any practical way to reduce such a scenario. This could help much, as this is a very common scenario which is not only frustrating but brings with it other related challenges such as depression, relationships demage through suspecting witchcraft, and losing resources from unscrupulous n’angas or prophets. Well done, and keep on enlightening us, very interesting topic indeed.

    Happymore Chibvura

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful comment Pepukai! I’m really glad you found the topic interesting and relevant. Your points about the widespread impact of the topic and the importance of understanding indigenous knowledge systems are truly valid. Investigating the origin of perceptions surrounding sleep paralysis, like madzikirira, and exploring potential solutions to address the challenges it poses is indeed a valuable direction for further research.

    You bring up crucial questions about the interplay between traditional and scientific approaches to addressing these issues. The contrast between the two approaches and their effectiveness is definitely something worth delving into. It’s fascinating how different beliefs and practices can influence not only individuals’ well-being but also broader societal aspects like relationships and resource allocation.

    Your encouragement and enthusiasm motivate me to continue exploring these intriguing subjects and shedding light on them. Thank you again for your engaging comment, and I look forward to sharing more enlightening content with you in the future!

Madeira Chipunza

Very interesting nd insightful read indeed . Thank you for this information

    Happymore Chibvura

    Thank you for engaging with the content Madeira. I hope you keep visiting the blog for more content in the future. Soon, I will be talking about sleepwalking as another topic and will also delve deeper into the different types of sleep paralysis.


Thank you so much for the information, insightful ndaitofunga kuti mamhepo ka, eye opening 👏

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