Skip to content
Surprising Science

1 in 5 suffer from ‘Exploding Head Syndrome’

One in five students will experience ‘exploding head syndrome,’ a disruptive disorder caused by the auditory neurons firing at once, waking sleepers with a loud bang.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

One in five college students will experience a disruptive sleep episode known as exploding head syndrome. It’s a psychological phenomenon where a person is awakened by an abrupt, loud noise or experiences something that feels like an explosion in their head. Quite disruptive to say the least and it’s said to affect 18 percent of young adults.

The lead author of a recent study on the issue, Brian Sharpless, an assistant professor Washington State University, took a serious look at the disorder. Sharpless and his team of researchers interviewed 211 undergrad students with the mission to identify which of the participants showed symptoms for exploding head syndrome and/or isolated sleep paralysis. While they were able to recognize which students had experienced these symptoms, Sharpless said there’s little science can do for them except let them know they aren’t alone.

Exploding head syndrome comes on as someone is drifting off to sleep. Researchers suspect that the problem occurs somewhere when the auditory neurons are shutting down. Instead of drifting off in stages, they all fire at once, creating this loud bang in the brain.

Last year, Melissa Dahl from NYMag interviewed a man about his exploding head syndrome; he said, “[I]t sounded to me like someone literally put a hand grenade in the wood stove that’s in my living room, and it just blew up.”

Sharpless explained in a press release:

“That’s why you get these crazy-loud noises that you can’t explain, and they’re not actual noises in your environment.”

This issue is caused by the brain stem’s reticular formation, which may also be involved in causing isolated sleep paralysis. So, it’s likely students who experience one will also have the other. This frightening phenomenon can cause people to get a little paranoid, Sharpless said:

“Some people have worked these scary experiences into conspiracy theories and mistakenly believe the episodes are caused by some sort of directed-energy weapon.”

The bang of a sudden noise combined with sleep paralysis and waking dreams can cause some powerful hallucinations. Some of which can cause people to see demons or believe they’re being abducted by aliens. Unfortunately, the only treatment out there seems to be spreading the word, assuring sufferers that it isn’t a government conspiracy or aliens.

“There’s the possibility that just being able to recognize it and not be afraid of it can make it better.”

Indeed, the man that Dahl interviewed said the biggest relief was knowing that he wasn’t alone with this disease. He said to her:

“Well, once I’ve come to the conclusion, that’s supported by the latest and greatest medical evidence, that there’s nothing harmful about it, I decided I’m not going to worry about it.”

Read more at Science Daily and check out the interview at NYMag.


Up Next