“Exploding heads” more common than once thought

Exploding heads don’t only occur in Saturday morning cartoons.

In fact, the syndrome may even be more common, particularly among young people, than previously thought.

Washington State University researchers found an unexpectedly high percentage of young people experience “exploding heads syndrome,” a psychological phenomenon in which they are awakened by abrupt loud noises, even the sensation of an explosion in their head, according to a news release from WSU.

Brian Sharpless, a WSU assistant professor and director of the university psychology clinic, found 18 percent of college students interviewed said they had experienced exploding head syndrome at least once.

For some, the experiences were so bad they significantly impacted their lives, Sharpless said in the news release.

The study also revealed that more than one-third of those who experienced the syndrome also experienced isolated sleep paralysis, in which a person cannot move or speak when waking up.

The study included 211 undergraduates (the largest study of its kind), who were interviewed by psychologists or graduate students trained in recognizing the symptoms of exploding head syndrome and isolated sleep paralysis, according to the news release.

Smaller studies have suggested exploding head syndrome is a rare condition that occurs mostly in people older than 50. Sharpless suspected it was more widespread after reviewing scientific literature on the disorder.

People tend to experience the loud noises as they’re falling asleep. Researchers suspect the disorder stems from problems with the brain shutting down.

When the brain goes to sleep, the motor, auditory and visual neurons turn off in stages. But instead of shutting down properly, researchers suspect the auditory neurons all fire at once.

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

The same part of the brain appears to be involved in isolated sleep paralysis as well, he said.

Exploding head syndrome can last just a few seconds, but it can lead some people to believe that they’re having a seizure or bleeding in the brain, Sharpless said. Some people are so put off by the experience, they don’t even tell their spouse, he said.

“They may think they’re going crazy and they don’t know that a good chunk of the population has had the exact same thing,” Sharpless said in the news release.

The study results are published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Marissa Harshman

Marissa Harshman

I'm the health reporter for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. I started at The Columbian -- my hometown newspaper -- in September 2009. Reach me at marissa.harshman@columbian.com or 360-735-4546.

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