WSU psychologist takes look inside ‘exploding heads’

HEATHER MORSE | Evergreen reporter

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A unique sleep disorder called ‘exploding head syndrome’ is being researched at WSU.

WSU psychology professor Brian Sharpless began researching the syndrome after studying the sleep disorder called isolated sleep paralysis as part of his post doctorate research at the University of Pennsylvania.

Exploding head syndrome is the sensation some people have of hearing sudden, loud sounds while falling asleep or waking up.

“I’ve actually never experienced either of these sleep disorders, but I really like learning about the different ways that people experience and interpret strange psychological phenomena,” Sharpless said.

His research on the phenomenon has been published in the medical journal Sleep Medicine Reviews.

The sounds one hears tend to have a short duration and typically occur infrequently.

“They are usually painless but associated with fear and distress,” Sharpless said.

Symptoms of the disorder were first recorded about 150 years ago, but Sharpless said much about the disorder is still unknown.

There are currently five primary theories that could explain the causes of exploding head syndrome, Sharpless said. Researchers believe stress and other psychological disturbances might contribute to the disorder.

Though it is generally viewed as a harmless phenomenon, Sharpless said the disorder can become more chronic for some people. Professionals researching the syndrome have limited treatment options for those with serious and chronic episodes of the syndrome.

The syndrome also tends to affect the mental health of those who have it.

Robert Armstrong-Jones, a Welsh physician and psychiatrist, was one of the first people to provide a clinical description of the syndrome, calling it a “snapping of the brain.”

Armstrong-Jones also linked the syndrome to psychological disorders in several of his patients.

“Fear, shock and surprise are often experienced in the wake of episodes,” Sharpless said.

Some patients have reported the sensation is painful, but Sharpless said that pain is often a misperception of the shock of the experience.

In addition to hearing loud noises, some patients experience visual disturbances such as flashes of light, he said.

The frequency of the experience also varies among individuals.

“Patients range from having one episode in a lifetime to upwards of seven episodes per night,” Sharpless said.

Research has not fully determined whether men or women are more prone to develop the disorder, he said. Some studies indicate it is more common in females.

Sharpless and his lab staff have interviewed more than 40 people with exploding head syndrome. One of their goals is to better understand why people experience the disorder.

“We also hope to have a better sense of the specific ways that exploding head syndrome affects people’s lives,” he said.