During a normal night of sleep, your body slowly shuts down and becomes somewhat paralyzed (a good thing, so we don't act out our dreams). In the transition from wake to sleep, the brain closes shop a little at a time and brainwaves slow down. With exploding head syndrome, however, there's a glitch that happens somewhere along this path and your brainwaves don't slow down. While the disorder has not been the focus of many clinical studies, scientists have formulated a few theories on what causes this glitch [source: Sharpless].
- Exploding head syndrome may be associated with minor temporal lobe seizures in the brain. Most have ruled this theory out, however, since EEG testing (which detects epileptic activity in the brain) has not shown epilepsy as a cause.
- Some have suggested that a sudden shift of middle ear components or other ear dysfunctions may be at the root of the problem.
- For some patients experiencing the symptoms, it may be as a side effect of rapid withdrawal from drugs like benzodiazepines (brand names include Valium and Xanax) or some antidepressants (like Zoloft).
- Dysfunction in how our bodies transport calcium in our cells may cause the disruption in the transition from wake to sleep.
- The disorder arises from some sort of brainstem neuronal dysfunction.
This final theory is the most popular amongst scientists. They suggest that there is a glitch in the brainstem reticular formation. That's the part of the brain that regulates sensory motor reflexes, eye movements, motor control, and is responsible for overseeing transitions between sleep/wakefulness. This hiccup results in the reduction of activity and a delay in shutting down certain areas. Scientists have seen a suppression of alpha brainwaves which are responsible for drowsiness, while simultaneously noting an increased burst of activity in areas of brain that process sound [sources: Sharpless,Thomson].
Interestingly, some scientists have hypothesized that exploding head syndrome, coupled with other sleep disorders, may be an explanation for the origins of alien abduction stories, government conspiracy theories and supernatural demons. Exploding head is often linked to another sleep disorder, sleep paralysis, where the sufferers feel like they are having a dream while they are awake. So hallucinations like being a victim of an alien abduction feels very real, when in fact, they are only dreams.