“Exploding head syndrome” sounds like a made-up name for the feeling one gets upon wading a little too deep into a FoxNews.com comments section. But it is an actual thing, and Science of Us spoke with someone who has it.
While drifting off to sleep, people with the disorder hear a brief but terrifyingly loud BOOM, which has been described as sounding like fireworks, a clash of cymbals, or a “loud twang like a breaking guitar string,” as one sufferer put it in a just-published paper in Sleep Medicine Reviews, despite the absence of anything making these noises.
Even though the disorder is likely harmless and most sufferers don’t report any pain, it can be quite scary for people who don’t understand what’s happening to them. And Washington State University psychologist Brian Sharpless, the paper’s author, thinks exploding head syndrome might not be as rare as was once thought — he cites studies which claim up to a tenth of the population has it.
Sharpless put Science of Us in touch with Dan James, a 48-year-old from Holland, Michigan, who has experienced symptoms for six years (James has never been formally diagnosed, but he has corresponded with Sharpless, who agrees that his symptoms fit the bill). This conversation has been lightly edited.
So, exploding head syndrome! Can you talk about the first time you experienced this?
Well, it was about five or six years ago. And I thought my house blew up. It had enough of a kind of a metallic and electrical quality to it; it 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. I mean, I hit the deck. I hit the ground. My heart was going 200 beats a minute. I walked the perimeter of my entire house, because I thought for sure something blew up. Everything was fine, so I thought, Well, this must have been some kind of weird dream.
Can you go into a little more detail on what an episode is like?
It’s fast. If I had to put a clock on it — now, I’m not sure that my sensation of time in that state is accurate. But I’d say it’s fast; it’s like three milliseconds. It’s as fast as a gunshot.
Some people describe the way it sounds as an explosion, or metallic clang, or like an electrical sound. But it’s not a cacophony; it’s not all of those sounds at once. For me, anyway, it starts with an electrical snap — have you ever been, like, no further than a few hundred yards away from a transformer when it blows?
Well, it sounds like a bolt of lightning, like a really loud electrical clack. And that’s the beginning of it. Then it’s a metallic cling, or pang, like a hammer hitting an anvil. And then it’s like an explosion — like a ripping and tearing kabam. And all of those things, they’re all compressed down to three milliseconds. And it’s loud.
How long did it take you to figure out that there was a name for this weird thing you were experiencing?
The second time it happened, I recognized this isn’t something happening in physical reality. Like, I am actually hearing this, but it’s not actually happening in physical reality. I thought, I’m gonna look on the internet and see if this is indicative of, “Do I have a brain tumor?” So I spent ten minutes doing that and found “exploding head syndrome.” I thought, Well, that’s an apropos name!
Can you define exploding head syndrome for me, as you understand it?
So my understanding of it at that time was, neuropsychologists don’t understand what causes it, but it might have something to do with the way your brain shuts down, the way auditory and visuals shut down, from wakefulness to sleep. It didn’t seem to be comorbid with any underlying physical or psychological ailments. So, at that point, it became a big whatever. And now it’s kind of like, it doesn’t occur very often; you might go six to eight months without it happening and then it’ll occur several times in a month. The way I look at it, it’s like the grand finale fireworks show of my mind shutting down on another great day.
You seem remarkably well adjusted, all things considered.
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. I can understand your point, and I can see where that’s a problem for people who also experience this. But I’d like to tell them it’s okay. Don’t worry about it, and don’t let it bug you. When it happens to me now, I’m conscious enough to grin a little bit and maybe flip the pillow over to the cool side, and then fall asleep.