The following is a visitor-submitted question or story. For more, you can submit your own sleep story here, or browse the collection of experiences and questions other visitors have shared here.

Hallucinations While Driving - Sleep Disorder Or Something Else?

Hi, I don't know where to start off, so I'll just start with the basics. My name is "G." I found your site this morning after doing a search on hallucinations while driving.

Last night was my first experience of having a hallucination while awake. I had just come from seeing a movie with my family and had to drive home (about an hour drive) during the middle of the night. The time was between 3-3:30am and I was beginning to get sleepy but completely awake. I've stood up this late before several times and had to drive home and never had an experience like this.

Last night, while on the freeway I saw what appeared as an electrical post falling onto the freeway. As it was falling it spun then hit the ground. It was so realistic that I actually swerved off to the side and made the driver behind me, pull beside me, honk 3 times then speed off. He assumed that I was falling asleep at the wheel when I was just trying to avoid the "post."

I had been driving about 40 minutes before seeing my first object. During the next 20 or so minutes I saw a few more things and it seemed back to back and I started to get really concerned about what was happening.

After seeing the post I saw two shadowy figures run across the freeway and immediately knew that wasn't real after seeing that the post wasn't there. Then I saw a black/shadowy figure of a bird that came and disappeared within seconds. It was heading toward my window then vanished. Finally when exiting the freeway I noticed a big cardboard box in the distance, except this time it looked real not shadowy. So I started to slow down to see if it was real or fake. I didn't know what to believe anymore. As I got closer the image/object disappeared and I started to panic then cry.

I don't know why this is happening and after reading your site I'm beginning to wonder if I have some type of sleep disorder?

Sleep Paralysis - This is the closest description to what I've been experiencing for years. Two years ago I went through a really tough period and/or episode where I was coming out of the sleep paralysis every night at the same time. It got so bad that I was beginning to know when an onset was going to happen, knew how to control it and come out of it. What bothered me was that it was happening and always at the same time. And, it progressed to where I was hearing voices that sounded muffled--one male and one female. Or, footsteps, feeling a presence, hearing and feeling someones breath.

There were also times when I didn't have the sleep paralysis I would hear the doorbell ring, same time. I'd go downstairs not knowing if this time someone was really there, look through the peep hole and no one.

OBE?? I remember feeling like I was asleep and looking through my eyelids as if they were translucent and seeing my husband next to me, going into a sleep paralysis when trying to reach out to him, come out of it, open my eyes to see him in the same position.

I'm not sure what is wrong with me but I'd appreciate any feedback.

Thank you.

Kevin's Thoughts

First off, let me start off by saying thank you for taking the initiative to write in and seek feedback for this experience, and I'm very, very glad you were able to make it home safely to do so. I can hardly begin to imagine how frightening those hallucinations on the road must have been, and for you to have the presence of mind to overcome them and to then research them says a lot about the type of person you are. Secondly, let me get straight to some insights on the matter, because what you have described really calls for some serious urgency, as your words suggest you already know.

The hallucinations you describe while driving sound precisely like what are known as hypnagogic hallucinations (the term hypnogogia is a term referring to the transitional state between wakefulness and the onset of sleep). Conversely, the voices, footsteps, and breath you have heard and felt during episodes of sleep paralysis are known as hypnopompic hallucinations (the term hypnopompia instead this time referring to the transitional state between sleep and the onset of wakefulness).

The key thing to take from this is that, as you thought, the hallucinations are dream imagery--or in other words, imagery that is closely connected with sleep. And in the case of the images you experienced while driving, they are tightly linked with sleep onset, something you want to be as far away from as possible while driving.

Tragically, falling asleep at the wheel is an enormously prevalent cause of death today. In our Stanford Sleep and Dreams course we emphasize constantly--more than any other topic in the class--the dangers of driving drowsy in order to raise awareness of this fact. Dr. Dement, the longtime professor of the course and pioneer of sleep research, refers to sleep in general as the moment when the "door of perception" slams shut. And in being drowsy behind the wheel one is literally seconds away from that "door of perception" slamming shut in a situation where losing your ability to perceive your surroundings will very likely result in death. It's serious stuff that you may not start to realize the full implication of until your put in a situation like you experienced driving home from the movie.

In the course though we also have a tool to combat this danger, a tool which empowers someone who knows about it to take action against the risk of falling asleep. The tool is a key-in phrase called "Drowsiness Is Red Alert!" that you may have seen elsewhere throughout this site. In fact, it's so important to the mission of Sleep and Dreams that it is on the top of every page on the site. It works by nature of you understanding its intention: to protect you when you are feeling sleepy on the road. When your eyelids start to feel heavy, "Drowsiness Is Red Alert" pops into your head and calls for you to realize the danger you are in and to pull over or exit the freeway to take a power nap and stay safe.

That is the abridged version of the story. For the more complete version of "Drowsiness Is Red Alert!", and to see what people like Oprah have to say about it, go here.

The overall point of this tangent is to emphasize that if anything like what you experienced happens again, or even without the hallucinations you begin to feel drowsy on the road, don't be afraid to simply pull over and rest, because it's not worth ending up like this just to make it back home a little quicker.

Now to come back to your question about a possible sleep disorder that may be driving the sleep paralysis and/or the hypnagogic/pompic imagery, the most telling thing for me to emphasize given what you have described is that both sleep paralysis and hypnagogic/pompic are tied to intrusions of REM sleep (the period of sleep when dreaming occurs) into waking life.

SIDENOTE: As far as I know, It's not precisely known whether all hypnagogic imagery is directly related to REM sleep--some incidences of simple imagery may be more tied to the first stage of NREM sleep--but the type of vivid, completely lifelike imagery that you describe would seem to me necessarily tied more to REM sleep.

Sleep paralysis, meanwhile, is simply a byproduct of the paralysis during REM sleep that prevents us from acting out our dreams carrying over for a short amount of time (although it can feel like an eternity) after we've woken up. There's more on this phenomena here.

Sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations are two of the main symptoms of narcolepsy, a condition characterized by protrusions of REM sleep into the waking state. You can read up more about it using that link I just dropped. If you've ever experienced sleep paralysis while falling into sleep (rather than while awakening from it), or are persistently tired during the day, or have ever experienced weakness in the knees, legs, or jaw while laughing or experiencing intense emotions, you should definitely check yourself in to go see a sleep specialist regarding narcolepsy. Additionally, if you've had more hallucinations since writing this or if the sleep paralysis persists to the point where you feel it is seriously disruptive, it would certainly be wise to see a sleep specialist then as well.

And in the meantime, be very wary and alert while on the road. If you begin to feel like you are experiencing another episode of imagery, don't take a chance. Simply pull over and get yourself out of harms way, rest your eyes and your mind, and ensure that you make it home safe.

I'm very glad to have received your writing. If you have any more questions or thoughts about anything that I've said here, feel free to follow up by using the "Post Comments" link below. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter.

Warmly,
Kevin

Comments for Hallucinations While Driving - Sleep Disorder Or Something Else?

Click here to add your own comments

Aug 28, 2011
.
by: Anonymous

i just got back home after going to the movies with a few friends. it was about 12:30am pitch black down the roads i have to take to get back home i was feeling kind of tired but at the stage where i just yawn a little and on the drive back i went down a few dirt roads and a few country roads with lots of trees, bushes etc. anyway i thought i saw a man stumble out of a bush with what looked like blood on him so i slowed down to almost a stop and crept up a little to where i saw him and no one was there i could have sworn he came out and laid down on the road but there was nothing there when i got closer. about 20 mins after i saw something similar again but just a shadow run across the road, at this stage im freaking out. it was an hour or so drive and i just kept seeing random things that looked like it would be from a horror movie. i dont really have any idea what could be the cause i have a had a few late nights throughout the week because of not being able to sleep and working 10-12 hour days 5 days in a row im guessing its some sort of exhaustion and being a little sleep deprived.

Jan 02, 2013
I might sound crazy, but... NEW
by: Anonymous

I have experienced these exact same hallucinations while driving... I have had a lot of trouble sleeping lately... Sometimes I can't sleep for days at a time, and for seemingly no reason. However in particular, I would like to address the shadowlike figure of the bird. I experienced this hallucination exactly as you described. It was flying a short distance in front of my car, then suddenly the bird crashed in to my windshield but dissipated like smoke. I have also seen the shadowlike figures running across the street, and the life like figures. Just tonight, I saw a huge brindle mastiff slowly crossing the street. It stayed in full detail until I got closer and just vanished. I have got to say, I was very scared the first few times they occurred. But with chronic spells of insomnia, I sort of... grew accustomed to them. I didn't think they were that serious. I've recently experienced delusions of a presence while at work. I would like to Seek help

Mar 15, 2013
It's normal NEW
by: Anonimous Floridian

Hello. Forst let me tell yoh that while this doesnt happen to some people, it is quite natural for some of us.

It occurs when you are starting to fall asleep and it is the sign (late sign) that is time to pull over and take a nap.

This has happened to me all my life as a driver. Day or night, but it occurs strictly when i am very very tired, and starting to call asleep behind the wheel. I have seen all sorts lf crazy things when this happens and i have even reacted to dangers that werent there. I have also continued driving to see if what i am seeing is real or not, and i have laughed at seeing funny stuff in the hallucinations. Conclusion: it's normal when you are fighting sleep while driving. Solution: immediately pull over and sleep.

I used to continue driving when i saw hallucinations but thankfully realized it is a big danger before anything bad happened. Now I pull over immediately. Even if home is just 20 min awa.

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Sleep Questions and Answers.




Enjoy this page? Please help us pay it forward to others who would find it valuable by Liking, Sharing, Tweeting, Stumbling, and/or Voting below.

About This Site

Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

We made this site as a call to action for people all over the world to live healthier, happier, safer, and more productive lives by learning about their own sleep. We have faith that reading the information provided on this site will motivate you to be smart about your sleep deprivation and strategic about your alertness in order to live life to your fullest, most energetic potential.

In fact, we challenge you to do so! What do you say, are you up for the challenge?


A Note On Visitor-Submitted Questions:

Publishing sleep stories and questions from our visitors is meant to create a forum for open and proactive dialogue about an extremely important portion of our lives (one that occupies 1/3 of it and affects the other 2/3) that isn't talked about enough. It is not meant to substitute a trip to the doctor or the advice of a specialist. It's good to talk; it is not good to avoid consulting someone who's profession it is to help you with this kind of stuff.

If you are in any way concerned about your sleep health, don't wait for an answer on here, and don't necessarily rely on them. See a sleep specialist in your area as soon as possible.

More Questions:

Ask | Answer

The Stanford Sleep Book

Stanford Sleep Book Picture

Dr. Dement's pioneering textbook has been the core text for Sleep and Dreams since 1980, but it has just recently been made available to the wider public for the first time.

In it you'll find a more detailed account of the most important things you need to know about sleep, alertness, dreams, and sleep disorders. Studies, statistics, plus plenty of Dr. Dement's classic anecdotes painting the history of sleep medicine.

Preface | Intro | Contents | Get A Copy

More Sleep Resources

The Zeo

A revolution in personal sleep tracking, the Zeo is a wireless headband that transmits your brainwaves in realtime to a dock (pictured here) or your smartphone. The result? You can wake up and see exactly what stages of sleep you were in during the night! Unprecedented personalized sleep knowledge.

Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer's Guide

Sleep Paralysis Treatment Book

Ever woken up paralyzed? A surprising number of us have, believe it or not. But few know the actual causes of this phenomenon, and fewer still how to exert control over it. Dream researcher and sleep paralysis expert Ryan Hurd shares breakthrough insights into how to do just that.

How This Site Was Made

In 2007 I discovered a guide to website building that would change my life. After learning from it diligently, it would eventually empower me to help Dr. Dement take his life's mission of spreading education about sleep health to the online world. Now, several years later, this site reaches over 100,000 visitors per month and counting.

The results are due in large part to the methods taught in that guide, and they are replicable for others who have knowledge of a subject they would like to share with the masses. I've detailed some of my journey here for those who might be interested.

Important Disclaimer

Please Note:

The information found on this page and throughout this site is intended for general information purposes only. While it may prove useful and empowering, it is NOT intended as a substitute for the expertise and judgments of healthcare practitioners.

For more info, see our
Terms of Use.