5. The Exorcist
Name: Baland Jalal
Title: Neuroscientist at The University of Cambridge
Why they're interesting: Invented a simple method for escaping sleep paralysis
In 2005, Baland Jalal woke up to the feeling of a ghost choking him and a vision of his legs swirling up and down. The hallucination, while terrifying, piqued his curiosity. Five years later, the neuroscientist began to dissect the sleep disorder known as sleep paralysis, by analyzing both the neurobiological underpinnings of the attacks and the impact of cultural beliefs on sufferers’ experiences. Within a few years, Jalal came up with a grand theory to explain the phenomenon and one of the first methods for treating it.
“My work explores the deepest mysteries of the human brain and consciousness — indeed, what it means to be human,” said Jalal. “Sleep paralysis is one such enigma that allows us — at least for a short time — to see and become ghosts, have encounters with space aliens from distant galaxies, and travel to exotic lands of lucid dreams where, like a great Michelangelo, we are the sculptors of our own realities.”
Through his work, Jalal both hopes to help people sleep better and showcase the extraordinary power of human imagination. “When we sleep,” Jalal said, “all our guards are down and fantasy-mode takes over: We become either our most creative or most destructive selves.”
But neurological excavations can’t solve every mystery in our nocturnal lives. “When all is said and done and the curtains drawn, we’re still left with the haunting question: How do we know life itself is not merely a dream?,” Jalal said. “I mean, we usually don’t know we’re dreaming when we’re dreaming, do we? In the words of Shakespeare, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep."'