Baland Jalal, a neuroscientist who bounces between UCSD, Harvard and Cambridge, has built his career figuring out how to trick the brain. Last year, Jalal unveiled the first-ever method for treating sleep paralysis, a neurological condition in which people get stuck in a partial dream state, and experience muscle paralysis and ghost-like hallucinations.
Tell me about your typical sleep schedule.
I've always had strange patterns. I used to sleep from 7pm to midnight, stay up the whole night, and then go to sleep again around 6am for a few hours. It was mostly the eagerness of just working and being creative at night and being able to produce a lot — like perpetual mania without the depressive periods. It's been shown that if you have this strange pattern of sleep — 3-hour periods with a break — you go into REM sleep much faster; it's something about forcing your brain to benefit from the little sleep you actually get.
But, at the moment, I'm going to sleep around 4am, until 8am or 9am, and then trying to make up for it on the weekends. I’m not getting enough sleep right now, but it’s just the drive that I have.
So, what do you do when you can't get to sleep?
I engage in MR (Meditation-Relaxation) therapy, which is actually for sleep paralysis. But it works for getting to sleep, too, because you relax all your muscles, and stay calm, and stay positive.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
Probably some type of meditation, appreciation of life, thinking about the purpose and meaning of the universe. I like to have those moments of contemplation when I wake up.
When was the last time you stayed up all night?
Last night. I’m running pretty low on sleep right now.
I get so many of my scientific ideas when I'm half-asleep, in hypnogogia. I tend to come up with an idea that’s half-baked, and then it takes shape when I’m dozing off — it's almost as if you’re having a revelation from a different sphere of existence.
What about naps — are you a fan?
I used to take power naps, but at the moment I don’t. I just push, push push.
Do you remember your dreams?
Pretty often. I tend to have dreams within dreams within dreams, like in "Inception." I have dreams where I see pages of books and can read them, and dreams where I see people whom I've never, ever met. In one, I saw this very pretty chick, probably the prettiest girl I've ever seen, and I know I haven't seen her in real life because I would remember. And I think it's bizarre that I could create in my dreams someone I've never seen, because a face is such a personalized thing, and a face that radiates beauty impresses upon you. She looked other-worldly, as if she had stepped right out of a Shakespeare poem or Da Vinci painting. I seriously had to ask myself if I had a crush on this girl.
You've helped so many people overcome sleep issues — do you have any yourself?
Sometimes I have sleep paralysis. One time, during an episode, I had an out-of-body experience, and realized I could actually leave my physical body. I was like a ghost, trying to walk around my apartment. I thought, I have to do an exeriment on this. So I took a piece of paper and put it in my pocket, and said, if I go back into my physical body and the paper's still there, then it shows that we can leave our bodies. Unfortunately, it wasn’t there, of course. If it was, I'd have a Nobel Prize. But I still joke with my colleagues that we’re a select group of people who can say we're working when we're sleeping.
Interview has been edited and condensed.