Originally published on everup April 20, 2016
The threshold between wakefulness and sleep is a strange place that encourages the creative process.
Read more from our #SLEEP primer here.
One minute you’re awake in bed and the next second you’re fast asleep. Not exactly. Most of us have experienced that puzzling middle ground of consciousness—where strange sounds, fantastical images and odd notions float through our brain. We know we’re awake so it can’t be a dream. But we’re not exactly conscious either. This mysterious mental state is known as hypnagogia and it occurs in up to 77 percent of the population.
The word is derived from the Greek hypno, meaning sleep, and agogeus,meaning guide or leader. People in the hypnagogic state report lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations and sleep paralysis among many other weird sensations. Common physical manifestations include feeling like you’re falling and/or experiencing those strange hypnic jerks, when our body makes a sudden twitchy movement which either sends us deeper into slumber or awakens us.
It’s All About the Brainwaves
What happens in our brains as we meander about in this twilit world? Research demonstrates that we produce high levels of both alpha and theta brainwaves. Alpha brainwaves are observed when we’re in a state of relaxed awareness. Theta are slower waves that occur during drowsiness and daydreaming, for example. As we begin to fall asleep, drowsy theta waves vie for the upper hand but alpha waves still surface, creating the state of in between. According to some experts, sleep is not a necessary component for hypnagogia to occur. “Hypnagogia may happen while a person is meditating, or anytime when conscious focused attention is relaxed,” according to Sirley Marques-Bonham, PhD, a researcher on consciousness from the University of Texas at Austin.
Scientists, philosophers, and artists have long been fascinated with the strange insights and faraway memories that seem to find their way into our mind as we drift to sleep. Aristotle wondered about those “affections we experience when sinking into slumber.” Throughout history, alchemists, astrologers and poets not only expressed a fascination with the hypnagogic states, but also used those moments to create art or otherwise find inspiration.
Art and Literature Created; Chemistry Problems Solved
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was unintentionally born from what she called a “waking dream.” In the introduction to the novel, she writes: “I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.”
Edgar Allan Poe’s otherworldly passages are thought to be examples of imagery drawn from hypnagogic states. Salvador Dali called these fuzzy states “sleep with a key.” Contemporary writers still find inspiration for their work from these liminal moments. (There were also those 20th Century woo woo occulists who got a little carried away, claiming the hypnagogic state could take you to heaven, hell and other astral planes, and allow you to communicate with the dead.)
A breakthrough of sorts took place in 1983 when psychologist Andreas Mavromatis wrote his doctoral thesis on hypnagogia. He theorized that hypnagogia occurs when “the human” part of the brain responsible for our interface with the external world becomes “inhibited” and the more “pre-logical” subcortical brain takes control. Though lauded by many as a master on this subject, others think that Mavromatis seemed to go out on a scientific limb when he further stated “hypnagogia gives rise to the insight that there are many realities and that what we call wakefulness merely constitutes one of them…hypnagogia suggests the evolutional possibility of a further expansion of consciousness, and poses a serious question concerning the nature of reality.”
Some critics argued that Mavromatis’ work had “many and varied observations, much speculation and few conclusions.” Others, however, inspired by Mavromatis’ findings, began to wonder whether they could actually harness hypnagogia to allow creative ideas to pour forth. “Hypnagogia is the shortest path for communication from our subconscious,” said Marques-Bonham. “Your subconscious mind might send you solutions through imagery or other sensations.”
More traditional scientists, however, view the hypnogogic state simply as a way to dump psychic clutter. According to this more conservative school of thought, hypnogogic visions are as random as dreams. But it is hard to dispute countervailing experiences, even among scientific minds. Case in point: While dozing in front of a fire, August Kekulé, a 19th Century organic chemist, envisioned molecules as snakes and came to the realization that the structure of benzene was a closed ring.
Do It Yourself Hypnagogia
Is it possible not only to put yourself into a hypnagogic state, but to utilize those moments to focus on a particular problem? Yes, say advocates of a step-by-step process that they claim can lead to the untangling of knotty conundrums and help us gain insight into life’s mysteries. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll be teleported to Venus or touch base with your late great uncle, you might just stumble upon the “aha!” that has eluded you during your busy waking hours.
The method is quite similar to the practice of meditation and hypnosis. Sit quietly, close your eyes, relax, but don’t sleep. Here are the details to a more productive pre-sleep process.
- Find a time when you won’t be disturbed for 30 minutes or so. Early in the morning, or around a mid-day nap. (Naps were very fruitful times for patent-king Thomas Edison.)
- Write about your problem, issue, creative challenge. Let it sink in. Keep a pad and paper nearby.
- Sit comfortably in a chair (rather than in bed) relaxed but alert. Dali got more specific when he said, You must seat yourself in a bony armchair, preferably of Spanish style.
- Relax, but remain observant of your thoughts.
- As you drift, write down any ideas or details.
- Inspect for clues, metaphorical or otherwise. (In other words, don’t necessarily take your thoughts at face value.) For instance, could the image of a bird, a shape or sound represent something else going on in your life?
A variation of this is called the Edison Technique.
- Sit in a chair, close your eyes.
- Hold a metal ball, spoon or other “noisy” object over (an unbreakable) plate or something that will make noise when touched.
- Relax and drift.
- When you’ve relaxed so much that you lose hold of the spoon or the metal ball and it clangs as it hits the plate or pan, that’s the moment to wake up.
- Use those newly awakened moments to write down whatever ideas or thoughts you have.
Finally, don’t expect miracles, to cure the common cold, or create a new Table of Elements. As Jeff Warren, founder of the meditative think tank The Consciousness Explorers Club, and a big hypnagogic enthusiast cautioned: “Of course, for every real insight there are dozens of lemons. This isn’t magic, it’s still your fallible human brain operating.”