As I mentioned in yesterday’s article on How to Sleep, Thomas Edison used Stage 1 of the natural sleep cycle – AKA hypnagogia – to come up with insanely creative ideas for new inventions.
He would take a cat-nap in a chair with steel balls in his hands and, as he drifted off and relaxed, the balls would drop (as it were), waking him and more often than not he’d have a new idea for research.
Edison had attained what is known as the hypnagogic state. Hypnagogia is just a fancy Greek word for the transition from wakefulness to sleep: Stage 1 of the sleep cycle. Please note that hypnagogia is NOT sleep: it is precisely the point between sleep and wakefulness. This is important.
The hypnagogic state is characterised by alpha-theta brainwaves and can lead to lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Normally we would not recall any of these experiences because normally our body continues in the sleep cycle and we pass into Stage 2 and so on through the cycle.
If we recall dreams, they are usually from the REM stage of sleep. If, however, we are woken, like Edison, during this first phase then we are very likely to recall our dreams or hallucinations.
With practice we can learn to balance on the edge of sleep and wakefulness and even to control our hallucinations to a certain degree. We can use the hypnagogic state to boost our creativity, to reduce stress and to energise our mind and body.
How to Induce a Hypnagogic State
You’ve probably already experienced a hypnagogic state. Think of times when you’ve been drifting off and had some vivid dreams or hallucinations – but not fallen asleep.
Try to remember the details of where you were, what you were doing and what time of day it was when you had the experience.
Then simply set up those conditions again and this time try to induce the state deliberately. Perhaps it was after a meal at lunchtime, perhaps it was in the library, leaning back on a chair in the sunshine, perhaps it was listening to the radio in the early morning.
I find public transport is good: you can’t fall asleep totally and there is plenty of background noise to provide stimulus.
Here are some more tips:
- Hypnagogia is about observing the mind as it descends into Stage 1 sleep. Therefore, the two prerequisites are drowsiness AND an effort to think. Just drowsiness and you risk falling asleep; just an effort to think and your mind will stay awake. It is the effort to think that makes it possible to ‘observe’ the consciousness of your subconscious mind.
- Therefore, don’t try it when you are tired. Late night hypnagogia will probably just lead to full-on sleep.
- If you think that sleep is a risk, don’t use your bed. If you do use your bed, perhaps prop yourself up with a pillow to avoid sleep.
- Follow Thomas Edison’s guide. Get yourself some steel balls and an armchair. Another one I’ve heard is a teaspoon and a plate. Hold the teaspoon in your hand and put the plate on the floor underneath. You’ll wake when you muscles relax and the teaspoon drops onto the plate.
- Try setting your alarm for 30 minutes earlier in the morning and then try to ‘doze’, try to balance between sleep and wakefulness until it is time for you to get up.
- You can use the snooze alarm on your clock to make sure you don’t go into sleep.
- The afternoon nap is another classic opportunity for hypnagogia.
- The brain works in roughly 90 minute high activity cycles, each followed by a 20 minute low activity cycle. If you can, work for 90 minutes and then try a burst of hypnagogia.
- Stage 1 of sleep only lasts about five minutes. If you wake up after twenty, you’ve probably been asleep.
- Relax, close your eyes, but stay watchful, observe yourself drifting off.
- Try concentrating on the changing patterns of your mind as you drop off. Don’t think about what you are thinking about (i.e. work, the kids, etc.), but just observe the way in which your thinking is changing, a change in consciousness perhaps.
- For me, there’s a point where I feel the body go numb (sleep paralysis) and then I know that in a few seconds my mind will dip into subconscious activity. If I don’t fall asleep, I know that I will be able to observe this state.
- Be patient. At first this will seem like an odd thing to be doing and you will probably struggle to enter a hypnagogic state. Keep trying, but don’t force it.
See Jennifer Dumpert’s Liminal Dreaming for more hypnagogic dreaming exercises.
Using Hypnagogia for Creativity
Many artists, writers, mystics, philosophers and scientists have used hypnagogia to break through creative brick walls. These have included Aristotle, the Greek philosopher; Robert Desnos, the French surrealist poet; Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer; Isaac Newton, the English scientist; and Beethoven, the German composer.
Observed hypnagogia can inspire not just images and sounds, but also present flashes of insight and, occasionally, genius. I’ll never forget the time my hypnagogic state constructed an entirely new way of presenting data, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Shame I don’t work with data, really!
Hypnagogic states are highly creative. They are extremely productive, packing a high density of ideas into a short period of time. They are extremely novel, throwing together ideas and thoughts that might never have occured to you otherwise. They express the incredible flexibility of the mind. They are more complex than you can grasp in a wakeful state. They transform existing objects into something totally new.
But the best part is that we all have access to this state. We can do it as much as we like without doing harm to ourselves and it will become more productive the more we use it.
Think again of Thomas Edison. Was he a particularly innovative inventor? Or was he just some guy who napped a lot? The two go hand in hand. Walk hand in hand with your unconscious, work together.
Control Your Experience
As you develop your ability to enter a hypnagogic state, you can start to try and do more with these experiences. You can’t directly control the hallucinations, but you can try to suggest things to the mind.
It is important that you remain relaxed. Just let it happen, whatever it is. Anxiety will provoke your alarm systems and you will wake up. The hallucination is in control just as much as you.
Record Your Experience
Of course, the hypnagogic experience is just an entertainment unless you make an attempt to record it. If you want to make something creative out of the hallucination then you must rehearse and write it down immediately afterwards, while you are still in the afterglow of the experience, otherwise it will fade quickly and vanish.
Another way to record the experience is to learn to verbally report the images as they are happening using a dictaphone. This is not easy to do in the beginning because it uses the analytical side of the brain, which is inherently wakeful, but it can be done.
Verbal reporting can take place as long as you don’t search for words, grammar or intellectual concern for the expression of abstract ideas. This means that you can record more directly the images and ideas, rather than scrabbling for a pen immediately afterwards.
Ease the Pressure to be ‘Creative’
Inspiration gained from hypnagogic states can also be used to ease creative pressure on an artist and to deflate ego and arrogance. Because they are ideas that have arrived from an unconscious state, it is hard to take full credit for them. The creative process becomes more of a partnership between you and your ‘muse’.
Tom Waits is among the many artists who have found this a useful way of reducing the stress of public acclamation of his ‘talent’. He puts in his shift and his muse puts in hers. When the ideas arrive, he is ready to receive and works them up into songs or words. If the ideas don’t arrive, then it’s not his fault; he did his job and his muse simply failed to show up, maybe she will tomorrow.
Other Uses for Hypnagogia and Alternatives
Hypnagogia is not just good for unlocking the creative power of the brain, it is also beneficial in other ways. The relaxation of a hypnagogic state refreshes your mind and body and diminishes the apparent unpleasantness of painful stimuli.
The practice of hypnagogic observation doesn’t just conserve energy, it produces it. It also lowers blood pressure and oxygen consumption and leads to a decrease in heart rate and respiration. All of which is good for beating stress and stress-related illness.
Inducing a hypnagogic state is not the only way to get the benefits of theta brain-waves. The following are other alternatives (my experiments in brackets):
I encourage experimentation – but hypnagogia is a great option that’s relatively easy, fun and safe.
Hypnagogia has a partner: hypnopompia, the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Hypnopompia is probably the more common experience.
Most people quite often have this sort of hallucination in the mornings, especially if your alarm goes off early and you use the snooze button. It seems to be identical in brain-activity to hypnagogia, but of course happens at the end of the sleep cycle, when you are half-awake.
The downside: you can only do it once a day! Nevertheless, you might as well indulge when you can.
Bonus: A Theory of Dreaming
We have two brains, not one. We have an ‘old’ brain and a, relatively-speaking, ‘new’ brain and they’ve evolved one on top of the other in us humans. The old brain is for use in survival mode: there is no ‘ego’, it is totally animal. The new brain is what makes us uniquely human, this is where the ‘ego’ sits, our self-conscious mind.
Dreaming is a product of the old brain; it subsumes the ego totally. Babies almost exclusively use the old brain; they have no self-consciousness and have no concept of inner and outer worlds. As the new brain starts to take over we develop our self-conscious mind.
What is Wakefulness?
Dreaming is an activity independent of sleep. Brain activity observed during the dreams of REM sleep is identical to that observed during our (so-called) waking hours. Therefore you could characterise our waking state as REM dreaming plus direct sensory stimulus.
It is only with the development of the new brain that we have also developed the distinction between sleeping and wakeful states. The new brain grabs that sensory stimulus and takes over. The old brain is still doing its thing, but at the subconscious level, which we don’t often notice or pay attention to except in meditative states, day-dreaming or hypnagogia.
What is Sleep?
If the waking state is simply the REM dreaming of sleep plus an exterior sensory stimulus, then what is sleep? People deprived of REM sleep dream more in the NREM phases, people deprived of sleep altogether hallucinate.
Hallucination in the real world is dangerous; believing you can fly off that cliff, believing you are invincible and so on. Therefore, we need to secure a safe place to give ourselves over to dreaming, to give ourselves over to the old brain. That safe place is sleep.
We can only sleep when our surroundings are secure; we can’t sleep if we don’t feel safe, our panic buttons are pushed and we stay awake. Therefore sleep is simply a safe place where we can dream.
This idea has remarkable conclusions. If the wakeful state is simply REM dreaming plus sensory stimulus and sleep is simply a safe place for us to dream, then what are we? Dreamers I suppose.
Creativity as Dreaming
This makes sense. Humans need less sleep than other mammals. This could be because we are able to ‘let go’ in a wakeful state as well – through creative arts or daydreaming, for example. This explains why we can survive REM deprivation, whereas animals, cats for example, go crazy and die.
Our ability to relax and engage in dreaming activities means that we need less sleep and less sleepdreams. This also explains why napping during the day can reduce your need for nocturnal sleep.
This is all fascinating and highly theoretical. Sleep and dreaming, especially hypnagogia, is not well-understood by anyone – and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers! All I hope is that I have given you something to think about, to investigate further and to experiment with in your own life.
The primary source for this article, particularly the section, A Theory of Dreaming, is a book by Andreas Mavromatis, Hypnagogia, published in 1987 by Routledge. This is still the standard work on hypnagogia (as far as I know).