Hypnagogia: How to Dream like Thomas Edison

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.

Hypnopompia

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.

Now: Experiment!

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).

Further Reading:

How to Sleep

The Sleep Habit

Sleep is a habit. Get into a good habit and your sleep will be good.

This fact translates into just one hard and fast rule:

Get out of bed within 30 minutes of the same time everyday. Every day.

That includes the weekend. This will make your body rhythms consistent and you will get good at sleeping the whole time you are in bed because your body will know that that is the time allocated to it for sleeping.

Equally this will mean that you will begin to feel tired around 8 hours before your wake up time. So go to bed then. Don’t fight your body.

It is a scientific fact that most people get most benefit out of sleeping the hours between 11pm and 7am. Don’t blame me if you like staying up later, I’m just saying.

Sleep Hygeine

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. However, there are some things that contribute to sleep, some things you can do to facilitate it and some things that you should avoid. These tips are called Sleep Hygiene.

1. Don’t use your bed (or bedroom if possible) for anything other than sleep. Your body will then get used to the equation Bed = Sleep and respond accordingly.

2. Read fiction before sleeping. This activates the right side of the brain and helps you switch off the hyperactive, analytical left side. This will particularly help you if you spend hours lying in bed thinking over problems and worrying about things. Whatever you do, do not read non-fiction. This will have the reverse effect and you brain will churn over the ideas all night.

3. Don’t take caffeine after lunch. Caffeine is a stimulant and takes around five hours to leave the body. Caffeine includes coffee, coke and chocolate.

4. Don’t drink alcohol either. It badly damages sleep quality. Have a drink at lunch time instead!

5. Don’t smoke. Nicotine is a stimulant and smokers get withdrawal symptoms during the night, disrupting sleep.

6. Get a bigger bed. Sleep is an activity. During the night we twist and turn – as shown by the state of the bedsheets in the morning! If you sleep with someone else then consider a king size. Seriously, people who sleep together, sleep worse.

7. Sleep in silence. If noise is a problem, then use earplugs or a white noise recording (you can find them on the internet or just detune a radio). A fan works as well, although you might dream that you’re flying through the wind.

8. Keep cool. Body temperature is crucial for sleep and therefore so is room temperature. Slightly cool works best. Make sure there is sufficient ventilation as well.

9. Don’t eat a meal in the three hours before your sleep time. But you could have a small snack high in tryptophan, calcium and carbohydrate like a roast turkey sandwich with a small glass of warm milk. Tryptophan promotes sleepiness, calcium facilitates the absorption of tryptophan and carbohydrates slow and clear the mind. Avoid proteins at all costs.

10. Avoid bright lights in the run up to bed time. Your body clock is set by daylight, so you’re just confusing it with bright electric lights. Dim the lights, or read with just a soft table lamp. Equally, eliminate light in the room when you are actually trying to sleep. You might have to use blackout curtains or a eye mask.

11. Listen to an audio book to help soothe you to sleep. I know someone who listened to a recording of Marcel Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ for a whole week and never got past the first few pages. However, put the player on a timer so that it doesn’t wake you up a few hours later.

12. Take a warm bath before going to bed. Sleep onset is encouraged by a drop in temperature. A warm (but not hot) bath will simulate this drop as the water evaporates off your skin. However, this is artificial and not normally necessary. Bear in mind that this artificial drop is followed not long after by a gradual rise in body temperature as you warm up again. This is not conducive to sleep – so jump into bed within 20 minutes after taking the bath.

13. Slow down your heart rate. In other words, try meditation or focus on your breathing. Whatever you do, do not take exercise in the 3 hours before you intend to sleep. This could mean no after work gym sessions.

14. On the other hand, do exercise during the day. As little as 30 minutes exercise will help you sleep at night. Hit the gym in the morning.

15. Do not do any stimulating activities before sleeping. This means television, surfing the internet or card games.

16. Avoid sleeping medicines. There is no substitute for natural sleep. If you are still having problems then make doubly sure you are keeping good, regular sleeping habits and go and see your doctor. Be careful.

Now I shall dig a little deeper into what sleep is and what it does for us.

The Stages of Sleep

Sleep is made up of several different phases:

Stage 1
This lasts around 2-5 minutes. It is distinctive for its Quasi-REM (dreaming without the eye movements), which is not well understood. This is the condition that Thomas Edison induced to help him with breakthroughs in his inventions. He used to sit in an armchair with two steel balls in his hands, resting on the arm rests. When he moved from dozing into deeper sleep, the balls would fall onto the floor and he’d wake up from his dreaming, often with a new idea.

Stage 2
The first stage of ‘proper’ sleep is characterised by a slowing of your heart rate and a drop in body temperature. This explains why these two changes can be used to induce sleep. Stage 2 sleep is important for increasing alertness, promoting motor learning as well as reasoning, planning, language, reflexes and social interaction.

Stages 3 and 4 = Slow wave sleep (SWS)
This is the deepest sleep that we have. If we wake up during this phase (thanks to an alarm or an irate policeman) then we will feel groggy. This is known as sleep inertia and has three solutions: go back to sleep for 20 minutes or so, engage in a physical activity or splash water on your face. During slow wave sleep our bodies stop producing stress hormone and boost our levels of growth hormone. We also metabolise fats, cholesterol and carbohydrates during this phase and our mental neurons stop firing. This phase will clear your mind, repair your body and improve your declarative memory (e.g. “The Fire of London was in 1666”).

Rapid Eye Movement (REM)
REM is the most glamorous phase of sleep, it is the time when we dream most deeply and memorably. Our blood pressure and heart rate go up and we pump 50% more blood to the brain which is firing neurons as if we were fully awake. REM sleep enhances our memories as our brains transfer information from short to long term memory. REM sleep also enhances creativity.

Sleep Cycles
It is not necessarily helpful to give approximate time lengths for the various stages of sleep because they vary a lot according to the human. For example, a male aged 20-29 years will spend about 21% of his sleep time in Slow Wave Sleep, a male aged 40-49 years about 8% and those aged 60-69 will spend just 2% in SWS. However, the average duration of a sleep cycle is about 90-100 minutes. This explains why humans average about 8 hours sleep a night, that is 5 full cycles.

So that’s it. Sleep isn’t a terrifically well-understood area of human activity, given that we spend about a third of our time engaged in the activity, but the tips above are a good start to sleeping well.


This article first appeared on the (now defunct) website, How to be Human. I hope it finds an appreciative audience here.

Online Polyphasic Resources

Here are some useful online resources if you want to find out more about polyphasic sleeping patterns.

About Polyphasic Sleep

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphasic_sleep

Real life experiences

Steve Pavlina’s experiment in 2005: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2005/10/polyphasic-sleep/
PureDoxyk’s ongoing polyphasic life: http://www.puredoxyk.com/index.php/about-polyphasic-sleep/
Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion sleep pattern: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,774680,00.html

The Science

Take a Nap! Change Your Life by Sara C. Mednick – Very interesting and accessible book about the joy of naps.

See Sara in this Google Author Talk in which she addresses the whole scope of the book and also a lot of very pertinent questions from the audience – including one about Uberman.

Community Resources

Polyphasic Google Group: http://groups.google.com/group/Polyphasic

Cognitive Testing Resources:
Reactions Test: http://cognitivelabs.com/alz_assoc_refertestpage2.htm
Simon Test: http://www.thepcmanwebsite.com/media/simon/
Typing Test: http://www.typingmaster.com.au/java/ttapplet.htm

Polyphasing Experiment: Conclusions

Things I achieved in the week:

  • Cleared out the loft.
  • Cleared out my bedroom – wardrobes, desk etc.
  • Threw out a load of clothes, books and general crap.
  • Sorted out my computer filing system.
  • Gave my website a complete overhaul.
  • Started a new money making venture.

Lessons learned:

  • I can sleep for 2 hours a day and still operate (more or less).
  • There are no serious side effects (I think!).
  • The limits of my endurance are much further than expected. I feel like I would be able to operate on 14 hours of sleep a week in extreme circumstances.
  • Sleep is something that can be trained and it can be modified to my own requirements: it’s not just a case of going to bed and waking up.
  • Naps are more important than I gave them credit for. The ability to nap every few hours to get through a night of work was a great feeling.
  • Without the habit of going to sleep for 8 hours straight I lost the sense of days passing. Time flowed constantly, not in fits and starts. It made me realise that every minute is sacred. 
  • With 22 hours in a day there’s far too much time to spend it on frivolity – that gets boring pretty quickly. I found that the more time I had, the more I wanted to spend it on something worthwhile.
  • It’s nice splitting the day up into more segments: it focusses the mind on achievement during the waking periods. Under this system of 20 minutes every four hours, however, I become something of a slave to the segments.
  • Beds are not necessary – and in fact I found it much nicer not to have a bed in my room. The bed, that huge piece of furniture, forced my room to be a BEDroom. This is counter productive both for working in that room and then for trying to sleep in that room after having worked there. It was really liberating to use a blow-up bed that I brought out only when required. It meant that I had a huge lump of space for other daytime activities. It meant I could put my rocking chair beside the window – I had never before realised how pleasant the sun was coming through there. The absence of a bed in my workspace lead to a healthy demarcation of day and night activities.
  • I like doing things that make me unique. I like to push myself into unusual situations that change my perception of the world – and then to encourage others to do the same. I like living with imagination and courage, not conformity and fear.

Positive aspects of polyphasia

  • Time for EVERYTHING – including complete and utter boredom!

I will have to let that time go on a monophasic schedule.

Negative aspects of a polyphasic pattern:

  • Socially it is difficult at best, antisocial at worst.
  • I found it difficult to perform creative work, in the adjustment phase at least. I got a lot of dross work done, but not much creative work – my novel suffered by about 2800 words over the 6 days of the experiment.

Negative side effects of polyphasia

These, I concede, could have disappeared if I had persisted through the adjustment period of about 30 days.

  • Hot flushes in the early phases.
  • Numbness in the extremities.
  • Cold sensitivity.
  • Digestive problems.
  • Brain freeze/fog.
  • Creativity blockages.

Action points to be taken away:

  • I don’t need a bed. Perhaps I should investigate buying a Japanese bed roll.
  • When I feel tired, I’ll sleep! I won’t feel guilty about sleeping or just ride through the rough period. I’ll take a nap. I know now that I don’t have to get undressed or brush my teeth or anything – I can just lie down and take 20 minutes out.
  • Evangelise the benefits of messing with your sleep to learn about yourself.

Finally, I exhort you: Experiment and Learn.

Thank you for reading.

Polyphasing Experiment: Day 6

01:51: Revenge of the Nap

I have had a change of tactics. Naptics you might say. Taking Pavlina’s idea and combining it with Buckminster Fuller’s technique: I’m just going to take a 20 minute nap every time (well, maybe not every time) I get too tired.

I just had one and it was unquestionably more successful than other naps. I am still scarcely able to keep my eyes open, but I did have vivid dreams and woke up before the end of the nap. These are good signs. I am still hunting the holy grail of refreshment, however. But at least I’m not tired!

Alertness rating: 4

03:20: Naptastic?

I’m not sure if I’m winning or losing. I think I feel better, although my eyes are having trouble adjusting to sight again.

Alertness rating: 4

06:40: Serial Napper

My schedule for this past night has been naps every 2 hours, rather than every 4. so that’s naps at 11pm, 1am, 3am, 5am and, coming up next, 7am. It has made it somewhat less painful to get through and I have achieved things, but I am still far from rested.

Alertness rating: 4

Disgusting: a 1 hour oversleep after initial wake up. Actually that’s not quite correct: I woke up an 20 minute intevals at 7:20, as planned, at 7:40 and then at 8:20.

18:34: Thoughts on Napping

There are some things that I have not been describing because I have not been sure. But I think now they are pertinent. A week ago I played cricket and did not stretch beforehand. Normally any strains would be gone in three days at most, but the pain in my back seems to have got worse.

Secondly, this sleeping pattern seems to have been playing havoc with my digestive system. This could be due to lack of an enzyme that is produced during deep sleep. Having said that, after two bike rides I am feeling pretty good – but that could just be thanks to watching Liverpool trounce Aston Villa 5-0!

Tonight is something of a test for the system: it is the first day that I have been able to socialise. Two of my friends are in town and we’ll probably go somewhere this evening. I obviously can’t go out until my 7pm nap, can’t drink and have to be back in bed by 11pm. I shall report back on the irritation this causes.

I have to confess that this experiment has been both easier and harder than I expected. I was expecting much more acute symptoms of sleep deprivation: hallucinations, narcolepsy and so on. I had none of these. But I have been really dragged down by the minor side effects: the dullness of thought, the hot flushes, the digestive problems, weakness when performing physical exercise. I have the time, but not the strength.

I do feel like today has been an improvement, however. Perhaps that is due to my oversleep earlier. Perhaps it is because my friends are here and I have someone to share it all with. Am I fed up with it though? Is it too much already?

Reading Dr Mednick’s book I am even more concerned with the long term effects – this was only meant to be an experiment, but is it worth the heartache just for an experiment? This 30 days could be spent productively – it’s not as though there aren’t a million things I need to be doing, but if I don’t have the strength then all the hours in the day won’t help me.

Alertness rating: 5.5

Still a thick head though, and that just kills me.

19:38: Sleep Inertia?

Seriously, waking up from a nap feels like waking up from a high speed encounter with the bull bars of a truck. I can barely focus my eyes, which is worrying – even after repeated shaking of the head etc. I wonder if this is because I am sinking quickly into short wave sleep and thus getting a load of sleep inertia on wake up. But once up and moving I feel fine again.

Alertness rating: 5.5

23:57: Nap to the Future

The evening with my friends was, predictably, terminated by me needing to nap. Post nap was the familiar feeling of being kicked in the face by a mule. As the clock ticks towards midnight I have trouble holding a conversation without feelings of great irritation and discomfort. This experiment is over.

Alertness rating: 4