There seem to be only two states of being: conscious and unconscious.
However, while there may seem to be a clear distinction between the two (and you could argue you’re either one or the other), there is actually a lot that happens in between these two states, which blurs this distinction.
You aren’t fully devoid of thought when you sleep, after all. You dream. You move around. You may even walk or talk depending on what kind of dreams you have.
But what goes on in these in-between phases?
While you may not be totally aware of it every time, you actually go through a stage right before you fall asleep that is essentially a limbo in between your conscious state and your unconscious one.
You may see strange visions, hear odd sounds, or even smell, taste, and feel sensations that you normally experience only when conscious.
It is this strange in-between state that sleep and dream researchers are extremely interested in, and has been the subject of deep study among both of these groups.
Surprisingly enough, there is a name for this state: the hypnagogic state. It is here that you can learn to tap into lucid dreaming…or succumb to terrible hallucinations.
Hypnagogia can induce a number of different mental phenomena, some as exciting as lucid dreaming, and others that are not as pleasant – like sleep paralysis and hallucinations.
Hypnagogic sleep is quite difficult to define, especially because it is a stage most are unconscious of going through in the first place.
Let’s take a look at the broad definition for this state, as well as the type of mental activity that truly goes on in this bizarre in-between state.
Hypnagogic State: Definition
Hypnagogia is derived from the Greek words “hypnos,” meaning sleep, and “agogos,” meaning leading. This means that hypnagogia is the transitional state leading from consciousness into sleep.
It may also be called the “half-dreams state” or the “pre-dream condition.” The transitional state from sleep back to wakefulness again is called hypnopompic sleep – and the two should not be confused, as they are very different stages.
Neither of these states should be confused with daydreaming (itself called daytime parahypnagogia), as you are technically still conscious while in that particular state.
You will know if you are in the hypnagogic state when you begin to see phosphenes, or vague purple and/or green blob shapes underneath your eyelids that appear almost luminescent.
Over the course of the night, they may evolve into more intricate geometric shapes, familiar faces, or even images locked inside your memory. These images are typically reported as being very fleeting and lacking in a proper storyline, as you would find while dreaming regularly.
Of course, the deeper you fall into this state, the more you are likely to experience other hypnagogic dreams or hallucinations. For most people, these visions, sounds, or other perceptions are barely noticeable, and may even lull them to sleep.
These dreams may occur in combination with one another (i.e. you may “hear” a voice while seeing an imperceptible image, for example), and range in the level of intensity each night you fall asleep.
While the most common hypnagogic dreams are inherently visual, you may also experience other sensory images as well.
Auditory hallucinations are also fairly common in the hypnagogic state. You may hear familiar sounds, such as that of your name being called, a family member or friend’s voice, faint impressions of white noise or ringing bells, and even loud, startling crashes, bangs, or knocking noises.
While gustatory, olfactory, and tactile sensations are less common, they are still sometimes felt in this state.
For a few unfortunate people, however, hypnagogic sleep can lead to some very strong, even frightening imagery that makes it difficult to sleep at night.
This phenomenon is known as hypnagogic sleep disorder and can include seeing images, as well as hearing voices or other familiar sounds that may seem eerie or threatening to the person undergoing these sorts of dreams.
In fact, frightening hypnagogic dreams are also common symptoms of a sleep disorder called narcolepsy, which is a condition that causes one to fall asleep at any time. They may also frequently occur in people who suffer from anxiety, stress disorders, Parkinson’s disease, or schizophrenia.
People may also experience sleep paralysis in this state, which is when you are conscious but feel as if you cannot move your body. This can be quite terrifying, especially after waking up from your previous hallucinations.
If these dreams are causing you to have restless sleep at night, it may be wise to consult your doctor for help.
The most common treatment is a simple change in lifestyle to try and reduce the amount of stress you feel while fully conscious. Getting enough sleep during the night and avoiding any drugs or alcohol for some time may also help.
The Tetris Effect
Another intrusive, though admittedly less intense, type of hypnagogic dream is one that occurs only after you have spent a long time doing a repetitive activity before you go to bed – or simply a repetitive activity that you perform on a daily basis.
These activities or images may then dominate your hypnagogic dreams, leading to what is known as the Tetris effect, so named because the repetitive imagery is akin to that of the titular puzzle game’s gameplay. This effect is not limited to purely vivid imagery, but other sensations as well.
For example, a person who works in an office typing for most of the day may feel the sensation of their keyboard underneath their fingertips while in the hypnagogic state. They may even see glimpses of their office or route to work in these sorts of dreams.
Despite the notable negative effects that may occur in this state, hypnagogia is not inherently a terrible state of mind.
In fact, when utilized properly, hypnagogic dreams can become wonderful sources of creativity and innovation.
People tend to have more vivid dreams in this state, and thus, this state has been a source of inspiration for some of the most famous artists, writers, and inventors.
In fact, famous Surrealist artist Salvador Dali has called this state “the slumber with a key,” as it has helped him create some of his most imaginative paintings.
It is very much a dream-like state. You may agree with something in a hypnagogic state that may seem utterly ridiculous to you in a conscious state, much like how you go along with the events of your dreams without too much question, even if the events are extremely outlandish.
Most researchers believe that you become more open to suggestibility in this state, and thus may be more open to lowering the inhibitions you suffer while conscious and following more illogical but more fluid processes of thought.
These hypnagogic dreams can then act as a precursor to whatever dreams you may have throughout the night, and may even lead to lucid dreaming, where you are conscious of the fact that you are dreaming, and thus, are better able to control what happens in it.
Lucid dreams can be another great source of creative inspiration and problem-solving. You are able to do absolutely anything you put your mind to, whether that be playing out various scenarios in your mind or doing things that are impossible to do in the real world.
Lucid dreams induced by hypnagogia are known as Wake Induced Lucid Dreams (or WILD, for short). By learning to manipulate the images you see when you are in the hypnagogic state, you become better at being able to control the dreams you will eventually fall into later in the night.
For the best results, it is wise to try this when you are fully relaxed. Some deep meditators have found that they are able to enter this state without even sleeping first, due to how relaxed they are.
This process may take twenty or thirty minutes at the most, but more experienced lucid dreamers can enter this state in a matter of seconds.
Some people also report having out-of-body experiences will dreaming in this state, meaning they will feel as if they are floating above their body or that somehow their consciousness is not a part of the body any longer.
This out-of-body feeling, as well as the first moment you begin to slip into hypnapgogic sleep, may produce a falling sensation (hence the phrase “falling asleep) that can be sometimes distressing.
You may also experience a hypnic jerk, or an involuntary twitch or jerking movement that can occur when you are on the verge of falling asleep. Sometimes, this jerk is enough to wake you up before you are able to fall into the hypnagogic state, which could result in frustration.
Any of these particular sensations may be felt at any point in hypnagogic sleep, sometimes even in combination with one another.
Unfortunately, due to the fleeting, almost amnesiac nature of these experiences, it is very difficult to study this phase.
Most research about this state relies on self-observation and brain activity recorded through EEG studies, which is admittedly a bit unreliable in itself.
While an EEG, or electroencephalogram, helps to explain what sorts of brain activity goes on in this hypnagogic state, it only offers one perspective into the study of this state and does not explain why our brains produce the images and sensations they do (if one can even remember them at all upon waking).
This does not deter sleep or dream researchers, however, and they are still trying new methods to tap into the potential this state can have for a person.
Here’s a video showing more information on the hypnagogic state.
Have you experienced Hypnagogic sleep?