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Hypnagogia: A Window to Creative Dreaming

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.


The Realisation That ‘I Am Dreaming!’

We can agree that dreams are extraordinary experiences. Hypnagogia is also quite fascinating in its unique way. In 1848, Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury, a physician from France and a predecessor to the interpretation of dreams that evolved with Freud, coined the term. In Greek, Hypnos means sleep and Agogos means leading to and there is also another term, hypnopompia, which means the state of half-wakefulness experienced while waking up from sleep. Pompe means to send away.

Hypnagogia and hypnopompia are quite different from regular dreaming. In both the states, there are no narrative threads as one often experiences in a dream; there are only images and glimpses of a dream; in a sense, they are mini dreams. Many experts believe that these states of mind can be consciously manipulated for learning and developing our mental abilities. These two states together are also referred to as liminal dreaming. Freudian psychologist Herbert Silberer has made an interesting observation about hypnagogia and hypnopompia. He said that our mental and physical states are expressed as symbols and images in these semi-sleep semi-awake states and that even words are expressed as symbols. He cites an example of a theoretical problem that he needed to solve appearing in hypnagogia as a piece of wood ready to be chipped. During hypnagogia, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with analytical skills and social interactions, is at its lowest level of activity. At the same time, the alpha and theta brain waves, correlated to daydreaming and deep sleep respectively are also present. The result is a perfect combination of imagination and correlation, where imagination takes the central seat.

How Hypnagogia Led To Major Discoveries

There is this famous story about the chemical scientist Friedrich August Kekules who was trying to find the atomic structure of the Benzene molecule. It was during hypnagogia that he finally saw the imagery of the molecule right away- a snake biting its tail. Beethoven has also said that he got one of his compositions in his mind while dozing off in a carriage when he was travelling to Vienna. Thomas Alva Edison reportedly had many hypnagogic episodes that revealed to him glimpses of some of his most creative discoveries. The author Mary Shelley had said that her famous novel, Frankenstein, came to her during napping sessions. The renowned painter, Salvador Dali used to nap while sitting in a chair and holding a small object in his hand. When he begins to doze off, the object would fall from his hand and he would wake up. This is the technique he used to draw creative ideas from hypnagogia and he called hypnagogia, “the slumber with a key.” Edison is also known to have used the same technique.

Charles Dickens And Hypnagogia

Charles Dickens is a writer who has written profusely about hypnagogic hallucinations, experienced both in his real life and in his writings. He writes, “There is a drowsy state, between sleeping and waking, when you dream more in five minutes with your eyes half-open, and yourself half conscious of everything that is passing around you than you would in five nights with your eyes fast closed, and your senses wrapt in perfect unconsciousness. At such time, a mortal knows just enough of what his mind is doing, to form some glimmering conception of its mighty powers, it’s bounding from earth and spurning time and space when freed from the restraint of its corporeal associate.” Ebenezer Scrooge, the protagonist in the novella by Dickens, A Christmas Carol, is reminded of his greed and selfishness by a ghost and three spirits who visit him in his hallucinations. Pickwick Papers, another novel by Dickens depicts a fat boy who has sleep apnea. The boy walks in a semi-awake state.

Dicken's Dreams Illustration


The Hypnagogia Experiment

Delphine Oudiette, a neuroscientist at the Paris Brain Institute experimented on hypnagogia. She and her team of scientists gave the participants of her study, several maths problems. Those who could not solve the problems immediately were asked to take a rest for 20 minutes holding an object in their hands. During this time, a few of the participants stayed awake, a few slept and a few just reached the stage of hypnagogia. After that, they were asked again to solve the problems. To the surprise of the scientists, 83% of those who experienced hypnagogia solved the problems, and only 31% of those who kept awake and 14% of those who slept thoroughly could solve the same. Oudiette explained this phenomenon as a result of the perfect combination of a relaxed mind and the semi-conscious state where the brain is free to make all the possible weird associations, not limited by the constraints of the wakeful rationality.

Paintings Generated by Hypnagogia

Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists conducted another experiment. A painter was made to draw paintings using the ideas he got from the hypnagogic state. Later on, these paintings were presented mixed with other paintings he drew when he was fully awake, before a group of art lovers. The group judged the hypnagogic paintings as more creative than the others. Creativity is often associated with honest expression and divergent thinking. Hypnagogia is a state when the cognitive control system of the mind can work in harmony with the default mode of the mind that is active while in a state of thoughtlessness. In other words, daydreaming and the creation of imaginary realities just for the fun of it can boost creativity. Research on hypnagogia thus opened up a promising avenue for boosting human creativity.

Hypnagogia is Mysterious Yet Mundane

We enter the state of hypnagogia when we fall asleep and experience hypnopompia when we wake up every time. What makes this experience valuable is that unlike in dreams, it provides an opportunity to self-observe and becomes a window to look into the unconscious more lucidly. Gary Lachman, in his 2022 book, Dreaming Ahead of Time: Experiences with Precognitive Dreams, Synchronicity, and Coincidence, has claimed that precognitive experiences happen in dreams and hypnagogia. However, these subjective experiences are yet to be founded on solid scientific proof.

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Yoga Nidra (The Yogic Sleep)

In the Indian Yoga tradition, a relaxed state of mind close to sleep but full self-conscious is articulated. This is a kind of meditation that borders hypnagogia, though the person eventually does not fall asleep. Yogic sleep is associated with positive physiological and psychological benefits. Clinical studies show that yogic sleep balances the red blood cell count, hormonal levels and blood glucose and also cures mild depression and anxiety.


Liminal Dreaming: Exploring Consciousness At The Edges Of Sleep, Jennifer Dumpurt.

Altered and Transitional States, S. Krippner. 2011.

The Complete Novels of Charles Dickens.

Need A Creative Boost? Nap Like Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali, Rasha Aridi, Smithsonian Magazine.

Dreaming Ahead of Time: Experiences with Precognitive Dreams, Synchronicity, and Coincidence, Gary Lachman, 2022.

The Origin and Clinical Relevance of Yoga Nidra, Pandi-Perumal et al., 2022.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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