Every person has had the experience of having a few seconds of brilliance just before their consciousness slips into sleep. During this short moment, we have some of the most creative and innovative ideas. Unfortunately, this is all lost by the time we wake up. This state is known as the hypnagogic state and has been well known since ancient Greece. Many philosophers and writers such as Aristotle and Edgar Allan Poe have written on the subject and how they received some of their greatest ideas in this state.
Recent researches show that during hypnagogia, thought processes and cognition vastly differs to normal wakefulness. It appears that hypnagogic cognition is more based on the subconscious mind, with people in this state being more open to suggestion (e.g. hypnosis). Ideas seem to flow in a fluid yet illogical way and they are based on external stimuli, thus explaining the heightened suggestibility as the brain incorporates the surrounding into its thought process. The thought process is also less restricted, leading to openness and sensitivity. A process called autosymbolism occurs where abstract ideas that we are thinking are converted into concrete images. This explains the artistic inspiration seen in hypnagogia.
One of the more pronounced phenomena of hypnagogia is insight. It has been noted by many people throughout history that the moment before sleep is when we have the best ideas. For example, a chemist called August Kekulé realised that benzene was a ring structure after seeing an image of snakes biting each other’s tails to form a ring. Because of this, many famous artists and inventors tried to harness the power of hypnagogia through techniques such as the Dalí nap. Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, Beethoven and Richard Wagner also practised similar techniques to gain insight into a problem that they were trying to solve or bring fresh ideas.
Another fascinating side of hypnagogia is the strange sensory phenomena associated with it. As in the case of sleep paralysis (which usually occurs in hypnapomp – the state between sleep and waking up), people often report strong hallucinations in the form of bright colours, geometric shapes, or even nightmarish visions (such as a ghost sitting on your chest). Other senses are affected as well, such as hearing whispering (commonly associated with the nightmarish hallucinations mentioned above) or out-of-body experiences. Hypnic jerks are also common, where the person jerks awake just before drifting off to sleep. This is thought to be caused by the brain misinterpreting sleep as “death” or the body shutting down, leading it to jolt the system back to life.
Finally, an interesting psychological phenomenon is the Tetris effect, where people who have spent a prolonged time on one activity cannot stop seeing images and thinking about that activity in the hypnagogic state. This was seen in people who had played too much Tetris seeing coloured bricks before they went to sleep. Other common versions of the Tetris effect include chess boards and pieces, feeling waves after being at sea and seeing words and numbers after working on documents for a long time.
The combination of insight, creativity and sensory illusions leads to hypnagogia causing strange “experiences”. Ergo, hypnagogia is now thought to explain many supernatural experiences such as ghost sightings, UFO abductions, premonitions and visions.