Hypnagogic Hallucinations and the Magical Half Awake, Half Asleep State

shutterstock_111334439The doorbell rings. You are surprised to see the entire Simpson family before you asking you to sign a petition against the use of nuclear power. In the middle of Homer Simpson’s speech on the dangers of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant the doorbell rings – louder and louder… You jolt awake and run to the door. The mailman has a package delivery for you.

Real life noise like doorbells and telephones ringing sometimes intrude on our sleep during hypnagogia – the state of transition between a wakeful and sleep state. Most of us have had the experience of drifting off to sleep when outside noise commingles with dream elements, often creating a strange dream-like experience. Our dream-like experiences in this state are called hypnagogic hallucinations.  We are more likely to remember hypnagogic hallucinations than events in other brain states, including dreaming in the REM state, but we all struggle to remember our dream elements. The hypnagogic state is similar to the deep meditation state. By learning how to meditate deeply and create a solid daily practice, you will be able to more easily access both states.

Hypnagogic hallucinations can be magical and mystical or frightening and disturbing. Hallucinations typically have a dream-like quality but they are more likely to be described as fragmentary dream elements with no story line. Flashes of people, sounds, and a sense of falling or other dramatic movement that cause a sudden body jerk are common occurrences.

They are often visual or auditory but may also be gustatory or tactile, as well invoke other senses. The auditory events in hypnagogic hallucinations can be real or imagined.  The visual events often dominate the hypnagogic state. Some tactile hallucinations can be scary, such as experiencing the sense that someone has lightly touched you, or of someone breathing on you. Closely related to hypnagogic hallucinations, hypnopompic hallucinations are experienced as one awakens.

Types of Hypnagogic Hallucinations

Visual

Groovy geometric patterns and lines are often seen going into the hypnagogic state. A common sight is static images.  They may be of people or objects. You may see a scene such as a horizon and buildings. In the fleeting hypnagogic state, how many times have you tried to move in closer and see detail only to see the scene disappear like a mirage as you awaken? As soon as we involve the conscious mind, we awaken. Like meditation, if you wish to stay in this state a while longer, try to keep the mind quiet. More on meditation and dreaming ahead.

Sounds

Several auditory phenomenon are commonly reported to be experienced in hypnagogic hallucinations.  One is sounds from everyday life intruding on your dream – the telephone ringing, the lawn mower next door, the plane flying by.  These intrusions may become an integral part of the dream. Sounds are often imagined. Hearing one’s own name being called is reported.

The Tetris Effect

As we fall asleep, our most recent day’s event or the most memorable is often still whirling in our heads. A video game player may feel the motion of the car racing around the racetrack.  A person involved in a repetitive task – at work for example – may be replaying that task in his mind as he falls asleep. A pole jumper may replay the motion of flying after jumping repeatedly at practice.  The Tetris effect is named after the video of the same name (Wikipedia, ‘Tetris effect’). These recurring activities are considered hypnagogic imagery.

Sleep Paralysis

As the green monster barrels towards you, you try to run but your body is frozen. Most people wake up in terror at this point, greatly relieved to leave the green monster behind in the dream. During REM sleep, the body is in a state of paralysis. On occasion, REM paralysis may be persist during the transition from the sleep to wake state, or vice versa.  It is often associated with an intense emotional state, as in the above example. The intense emotion can cause you to jolt awake suddenly while the body is still coming out of the sleep state.  Sleep paralysis is experienced in all stages of sleep.

Trying to make sense of all of the hypnagogic imagery and dream elements often requires some deep introspective analysis. Thanks to Jung and Freud you may be able to figure out why that green monster is always hanging around in your dream space. Jungian Archetypes and Their Unconscious Influence is a good place to start learning about dream archetypes.

Remembering all of these dream elements may be the greatest challenge. More people remember hypnagogic hallucinations than dreams but most of us struggle to remember details of both. Learning to master your memory is a good place to start. Enhancing your memory can help you in both your real and dream life.

Hypnagogic Hallucinations and Mental Disorders

Hypnotic hallucinations are not a mental disorder but they are experienced in association with some mental disorders. Hypnogogic hallucinations are experienced by more than one third of people. They are also a symptom of several mental disorders, alongside other symptoms.

  • Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that involves irregular sleep-wake patterns. Narcoleptics      often experience sleep disturbances during the night and may sleep more during the day. Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are experienced by narcoleptics. This may be partly attributable to the number of times they awaken and fall back to sleep.  Related sleep symptoms of narcoleptics our sleep paralysis and automatic behavior.
  • Individuals with insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness are more likely to experience hypnagogic hallucinations.

Lucid Dreams and Hypnagogic Hallucinations

Lucid dreaming is often compared to deep meditation and the hypnagogic state.  In these states, you are more likely to be aware of dream-like activity. Tibetan Buddhists have a similar state called dream yoga. Lucid dreaming opens up awareness even further by having the dreamer take control of the dream. According to lucid dream expert Stephen LaBerge, lucid dreaming allows us to transcend the confinement of the physical world and live any fantasy in a dream state.

Many lucid dreamers consider the lucid state to be the hypnagogic hallucination state. Areas of the brain deactivated during REM sleep – the dream state — are reactivated during lucid dreaming. The lucid dreaming state is often compared to the hypnagogic state and dream yoga because they all involve freezing the hypnagogic state. In lucid dreaming, you must be able to make the conscious declaration: I am dreaming.

Developing your awareness in the hypnagogic state may help improve brain functioning. Lucid dreaming uses the left side of the brain. More and more we recognize that whole brain thinking helps us be more effective at decision-making and problem solving. Lucid dreaming may be a more effective way to exercise your brain than even your favorite brain games. As the booming brain games industry shows, we no longer take our brain capacity as fore-ordained. Your brain is elastic providing you with the opportunity to master your mind rather than be confined by false conceptions of a limited mind.

The Hypnagogic Brain Wave State

The hypnagogic state has been shown to begin as brain waves transition from the alpha to the theta state.  Deeper meditation practice is also associated with this state.  Tibetan Buddhist meditation is shown to activate the theta state in brain imaging studies; not all forms of meditation activate the theta state.  In the theta state, meditators report having similar experiences to hypnagogic hallucinations.

With the help of brain imaging, we now understand the hypnagogic state as a brain wave state. Meditation is the best way to gain greater control of your mind states while awake, in hypnagogia and asleep. Meditation, Creative Flow States and Mindfulness Meditation teaches students how to develop more creative states of mind.  Developing better mind control starts with creating a deeper and regular meditation practice. In deep meditation, you are achieving the theta state reached in hypnagogic hallucinations. Techniques used to develop a creative mind set during meditation can also help you gain control over your brain state while transitioning into or out of the sleep state. Sweet hallucinations!