Hypnagogia: Who Needs LSD When You Can Just Sleep?
"Only when I am on the brink of sleep,
with the consciousness that I am so..."
Edgar Allan Poe
One of my favorite parts of going to sleep is a process of sleep where unconsciousness meets consciousness, a feeling of being half awake/half asleep. For me, my vivid imagination transcends the horizons of my consciousness and delves deep, unrestrained, into the depths of my unconsciousness and I come up with extraordinary thoughts, stories, and ideas. It’s as if my consciousness stops acting as a filter for the unconsciousness, and lets me experience a weird sensation; the best way I can describe this is saying that I surrender myself to the randomness of my aroused brain and embrace the blooming, buzzing confusion it produces. My consciousness lets go of control but realizes what is happening. Because this phenomenon has fascinated me for years, I decided to look into it and found out two things: 1) There’s a name for this-- Hypnagogia and 2) for some people, the crossroads of consciousness and unconsciousness can engender an entire magnitude of psychedelic experiences ranging from the mystical to the scary.
Hypnos means “sleep” and gogia means “driver” so the two combined mean “sleep driver”. It’s the last moments a person experiences before being completely engulfed by sleep. Hypnagogia was coined by Alfred Maury in order to define the transitional stage between wakefulness and sleep (4). It precedes the first stage of sleep when alpha rhythms in brainwaves slow down and then break up before turning into slower and smaller amplitude theta rhythms (1). Hypnagogia is usually known as an altered state of consciousness and sometimes it’s referred to as the “borderline” state or the “half dream” state. During this stage, the person falling asleep can go through strange experiences that are similar to those triggered by hallucinogens such as LSD and DMT. The person’s imagination takes over: He or she can hear random voices, see imaginary objects from people to mysterious worlds; his or her body can experience strange sensations such as floating or becoming bigger, and the brain can spit out random and origin-less thoughts. The experience can be anywhere from fascinating to utterly terrifying.
One night, before falling completely asleep, I felt a strange sensation that I could fly, and I wanted to try it at that exact moment. Fortunately, I didn’t open my window and “flew out” into the night; my reason at that moment was I didn’t feel like breaking the screen on my window and hence getting yelled at by my mother. I vividly remember this exact moment and being both amazed and terrified the next morning when I realized it was not an actual dream. I knew I didn’t do this consciously, at least not completely. It was as if a voice inside, such as another part of my mind, took the quote “if you believe in yourself, you can do anything” a little too seriously.
However, I wasn’t the only one with such strange stories. One of my friends told me a story that she heard animal voices talking to her one night as she was “just falling asleep”. Another friend told me she’s seen images of flashing lights, despite being in a dark room, before sleep took over her body. There are other stories out there where people have nightmarish experiences that involve sleep paralysis, where they cannot move their body. A prime example would be people hallucinating that they are the prime focus of an alien abduction or sacrificial ritual, where they are put in frightening and inescapable situations. One question to ask is, how is the brain capable of producing such events with no conscience input?
Andreas Mavromatis, a psychologist, published his book Hypnogogia in 1987. In the book, he discussed the role of the brains’ subcortical structures in hypnagogia. Because the unconscious takes control of the body from the conscious during a hypnagogic episode, the neocortex (the most human part of our brains) is inhibited and more primitive brain structures take over. These primitive brain structures are associated with the unconsciousness; they are in touch with the brain’s most inner feelings and experiences. Mavromatis points out that the thalamus may be a source of hypnagogia (4).
The thalamus is responsible for relaying sensory information to the cerebral cortex that way certain sensations such as touch but while a person is asleep, the thalamus is supposed to regulate synaptic transmissions. Hypnagogia can occur when the body enters REM sleep too quickly (3). The body is temporarily paralyzed during REM sleep so maybe the thalamus has carried out its tasks of inhibiting outside sensory input but it has not affected the conscious. Therefore the person experiences weird sensations from sleep paralysis to half-awake dreams. With these subtle clues, it seems possible that irregular activity in the thalamus, as the body gets ready for sleep, is a huge contributor to hypnagogia.
Hypnagogia is not very rare among us. Statistics that say approximately 40% experience it at least one in their lifetime and 5% have intense occurrences (2). Hypnagogia is associated with sleep disorders such as insomnia and is a major symptom of narcolepsy (where a person suddenly falls asleep) (3). Hypnagogia is not new either; it has existed in our world for many years and it has even been discussed in Poe’s, Edison’s, and Aristotle’s times.
Thomas Edison worked furiously in his labs while fully conscious. When he needed a break, he would take “cat naps” while holding onto a steel ball. As his arm started to relax and lower, the ball would drop and make a noise that caused Edison to wake up. He would wake up with a new idea for his projects and continue working. (1) Edison was never fully asleep during his “cat naps”. Before his body could succumb to REM sleep, he would become conscious again thanks to the steel ball; however, something still triggered his scientific creativity during his resting period. Edgar Allan Poe, as quoted in the beginning of this paper, wrote about his experiences of being on the brink of sleep. One of his poems, “A Dream Within a Dream,” may hint at hypnagogic experiences, depending on how one interprets the poetry. Aristotle spoke of the “affections we experience when slinking into slumber” (4). Hypnagogia has contributed to the creativity of such brilliant people by allowing their imagination to exceed the limits of their consciousness.
I don’t recall many terrible experiences with hypnagogia which is why I am so fascinated by it. Just like Poe, Aristotle, and Edison, I’ve also used my spontaneous hypnagogic experiences for my creative benefits. I love to write fiction based off of both conscious and unconscious ideas, whether it’s about an imaginary day I’ve had or the construction of a new world. Hypnagogia allows me to surprise myself and uncover tiny mysteries about my unconscious self. I wonder how often this has been, or still is, true for others. I’m starting to think that some of mankind’s artistic and scientific creativity, at least the one that heavily relies on challenges brought on by imagination, came about from experiences like hypnagogia. It seems that hypnagogia played a role in cultural evolution, does the same hold true for biological evolution? Maybe hypnagogia played a role in the evolution of consciousness? One last idea I would like to add is the future and evolution of hypnagogia itself. Many people now have irregular sleep patterns and are more prone to sleep disorders such as insomnia. Because hypnagogia has been linked to sleep irregularities, will hypnagogia become more prevalent as well? In that case, will more creative minds come about and change the world? Answers will vary but one thing for sure is that our brains are capable of producing very strange hallucinogenic outputs without the need of any psychedelic drugs.
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