The Hour Between Dog And Wolf
Poets & Writers Magazine|January - February 2019

Harnessing the power of hypnagogia

Melissa Burkley

There is a special moment that occurs every day of your life when the veil between your conscious and unconscious mind becomes thinner. A magical moment when you are able to access a bottomless fountain of creative potential. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that every day you are letting this moment slip by.

Contrary to popular belief we don’t dive into sleep immediately. Instead sleep comes in gradually, like a tide. The waters of our unconscious slowly rise, breaching the shore of our conscious mind and eventually submerging it. This tidal ebb and flow occurs in ninety-minute cycles throughout the night, and with each cycle we slowly wade through five ever-deepening stages of sleep.

The stage that receives the most hype, especially among creative types, is the final stage of the cycle, REM sleep. That’s because during REM, or rapid eye movement, we have our most vivid dreams. Lots of artists and writers have used their dreams to inspire their work—one popular example is Stephen King, who dreamed a version of his 1987 novel Misery during a transatlantic flight—but there’s just one problem with this approach: REM occurs when our conscious mind is fully submerged and at its weakest. So although our creativity is high during our REM state, the likelihood that we will remember anything from it is quite low. The water is just too deep.

What writers need instead is a shallower pool in which to wade. One where we still experience the mind-altering potential of dreams but also have enough consciousness left to remember—and, better yet, even control—the imagery behind our closed eyelids.

Lucky for us there is such a state. It occurs during the first few minutes of sleep and again when we are just waking up, and it is rife with creative potential.

Psychologists call this mental twilight “hypnagogia,” coining the term after the Greek words for “sleep” (hypnos) and “to lead” (agogo). The French have an even better term for it: l’heure entre chien et loup—the hour between dog and wolf. The literal interpretation of this phrase is the hour between day and night. But metaphorically it describes crossover moments—such as those between wakefulness and sleep—when great transformation is possible.

It is the “between” nature of hypnagogia that makes it so distinctive. During these moments part of your mind remains on dry land while the other part—the one controlling what you see and hear and feel—is dipping its head underwater. In this sleepish state, you are neither awake nor asleep, and yet somehow you are both. If you’ve ever dozed off only to claim a short while later, “I wasn’t sleeping, I was just resting my eyes,” then you know what this feels like.

This hybrid quality is also what makes hypnagogia such a wellspring of creativity. When we are fully awake, our conscious mind is in charge. It filters our thoughts and censors our most bizarre ideas. But when we sink into slumber, our conscious mind loosens its reins, thereby allowing our unconscious mind to frolic about more freely. To think of strange ideas. To make connections between seemingly unrelated things. To solve problems in novel ways.

The result is a weird, hallucinatory state that is more akin to an LSD trip than a regular dream. People see visions of odd shapes, flashing colors, and symbolic imagery. They hear sounds, like their own name being whispered, snippets of random dialogue, or music. And they even experience physical sensations, like falling or floating. Unlike typical dreams these hypnagogic hallucinations are brief—lasting just a second or two—and their content is more fragmented and less storylike. Essentially they are microdreams.

So what causes these trippy hypnagogic experiences?

It comes down to a unique cocktail of brain activity. During hypnagogia your brain experiences both alpha waves—electrical activity typically experienced when we are awake but relaxed or meditating—and theta waves, or activity typically associated with sleep. These two types of brain waves usually don’t occur simultaneously. Hypnagogia is the one exception.

And therein lies the magic. During hypnagogia you get the best of both worlds. You experience the creatively rich visions and ideas normally found in deep sleep, but you are still aware enough to consciously process and remember the experiences.

Even better, you can control them.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM POETS & WRITERS MAGAZINEView All

Saddle Up and Read

A young reader finds an attentive audience during a July 2020 farm visit.

5 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
May - June 2021

RESTLESS HERD

SOME THOUGHTS ON ORDER—IN POETRY, IN LIFE

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
May - June 2021

A Decade of Women Who Submit

For the past decade an international community of women and nonbinary writers have been working to claim space for themselves in an industry historically dominated by men. Known as Women Who Submit (WWS), the group supports and empowers its members to submit their work in spite of publishing’s inequities. Their achievements have been extraordinary: This July, the organization celebrates its tenth year, with twenty-seven chapters across the United States and Mexico, more than one hundred fifty successful book and magazine publication credits by its members in 2020, and a devoted community of writers, editors, and publishers.

4 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
May - June 2021

Ehrlich Speaks to Mother-Writers

Lara Ehrlich, author of the short story collection Animal Wife (Red Hen Press, 2020), has a deep narrative investment in the ways the world denies women power and agency. In October 2020 that commitment took a new shape with the first episode of her podcast, Writer Mother Monster, a much-needed balm for those of us balancing mothering and writing in the midst of a global pandemic. Aimed at dismantling the myth that women can “have it all,” her podcast is a series of interviews with mother-writers working in all genres, at varied points in their careers, who candidly discuss the joys and complications of that dual identity. Ehrlich, herself a mother-writer—her daughter turns five this year—spoke about what she has gleaned from these exchanges and how they’ve influenced her own approach.

2 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
May - June 2021

What We Ought to Do: THE SONG OF IMBOLO MBUE

In her second novel, How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue uses the chorus of voices in a small African village fighting for justice in the shadow of an American oil company to sing in celebration of community, connection, and enduring hope.

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Pandemic Pen Pals

Nupur Chaudhury, a public health strategist living in New York City, grew up in the nineties sending letters through the mail. She received weekly aerograms from relatives in India; she corresponded with a pen pal in Texas; her father even took her to admire the post office’s new stamps every month. But as she grew older, Chaudhury says, “E-mail became more popular, and I really put that writing part of me to the side”—that is, until she came across the pen pal exchange Penpalooza on Twitter in August 2020.

3 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Neither muscle nor mouth

Neither muscle nor mouth / devoted to one way of speaking. Every language // I borrow from somewhere else,” writes Threa Almontaser in The Wild Fox of Yemen (Graywolf Press, April 2021), winner of the Walt Whitman Award. In her debut Almontaser summons the language of her ancestors and family members, poets both contemporary and historical, experimental rock bands and rappers, and many more, to fashion an idiom that is both rebellious and reverent. Dedicated to the people of Yemen, the book offers a portrait of a country and its history and future. “Yemen has such an ancient and rich history, but with its current collapse, search engines show only the sad photos of starving kids,” says Almontaser. “I wanted to portray not only the war, but the beauty of Arabia Felix, of what it could still return to being.”

3 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Writers Confront Climate Crisis

Author and activist Toni Cade Bambara has said the role of the artist is “to make revolution irresistible.” So when Jenny Offill, author of the novels Dept. of Speculation (Knopf, 2014) and Weather (Knopf, 2020), heard about the work of Writers Rebel—the writers’ arm of Extinction Rebellion, an international activist group that works against climate change—she felt compelled to get involved.

4 mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Revising the Dream

Publishing a debut novel in an uncertain world

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021

Pandemic Writing Group

Finding Creativity, Community, and Play

10+ mins read
Poets & Writers Magazine
March - April 2021