Harnessing the power of hypnagogia
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.
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