What Does Hypnagogia Feel Like for You?
Hypnogogia is the term for that phase between sleep and wakefulness. The word derives from the Greek ‘hypnos’ for sleep and ‘agogos’ meaning leading.
Have you ever wondered if other people experience the same sensations that you do as you fall asleep? We all know about the sudden jerks that can happen, when limbs twitch completely outside our control. And then there is that extraordinary sensation of falling even though you know you are safely tucked up in bed and completely safe.
It is not those physical aspects I want to concentrate on, but the more mystical state; that dreamy phase when reality is not quite within your reach and your mind drifts into imaginary worlds.
It might start with some purple or green blobs with vague outlines that you visualize behind your closed eyelids. These are called phosphenes. This optical phenomenon occurs without any light rays triggering the retina and originates from the visual network. It is thought to be due to random electrical discharges from cells within the eye. When these are like flashes of light they may be termed ‘seeing stars’. Pressure on the eye or a long period in a dark environment can also produce the same effect.
There is a known phenomenon called the Tetris effect. The term was coined by journalist Jeffrey Goldsmith in his Wired magazine article “This Is Your Brain on Tetris” in 1994.
When someone has been doing something repetitive before falling asleep, they may experience visual or auditory stimuli relating to their experience. An example of this would be a rolling sensation after having been on a boat, game players may continue to see the features of the game in full colour, hikers may feel gravel beneath their feet or the cold of snow against their skin. Perhaps this is simply part of depositing memories into the brain, a process which we are not usually aware is happening.
We have all experienced that feeling of being rudely awakened just as we are falling to sleep by a sudden sound like a thump, a door bell ringing or a voice speaking. We get up and check and find nothing, because guess what, it was entirely within our own heads. Sometimes the experience develops into a drama where we appear to see someone at the foot of the bed, or feel hands upon us. These more frightening occurrences can be interpreted by some as spiritual psychic events and offer proof of ghostly beings, but it is more likely they are simply other manifestations of hypnagogia.
Some people have worried that they are going mad when they suffer hallucinatory effects. Sometimes these are combined with sleep paralysis which is a terrifying combination. That man at the end of the bed is approaching and no matter how much you try, you cannot get your body to move or your eyes to open.
Another uncomfortable effect that can occur is the sensation of having bugs crawl all over your body.
It is more usual, thankfully, to have pleasant sensations. Brightly coloured hallucinatory experiences , feelings of warmth and incredible security, musical sounds, calming voices.
As a child, I had an experience which remains with me today. I may have been unwell with a fever, or it may have been a simple hypnagogic sensation. I heard a low pitched woman’s voice speaking to me urgently as a white swan menacingly swam towards me and I couldn’t get away. It terrified me at the time. Sometimes I hear that voice again, typically as I am falling asleep.
There is a whole industry hoping to part you from your money and get you to buy their books, dvds and courses on ‘lucid dreams’. The idea is to tap into this intermediate state between wakefulness and sleep and develop the ability to extend the hallucinatory experience and by so doing, find out more about your inner self. For the creative mind, this may be a potentially fruitful search, but only if the visual stimuli are positive in nature. Legal highs without the cost or side effects of drugs. What’s not to like!
Some have described what they feel as out of body experiences, very similar to those that have been described by patients who were resuscitated from a near death situation. They look down on their physical body and can see people around them or a brightly lit tunnel and a calming being beckoning to them.
I knew a man once who told me that he had become addicted to the sensations he experienced just as he was falling to sleep. In order to experience this as much as possible, he set his alarm clock to go off several times during the night so that he would wake and allow himself to fall asleep again.
Because almost everyone at some time experiences hypnagogic phenomena, it is not classed as a disorder, but rather a variant of normality. Apparently it is more common in teens and young adults.
Where do these visual effects originate? Do we acquire visual sets like packs of cards which flip over in our brains? Do we unwittingly personalize things we have read or seen in film? Or are they truly generated in our own minds?
Even though there are now many sleep clinics and highly qualified physicians who investigate problem sleep disorders, there are still huge gaps in our understanding of these common issues.
Care must be taken to distinguish normal processes from epilepsy or narcolepsy which may present with similar symptoms. Mental illness and states of high anxiety may also exaggerate hypnagogic events. If you have any concern that what you are experiencing may be caused by illness, please seek medical advice, but there is no need to medicalize the normal variants.
How has hypnagogia affected you? Has it been a pleasant experience? Has it stimulated your creativity? Have you been afraid to talk about it in case people think you are going mad?