Hypnagogia: The twilight zone of sleep

John Hopton for redOrbit.com – @Johnfinitum

Hypnagogia is the twilight zone between being awake and being asleep. Often we cross this border quickly and without fuss, but other times the transition can provide an interesting end to the day.

For a lot of people, the main experience of hypnagogia is believing that they are consciously going through the day’s final thoughts, until they realize that instead of thinking about preparing for that meeting tomorrow they are thinking about a dolphin riding a horse or how they really must get on with painting all the food in the fridge (for example). Our thoughts go crazy and can become as surreal as a dream, but they are still thoughts. This is what happens to them when we take off the harness and they run away with themselves.

Sometimes, we are conscious enough to realize that our mind has gone bonkers and rein it in or allow it to move on to sleep. We can even embrace what’s happening, as long as we can keep wakeful reality away and stay in the zone. Edgar Allan Poe, who was greatly interested in hypnagogia, wrote of the “fancies” he experienced “only when I am on the brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so.”

Visitations of ghosts, monsters, aliens

These are the milder facets of hypnagogia, and can be enjoyable. Also at the milder end, although not as much fun, is seeing shapes before our closed eyes. This includes the Tetris effect, in which we see approximations of real things we have looked at repetitively during the day, like a video game (Tetris would be a good example, hence the name). According to Scientific American, this has to do with the brain deciding whether it should commit what we have been looking at and doing all day to memory.

At the opposite, intense end of the scale are out-of-body experiences and full-on hallucinations. One of the most disconcerting manifestations of hypnagogia is sleep paralysis. Sufferers have a temporary inability to move, speak, or react, and this is often accompanied by terrifying visions they can’t deal with or escape from because of the paralysis. In Sleep Paralysis: A Guide to Hypnagogic Visions and Visitors of the Night author Ryan Hurd describes sleep paralysis as a “supernatural assault” and discusses “night visitations of ghosts, vampires, and even aliens.”

Maybe I won’t go to sleep tonight after all…

Other physical manifestations of hypnagogia include feeling as if an electronic current is running through the body and a sensation of falling.

Some people “hear” realistic sounds such as animal noises nearby, which can be disconcerting or pleasing, depending on whether they are aware of and comfortable with their hypnagogic state (and depending on what kind of animal, presumably).

The manifestation of the brain’s transition between wakefulness and sleep does different things to different people, but two things are certain – it happens to a lot of us (though not many of us know the name of it), and it can be strange to say the least.


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