The hypnagogic state: a dream world for getting things done

Josh Crites explains how the hypnagogic state and the dreams you experience just as you fall asleep can boost your creativity and productivity.

Throughout Salvador Dali’s creative life, dreamscapes were a prominent and recurring  theme. Less well known is that Dali, one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, devised a special technique to capture the hidden insights of the dream world.

Salvador Dali's "Persistence of Memory"
Dali’s Persistence of Memory

‘Dream-catching’ however, is not just for artists or geniuses. Anyone can harness the problem-solving, insight-gathering potential of dreams. Here I will tell you about my own technique, based on Dali’s, and how you can use similar ways to discover and realize your creative potential.

My background

I’m an avid sleeper, dream enthusiast and an explorer. I’m also a tinkerer and a creator. I enjoy making things. Things I’d like to see and use, that don’t yet exist. I’m also fascinated by altered states of consciousness, especially the dream state.

Dreams hold massive potential for personal development and the universality of dreaming makes it a worthy subject for further investigation and exploration.

So, in a quest to reap some of this potential, I built my own dream catcher and now I have a way access to dreams, insights and ideas that I would otherwise forget.

Hypnagogia – not your regular dream state

The type of dreams I’m referring to are called hypnagogic dreams, as they occur during a mental state known as hypnagogia, the transition between wakefulness and sleep.

Unlike REM dreams which take place later on in the sleep cycle and often tend to follow a narrative, hypnagogic dreams consist more of random, disassociated thoughts.

Hypnagogia is often accompanied by strange imagery, sounds and sensations. Many people experience visual hallucinations during hypnagogia. Most commonly these take the form of an elaborate, abstract visual interplay of light and geometry, sometimes interspersed with more recognisable images and forms.

sleep and creativitySome people also experience auditory hallucinations; random sounds, speech or even musical fragments. Another example is the so-called Tetris Effect, whereby repetitive activities from your waking life permeate into your hypnagogic imagery.

As well as anecdotal evidence, scientific research also suggests that hypnagogic dreams are useful in solving problems that require creative insight.

In addition to the sensory curiosities of hypnagogic dreams, there are some very interesting cognitive processes occurring. Throughout history, visions, prophesies, premonitions and apparitions have all been the likely result of hypnagogic phenomena.

Researchers have described hypnagogia as involving a ‘loosening of ego boundaries, openness, sensitivity, ‘ heightened suggestibility, and a ‘fluid association of ideas. In laymen’s terms, this state is associated with more random associations of ideas than is normal, resulting in a state of heightened creativity.

Famously hypnagogic

For a long time, hypnagogia has been a gateway to creativity and productivity. Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali were two of the most notable people that made practical use of this free-thinking mindset.

Edison was an extremely motivated inventor and claimed that sleep was a waste of time, merely a remnant of our caveman days. This led him to develop some interesting sleep habits and it is well known that he was a big fan of naps.

Science of napping

Less well known is Edison’s hypnagogic habit. Holding a handful of steel ball bearings, he would settle into one of his famous naps. As soon as his hand relaxed, he would drop the ball bearings, waking him up in time to jot down his thoughts.

Salvador Dali used a similar technique. Rather than ball bearings, Dali would rest in his favorite chair, dangling a large key pinched between his thumb and forefinger above a plate sitting on floor. As unconsciousness swept over him, he would drop the key onto the plate and the resulting noise would snap him back to waking consciousness. Dali said,

“The most characteristic slumber, the one most appropriate to the exercise of the art of painting… is the slumber which I call ‘the slumber with a key,’ … you must resolve the problem of ‘sleeping without sleeping,’ which is the essence of the dialectics of the dream, since it is a repose which walks in equilibrium on the taut and invisible wire which separates sleeping from waking.”

How to harness your hypnagogic potential

If you interested in experimenting with the power of hypnagogic dreams, I’ve devised a few techniques to maximize the benefits from mini naps and the hypnagogic state. The basic steps are the following:

1) Incubate your ideas: saturating your brain with information related to the subject that you wish to dream/think about before laying down for a nap will increase the likelihood that your dreams will be related to that subject.

2) Get the timing right: in order to benefit from your hypnagogic dreams you need to time your naps right. If you’re too too sleepy when you lay down, you might fall into a deeper sleep or ignore your cue to get up

3) Use a dreamcatcher: whether you go for a low tech solution like Edison’s ball-bearings or something more modern like my electronic dream catcher, you’ll need a device to startle you into wakefulness at the opportune time

4) Take notes immediately: it’s likely that any inspiration you gather from the hypnagogic state will fade pretty quickly. So you should have a pen and notebook, or voice recorder right by your side, before your ideas disappear

Building your own dream catcher

If you like a bit of DIY, you can check out how to build your own dream catching alarm device like mine. It requires some basic electronics tools and know how, but isn’t difficult. Otherwise keep an eye out for my upcoming Kickstarter campaign to bring the power of dream catching to everyone with a smart phone.

Happy dreaming!

About the author

I’m Josh Crites, if you are interested in harnessing the creative potential of your hypnagogic dreams, check out my website for lots more helpful resources.

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