How to use hypnagogic hallucinations as biofeedback to relieve insomnia

by David_Gross30 min read13th Mar 202116 comments

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SleepIntrospectionLuminosityMental Imagery / VisualizationPractical
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tl;dr: If you focus, in a counterintuitively alert way, on the hypnagogic hallucinations you experience while trying to get to sleep, you can use them as a sort of biofeedback mechanism, following them as they change their characteristics in predictable ways in a direction that leads you out of insomnia into sleep.

Epistemic status: I have allowed the typical mind fallacy to run wild and have over-confidently described something that works for me as though it will work for anyone. But perhaps my mind is typical enough for the purposes. Caveat lector.


You roll from side to back to side, you take a deep breath and try to banish the stresses of the day, maybe you even try counting sheep, but nothing helps. Each time you open your eyes in exasperation the window-shades are a little brighter and you’re closer to another day you’ll have to get through without enough sleep.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. Why can’t you just sleep like your body and mind clearly want to and need to? Why has something that was so easy for you as a child become so elusive and difficult as an adult?

Maybe you’ve tried natural-spectrum light bulbs, or changes to your diet. Maybe you’ve tried to tire yourself with exercise at bedtime. Maybe you’ve taken a chance on drug dependency by hitting the melatonin or the sedatives. Maybe you’ve tried reorienting your life around an afternoon siesta, or something exotic like “polyphasic sleep.” You’ve Googled your way through dozens of slapdash popular medicine articles that rehash the same old common sense about not drinking coffee in the evening and the like.

None of it seems to help.

This page is different. It’s going to describe a set of guideposts that you can follow that lead from insomnia to slumber, and the method you use to get reliably from each guidepost to the next.

Unlike some other techniques for dealing with insomnia, this one is not something you have to remember to do before you go to bed, or something that requires you to buy anything or to install equipment or to change your daytime routine. It’s something that is available to you wherever you happen to be and right when you need it: when you find yourself unable to fall asleep effortlessly.

This technique requires a little practice to get it right, but once you’ve got it, it’s like riding a bicycle and you can use it whenever you need it.

How I came to write this

For many years I was plagued by a form of insomnia. I go to sleep fairly easily, but often woke up between three and four in the morning and couldn’t return to sleep effortlessly.

I tried all sorts of tricks—imagining relaxing scenarios, self-guided meditations, introspective scans through the body for areas of tension. I took to heart all of the diet and exercise and lighting advice on the web.

I steered away from sedatives, but found some solace briefly in melatonin… until I read that melatonin supplements might suppress your body’s ability to create its own melatonin and if so could exacerbate insomnia if used regularly.

At last I decided that if I was regularly going to be stuck in this dreadful limbo between wakefulness and sleep, I would try to discover all of its mysteries by attending to what was going on in my mind at the time. Instead of facing my insomnia with horror and frustration, I would see it as an opportunity for further study.

This last, desperate gesture—throwing up my hands and deciding to try to learn the most from insomnia if I couldn’t conquer it—turned out to be the key to finding my way out of the maze. I learned more about the subjective process of falling asleep and, more importantly, I learned how to guide myself to sleep by using this knowledge. I’m now confident enough to share what I found with my fellow-sufferers.

Some of that commonplace advice is good

I pooh-poohed the commonplace advice about sleep that’s found all over the popular health websites, but it does form a useful baseline. The advice I give in this page will help you when none of that advice will, but it won’t help you if you completely disregard that advice. If you try to get to sleep in a brightly-lit room, full of mosquitos, a wall away from a dance club, with a dog who likes to scratch fleas on the bed, after having a double-espresso… this page isn’t going to help you get to sleep. Put this away, take care of the basics first, and then come back if that doesn’t work.

Is this too good to be true?

Well, I may be overselling it, but at least it’s free.

I’ve found what I think is a powerful method that will be useful for restoring healthy sleep to many people. But it’s too much to expect that I have discovered the universal solvent for insomnia. There are many types of insomnia and many causes of it, and it’s likely that the method I have found won’t work with all of them.

What I can promise you is that even if this method doesn’t work for you, you won’t lose much by trying it: just a little time that you would otherwise be wasting tossing and turning and trying to get back to sleep anyway.

Hypnagogia, local minima, and biofeedback

First, I’m going to introduce a few technical terms and concepts—they’re nothing to be afraid of and they will help to precisely specify the process you will learn.

  • Hypnagogia comes from the Greek words “agogos” (leading) and “hypnos” (sleep) and, as you might expect, concerns the process that leads from wakefulness to sleep. The method I describe on this page is all about navigating carefully and deliberately through this process.
     
  • Local minimum is a phrase you may already be familiar with. If not, here is some explanation: Imagine a ball rolling down the side of a hill. Gravity encourages the ball to find the lowest place to roll into (the minimum), and, if you imagine a single smooth hill or valley, that’s exactly what the ball will do: roll until it reaches the lowest spot and then eventually come to a stop.

    But imagine a more complicated landscape, with several hills and valleys and ditches and hillocks and gullies and what-not. In such a landscape, a freely-rolling ball might not stop in the lowest place, but may roll into some intermediate ravine where none of the areas nearby are any lower, but yet there do exist lower areas further away. Such a ravine is a local minimum that prevents the ball from reaching the global minimum.

    What I’ve found is that insomnia is a sort of local minimum in the process of hypnagogia. In a way that is similar to how gravity pulls the ball to lower places, relaxation pulls us closer to sleep. But in the same way that a ball may roll into a local minimum, you or I may get stuck in a local minimum between sleep and wakefulness.

    This metaphor is also a useful way of thinking about the solution to this problem. For the ball to continue rolling down to a lower resting point, it must first get a kick upwards so that it can surmount the walls of the ravine it’s stuck in. Similarly, for you or I to fall asleep, we must temporarily stop relaxing and start concentrating, in a way that may seem counterintuitively un-sleep-like, to climb out of our local minimum and continue our blessed slide to slumber. This page will teach you this process.
     
  • Which brings us to our last term: biofeedback. Labs with their magnetic resonance imagers and electroencephalographs and other fancy stuff can get a pretty good look at what goes on inside your head as you fall asleep. But most of that information is no good to you when you’re trying to sleep. What good does it do you to know that your brain’s alpha waves are increasing or decreasing at certain times during the hypnagogic journey if you don’t know what an alpha wave feels like, or what it feels like to have more or less of them, or how you would go about trying to make more or less of them?

    Biofeedback is the name for a collection of techniques and technologies that are meant to make you consciously aware of bodily processes like these that usually take place subconsciously. You often see the term in phrases like “biofeedback therapy” or “biofeedback machine” which can give the impression that biofeedback is something done in the laboratory or with expensive gadgets. That certainly can be the case, but it doesn’t have to be. (For example, I can imagine a machine that attaches to your head and measures your alpha waves and plays a tone in your ear that changes pitch as they increase or decrease, as a way of making you consciously aware of what’s going on. That might be interesting and even helpful, but it’s not particularly practical when you’re at home in bed trying to get to sleep.)

    Luckily, in our case, all the biofeedback we need is already available to us. It’s been there all along, but because it is subtle and because it’s not at all obvious that it can be used as a biofeedback mechanism, most of us have ignored it or dismissed it as a curiosity. The biofeedback we can use is hypnagogic imagery—a somewhat well-organized procession of visual hallucination varieties people experience as we fall asleep. These are the guideposts along the way as we try to find a path out of our frustrating local minimum of insomnia and into the lovely Land of Nod.

    This page will describe these guideposts and the process of navigating through them to sleep. First I will introduce the key technique you will need to learn in order to take this journey: awareness concentration.

Awareness concentration

The trick to getting out of that local minimum rut is to do something that may seem counterintuitive at first. Usually when you think of falling asleep, you think of your mind just sort of wandering aimlessly hither and yon, with thoughts coming and going, and nothing really attracting your attention for long, until you finally drift off. When you are suffering insomnia and trying to get to sleep you may try to invoke this sort of listless, meandering stream of consciousness in yourself.

But because you are in this troublesome local minimum, instead of leading you to sleep, this mental meander keeps leading you back to thoughts that are anything but relaxing: arguments you had or anticipate having, concerns about projects at work, money troubles, romantic regrets, terrible commercial jingles from your childhood.

I’m astonished at how inventful my mind is at finding things for me to be anxious about! How would I rescue my cat if an airplane crashed into my house right now? What would I do about the Middle East if I suddenly became President? What should I have said to my ex-girlfriend in that argument we had five years ago? And no matter how many times I dismiss these anxious thoughts as ridiculous things to be thinking about right now, every time I relax I find myself floating right back to them.

This is the sign I’m caught in a local minimum—a whirlpool or rip tide carrying me away from the shoreline of slumber. And it’s the first guidepost we need to look out for. When we notice that we’re trapped in a whirlpool of unrestful thoughts, we need to change our strategy: stop trying to relax, and start trying to concentrate.

I’ll cover what to concentrate on in a little bit. First I need to say a few words about what sort of concentration I’m talking about.

The concentration you will need to learn and use is a particular sort. If you have done any Zen meditation or other similar mindfulness work, you’re most of the way there already. If not, here are some of the principles to keep in mind:

  • It’s an observational concentration that is mostly focused on awareness rather than, say, the concentration you use when you’re trying to do something intricate like thread a needle or conjugate a foreign verb. Think “eyes wide open” concentration rather than “knitted brow” concentration.
     
  • It’s a non-judgemental sort of concentration. You are not trying to analyze, sort, compare, rate, or anything of that sort. Simply be as aware as you can of what you are experiencing—as if you were observing something you don’t want to miss.
     
  • Your main obstacle in this sort of concentration is the tendency of your verbal mind to want to play with the things you observe. It will want to tell stories about it, or make judgements about it, or suggest interesting things about it to distract you and get you back to thinking about that fun anxiety-causing stuff.

    The trick is to understand that your mind’s verbal buttings-in are also part of what you are trying to be aware of: when you observe such things, just behave as you would for anything else you become aware of: don’t judge it, analyze it, sort it, rate it, or anything like that. Just notice it, forget it, and keep your eyes open for the next thing.

This sort of awareness concentration is something you can practice in your day to day wakeful life as well. People do practice it under names like “flow” or “mindfulness meditation” or probably dozens of other names.

If you’ve never practiced anything like it before, it may take you a little while to get the hang of it, and it might be worth it for you to practice while you’re awake so that it comes easier to you when you’re drowsy and cranky from lack of sleep. The same principles apply when you’re wide awake: attend to your experiences nonjudgmentally and if your verbal mind tries to grab hold of anything and run off with it, just ignore it and get back to observing. You can do this while sitting quietly, or while doing tasks like washing the dishes or weeding the garden.

In the following sections, I’ll talk mostly about what you will notice when you get into this state of awareness concentration. It is not a relaxed state, at least not at first, but it is effective at getting you out of that terrible whirlpool of insomnia. It also provides the momentum that takes you from guidepost to guidepost and finally into sleep.

The Hypnagogic Guideposts

“The brain does not all at once glide into repose: its different organs being successively thrown into this state; one dropping asleep, then another, then a third, till the whole are locked up in the fetters of slumber. This gradual process of intellectual obliteration is a sort of confused dream—a mild delirium which always precedes sleep. The ideas have no resting-place, but float about in the confused tabernacle of the mind, giving rise to images of the most perplexing description.”

—The Philosophy of Sleep (1838) by Robert Macnish

What I’m going to ask you to concentrate on as you descend into sleep are the things that you see. You will see a set of guideposts (figuratively speaking) that I will describe to you in the sections that follow so that you will know what to look for. By maintaining your awareness concentration as best you can as this procession of guideposts passes before your eyes, you will gradually emerge from the local minimum of insomnia and descend into sleep.

These visual guideposts are the biofeedback indicators I mentioned earlier. It seems a little strange to be talking about a procession of distinct visuals that appear as you have your eyes closed in the dark, but in fact the brain makes very active use of its visual processing areas during shut-eye, and if you know what to look for and if you pay attention, you can see a lot with your eyes closed.

Most of what I’m including in these sections comes from introspection—from my observation of how I fall asleep. I think it’s safe to say that there will be a lot of similarities between the sleep experiences of members of our common species, especially as sleep is such a primitive part of our make-up (all mammals sleep, as do many other animals), but there are likely also many individual differences. (Also, if you have been very severely deprived of sleep, your hallucinations are likely to be more striking, and the more vivid ones will probably arrive earlier in the process than I describe below.) If you find your experience is somewhat different from mine in some particulars, this shouldn’t prevent you from using the process I describe: your path out of the local minimum will be somewhat different from mine, but the process of walking it will still be the same and it will still end up in the right place.

Try closing your eyes right now and take a moment to see what you can see. Now try doing this with your hand in front of your eyes to see the difference when it’s darker. You won’t just see blackness. You will probably see some faint, formless, blobs of dull color and maybe some dim, tiny, randomly scattered speckles. There may also be some reverse-image artifacts based on the things you were looking at just before shutting your eyes. These are all examples of the sort of closed-eye visuals I want you to learn to concentrate on with eager awareness. They may not look like much, but they’re the rope ladder thrown into the pit of your insomnia, and if you grab hold, you can climb out.

How long does it take to go down this path to sleep? It all depends. Sometimes you can whip past multiple guideposts so quickly you hardly notice them go by. Other times you can get stuck at one for a while, or bob between two or three before moving on. You may have some difficult nights when you pop back up to the first guidepost—The Rut—many times before you finally get in the groove. Patience and practice are your friends—and, after all, when you’re lying awake in bed in the middle of the night, what else have you got to do?

What gives you the momentum you need to go from guidepost to guidepost is the awareness concentration itself. You will also come to give yourself positive feedback as you notice yourself moving from one guidepost to the next (indeed, until you get used to it you’ll probably get so excited when you notice a new guidepost appear that you’ll startle yourself back into wakefulness and have to start over). That positive feedback is another important part of the biofeedback discussed earlier: it helps you learn how to fall asleep better. As you gain more familiarity with these guideposts and how it feels for your mind to travel along this path, it will get increasingly easier, and you will become better at stopping what otherwise would have become a night of fitful tossing and turning.

Guidepost #1: The Rut

The first guidepost is when you recognize that you’re in that terrible, familiar, insomniac rut: your mind furiously chasing its own tail thinking about dumb things you don’t need to be thinking about right now, and all of your attempts to relax your way out of it proving futile.

When you recognize this guidepost, try to drop the thread of whatever wordiness your mind is engaged in, and begin to practice awareness concentration: stop relaxing and begin to concentrate!

You may also find your jaw clenching when you’re in this stage. If so, unclench it, and keep your tongue lightly pressed against the roof of your mouth (this will help to remind you not to reclench your jaw).

Guidepost #2: Dark Snow

When you adopt awareness concentration and first begin to observe your visual field, what you see probably won’t look like much: A somewhat mottled dark field, with a bit of dark static “snow” over the top of it like an old TV set on an untuned channel.

Your verbal mind will still be actively trying to regain control and to distract you from awareness concentration, and from time to time it will probably succeed, kicking you back into The Rut. When it does so, just patiently begin again.

You can also begin your night’s sleep at this second Guidepost rather than waiting to fall into The Rut first. That’s a good way of practicing awareness concentration and of becoming familiar with the landscape you will need to navigate to get out of The Rut, and it may also help you avoid The Rut in the first place if you often find yourself falling into it when you are first trying to get to sleep at night.

Guidepost #3: The Lava Lamp

Soon you will start to notice formless but semi-coherent blobs appearing on this dark field of random snow. They will be slightly lighter or darker than their background and may take on muted colors. They will slowly move and morph, and some will dissolve and others appear, and some will merge and others will divide.

These blobs are a bit like the “endoptic” hallucinations you can give yourself by closing your eyes and applying pressure to your eyelids with your fingertips, but in the Lava Lamp hypnagogic phase these blobs just come and go on their own without such prompting. You may occasionally see recognizable shapes in the blobs, but only in the same way as you can find shapes in clouds. In any case, don’t get hung up trying to identify shapes and objects; just pretend you’re at an abstract art show and appreciate it for what it is.

The visuals in this phase remind me of the sort of leisurely, floating pointlessness of a lava lamp. It can be easy at this point to lose your awareness concentration and to relax into this bubbly flow. Avoid that temptation, as at this stage relaxation will just lead you back to The Rut. Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate. Watch the blobs morph as though it were the season finale of your favorite show.

Guidepost #4: The Third Dimension

This next change is so subtle that for a long time I didn’t notice it. Up to this point, everything you have seen has been two-dimensional, as if projected on the screen of the inside of your eyelids. But as you continue your awareness concentration, you will start to notice these blobs, and the space they are in, acquire depth.

As your attention passes from one blob to another, you may notice your eyes focusing at different depths in order to follow them (of course, with your eyes closed, this focusing of your eyes can have no meaningful effect, but it’s telling evidence of the power of the illusion, and it’s another example of the biofeedback that is available to you).

For me, the space the blobs seem to occupy usually corresponds to the dimensions of the room I’m sleeping in. I’m not sure why this should be.

When I finally noticed this shift from two to three dimensions that happens at this part of the hypnagogic journey, I reflected again on the old saw about “counting sheep” as a way to get to sleep. The origin of this advice is lost to history, but it goes back hundreds of years at least. It has been stereotyped in cartoons as just a sort of boring, repetitive task that lulls you to sleep out of tedium. But maybe there’s something more to it. Counting sheep is something a shepherd would do when wandering with a grazing flock, in order to make sure none had been left behind. To count sheep, you would cast your eyes back and forth and at various depths in your visual field, attending to one blobby thing after another… which strikes me as being very similar to the way your eyes and attention operate at this phase of hypnagogia. It’s an intriguing coincidence at least.

The path you have taken so far marks the steepest part of the trail. It’s the part where it is easiest to get distracted and lose your way and end up back in The Rut. It is especially important to maintain awareness concentration with all of your energy up to the next guidepost where the path starts to get a little easier.

Guidepost #5: Proto-Dreams

Your visual field becomes much more interesting at this guidepost, though things are still so dim that you have to be paying attention to notice.

The formless and mostly boring blobs and shapes begin to give way to recognizable objects, though they are still mostly just outlines or shadows. Their shapes, and occasionally their movement, make them unmistakable things: a teacup, a baby’s face breaking into a cry, a paving stone, a branch hitting a windowpane in a storm, a woman getting up from a table, an umbrella closing. 

These images, striking as they are once you know to look for them, may not be obvious to you at first.  Even when you do finally notice them, you may think, “did I really see that, or did I just imagine I saw it?” In fact, the answer is: “both!” Some of your imaginings at this phase are images as well.

These figures appear spontaneously (not as a result of thinking about them). They are ephemeral, usually lasting a second or two at most, and they don’t seem to be related to any concrete thing in your waking life or to each other – they show up one after the other independently and don’t interact or seem to have any narrative thread that connects them. They are not subject to conscious control: they do not follow your directions and they come and go on their own schedule.

Knowing how arbitrary these images are can help you maintain the non-judgemental awareness you need to navigate to the next guidepost. Don’t get hung up on trying to understand why you’re seeing certain things, just notice them go by and forget them once they’re gone.

Guidepost #6: Light

At some point, these shadowy figures come into the light. They acquire colors and details. They may begin to interact with each other to some extent, though they are usually still pretty ephemeral.

At this point, you are beginning to escape the fragile pre-sleep stage and to fall asleep. Some of these brief proto-dreams become so realistic that you may briefly believe in them: the boundary between your ego and your awareness is getting slippery. Toward the end of this stage you may stop being merely an observer of your hallucinations and start becoming a participant in them. Your awareness concentration may be faltering at this point, and that may be just fine: it could be time to let go and vanish into dreamland.

There may be occasional snippets of sound hallucinations in this stage to accompany your visual hallucinations (although they may or may not be coordinated with each other yet).

If you’ve ever had the experience when falling asleep of having a sudden nightmare (often something like tripping or missing a stair) and jolting yourself awake, that probably happened as you were in or reaching the end of this stage. This stage is usually very brief: When I first see evidence of this guidepost, I know my mind is ready for sleep and I feel relief that my insomnia is probably soon at an end.

Guidepost #7: The Doorway to Dreamland

This is the last guidepost you pass before actual sleep begins. I don’t know as much about it because usually this stage is followed immediately by dreaming sleep and then deeper sleep and so it leaves little impression on the memory.

I only know about this stage because on two occasions I’ve been able to maintain my awareness concentration all the way through to sleep, and I entered dreaming sleep in a lucid state with my memories of the preceding stages intact.

This guidepost is a strange cacophonous sonic membrane. It sounds a bit like an auditorium full of human voices gobbling away and getting louder and louder until – “pop” – you’re through the membrane and on the other side, asleep and in the bright, animated world of dreams. Sleep paralysis has more-or-less taken hold at this point and you will be mostly unaware of the real world and of your real-world body. To the extent you’re conscious, you’ll be conscious of the dream world and you’ll be fully-immersed in it, right where you want to be.

Conclusion

That’s all there is to it: Learn to practice awareness concentration and to be aware of the hypnagogic hallucinations that are your guides as you leave the rut of insomnia for a pleasant night’s sleep. It may take a while to get the hang of it—it does require a certain mental balance that takes practice—but once you’ve got it, like juggling or riding a bike or touch-typing, it’s yours to keep, and you’ll have earned a skill that will win you nights of blissful slumber and days free from cranky grogginess.


Appendix: Historical Notes

You don’t have to read anything below to get everything you need to know about this method of combating insomnia. What follows are just some observations about some of the limited research I made into the early history of exploring hypnagogic hallucinations. You may find it interesting or that it piques your curiosity, but it is utterly inessential to learning or to practicing the techniques outlined above.

The word “hypnagogic” was coined as “hypnagogique” in French in 1848 by Alfred Maury in his study of hypnagogic hallucinations (“Des hallucinations hypnagogiques ou erreur des sens dans l’état intermédiaire entre la veille et le sommeil”—“Hypnagogic hallucinations, or sense errors during the intermediate state between waking and sleep”).

In the decades following there were a number of investigations of hypnagogic hallucinations. Many of these started, unfortunately, with the assumption that such hallucinations were abnormal and indeed pathological, and tried to understand the causes of them (abnormal levels of blood flow to the brain, insanity, improper sleeping environment, etc.) in the hopes of offering a cure.

Some others, though, understood that these hallucinations were ordinary parts of the hypnagogic experience, and tried to describe them or theorize about their purpose. A typical example is Francis Galton, who, in his The Visions of Sane Persons (1881), wrote:

[B]efore I thought of carefully trying, I should have emphatically declared that my field of view in the dark was essentially of a uniform black, subject to an occasional light-purple cloudiness and other small variations. Now, however, after habituating myself to examine it with the same sort of strain that one tries to decipher a sign-post in the dark, I have found out that this is by no means the case, but that a kaleidoscopic change of patterns and forms is continually going on, but they are too fugitive and elaborate for me to draw with any approach to truth.

Maria Mikhaĭlovna Manaseina wrote “that for these phenomena to attract attention a certain power of observation is required; that is why they are chiefly found in intelligent persons,” thus inverting the idea that they were pathological examples of incipient insanity (Sleep, its Physiology, Pathology, Hygiene, and Psychology, 1897).

Manaseina also noted that children, perhaps because they have not yet become accustomed to these hallucinations, are more likely to take notice of them and to find them amusing. “[M]any children are accustomed to press their heads into the pillow and adopt an attitude of expectant attention towards the visions that then begin to form…" Havelock Ellis, some years later (The World of Dreams, 1916) reinforced this by recalling his own childhood:

I should myself be inclined to deny that I had ever had any such visionary faculty [for hypnagogic hallucination] if it were not that I can recall one occasion of its presence, at about the age of seven, when sleeping with a cousin of the same age; we amused ourselves by burying our heads in the pillows and watching a connected series of pictures which we were both alike able to see, each announcing any change in the picture as soon as it took place.

Frederick Greenwood (Imagination in Dreams and Their Study, 1894) remembered his own childhood visions in a way that not only describes the transition between the abstract snowy hallucinations around guidepost #1 to the proto-dreams of guidepost #5, but that once again brings in the “sheep” motif:

Many times when I was a child I used to see within my closed eyelids, as I lay abed in the dark, a little cloud of bright golden sparks, which first became larger and more scintillating, and then turned into a flock of sheep rapidly running down hill into the general darkness below.

Greenwood also described the dim-but-recognizable hallucinations of guidepost #5 particularly well:

Though they seem living enough, they look through the darkness as if traced in chalks on a black ground. Colour sometimes they have, but the colour is very faint. Indeed, their general aspect is as if their substance were of pale smoke; and their outlines waver, fade, and revive (with the effect, though not the aspect, of phosphorescent limnings), so that, except for the half of a moment, the whole face is never completely or clearly visible at one time.

When he writes of the “face” here, this is because his visions during this phase of hypnagogia were almost exclusively of faces (my own visions seem to be of an unlimited variety of objects). Greenwood’s faces, unfamiliar ones, tended to display a variety of often disturbing emotions in particularly poignant ways, as if “something corresponding in the intellectual domain to Conscience in the moral” were saying “‘behold! …Envy; look again. And Scorn, and Greed, and Malignancy. And this—this is Patience; and this, Luxury; and this, naked Stupidity.’”

Other authors also describe seeing unfamiliar faces, often grotesque ones, during this phase. Another described seeing mostly architectural forms. A few say that their visions correspond in some way to real world objects they had seen during the waking day: a person who played chess during the day, for example, reported seeing not the actual chessboard he had been playing on, but an abstract representation of a chessboard.

On the other hand, C.L. Herrick, a sufferer from insomnia who took some solace in watching the phantasms that appear at this phase, described them this way (“Hallucinations of Vision in Children,” Journal of Comparative Neurology, July 1895):

These views rarely or never contained recognisable elements from actual experience, nor could there be traced any association with real or imaginary places. Sometimes the images were of faces, and the expression varied with kaleidoscopic frequency. There are many analogies with the transformations which are occasioned in one’s cloud-pictures by the changes in the forms of the clouds.

Hartley Burr Alexander also stressed the imagery’s arbitrariness (“The Subconscious in the Light of Dream Imagery and Imaginative Expression: With Introspective Data,” Proceedings of American Society for Psychical Research v.III, 1909), saying: “They are extraordinarily independent and unpredictable: they come and go of themselves without apparent interconnection. In fact they clearly defy all known rules of association,” and “if there be such a thing as irrelevance, these images show it,” and “[i]n short, the images are the work of an agent that does not share in my interests, aims, or feelings.”

Greenwood noted how little conscious control he had over these images: “[the] apparitions… are absolutely independent of the will, and can neither be imitated nor commanded by any effort of the will-directed imagination.” Though Thomas DeQuincey, in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), remembers talking about these visions with a child who told him that some control was possible: “I can tell them to go, and they go, but sometimes they come when I don’t tell them to come.”

Finally, Havelock Ellis gave this rare and interesting description of the tail end of the proto-dream phase:

It has… occasionally happened to me that as I have begun to lose waking consciousness a procession of images has drifted before my vision, and suddenly one of the figures I see has spoken. This hallucinatory voice occurring before I was fully asleep has startled me into full waking consciousness, and I have realised that, while yet in the hypnagogic stage, I was assisting at the birth of a dream.

I found it interesting to see the similarities and differences between the hypnagogic journey as I have described it here and as I experience it and the descriptions given by authors from a century or more ago, and to reflect on how little regard we have yet learned to give to this fruitful and interesting experience we share.

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16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:57 PM
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If you get a chance to write a post communicating the main points from this in 1/5th - 1/10th the length, I would be (genuinely) happy to read it. As it is right now, I find my eyes keep glazing over as I read this. If you do write a shorter version, please let me know, because as someone who often has trouble sleeping myself, this is of interest to me.

tl;dr: By focusing in a counterintuitively alert way on your hypnagogic hallucinations you can use them as a sort of biofeedback mechanism, following them as they change their characteristics in predictable ways in a direction that leads you out of insomnia into sleep.

alternatively: By reading this prolix description of hypnagogia, your eyes will glaze over until you find yourself nodding out.

And after the tl;dr summary, skip to the guidepost section which is actually fairly short.

Maybe useful to put the TLDR at the top of the post? I had a similar reaction to MikkW and was originally intending to save the link to possibly read at some later time. But then I was lucky enough to start skimming the post instead, getting a good chunk of value. Would have done that for sure if there was TLDR that gave some more guidance.

(Great and well-written post-overall.)

until I learned that melatonin supplements suppress your body’s ability to create its own melatonin and so can exacerbate insomnia if used regularly.

citation?

I wish I remembered where I heard about this. It was a long time ago and seemed convincing to me at the time, but now I don't remember the details, and a little googling doesn't turn up much of anything to confirm this. I should probably dial back how I describe this until I can verify it.

Also curious about this.

This is the most detailed examination of the experience of falling asleep I've yet seen. Cheers!

I have only ever suffered from occasional acute insomnia, but I can confirm guideposts 2-6 from my meditation practice. Guidepost 1 is something else that happens in meditation that is sometimes called "remembering", or (somewhat ironically) "waking up".

I may be familiar with 6 as well, but (if we're thinking of the same thing) my experience is mostly of bouncing off that "membrane" and becoming more fully awake. I've noted the experience as something like all the sounds happening at the same time and at high speeds. The effect is something like hearing an especially noisy in-window air conditioner going through all its daily cycles at once in a second, ramping down as I re-attain a fuller level of consciousness.

One thing I didn't notice you mention is that during the falling-asleep process, sleep paralysis can be a fuzzy-bordered thing. (That's chemical processing for you!) This can sometimes result in the whole body jerking once or twice, called Hypnagogic (or Hypnic) Jerking. My partner tells me that my body does this most nights, and I've been woken by it on occasion. I'd guess I've been around your Guidepost 5 when I've had that experience, and I am sometimes able to recall what body was doing in the dream that correlated with the sudden motion.

Have you experienced such body jerks? If so, what guidepost(s) do you associate with them?

When I've been aware of such sudden-jerks, it's been around Guidepost 6, just as I'm about to slip into sleep, and is usually accompanied by a micro-dream in which I need to suddenly move for some reason (usually, it's that I missed a step on a staircase or something like that; but once I remember flinging my arm out in front of me to catch a baseball coming my way).

Some of this may be as you theorize: that sleep paralysis is lagging dream-consciousness and so your body doesn't know that it shouldn't actually move when your dream-consciousness tells it to.

I've interpreted some of the instances of this as a protective mechanism: if you're lying in a position where your tongue might block your airway or for some other reason your body decides that you're not safely-situated for sleep, it jerks you awake to encourage you to start over in another position... sort of like an abort to the launch sequence. I don't know whether there's anything to this interpretation; it's just a pet theory.

I've interpreted some of the instances of this as a protective mechanism...

That's a really interesting thought. I'll have to (try to) remember to check out my breathing next time I jerk awake!

This worked for me tue first night! Thanks soo much!!!

After listening to this while going to sleep last night (which was a fun experience), I wrote this poetic summary:

You're tossing, turning, no sleep, no resting

I know a trick that will help you sleep; how?

It's meditation, but hypnogogic

Now close your eyes, let the darkness shine in

And see the light that your mind's eye creates

There's blobs and bundles, there's snow before you

Attention! look at it, watch it closely

I know, it's not too relaxing, not yet.

But watch the blobs, like a counting shepard

The blobs will start to cohere, formless still

See shapes in blobs? Like the shapes in clouds, right

A lava lamp, but still nothing more than.

Feel bubbly flow- but relax? That's a no.

Attention! Watch on, as depth aquires;

Dimension third, they are formless blobs yet.

Your eyes are focusing, closer, further

Your body's talking, it's biofeedback

You cast your eyes, they go back and forth now

Relax? Still not yet. Hold on! Almost there!

Until you get there, the coming guidepost:

The protodreams, now you're recognizing

Some images, you see faces dimly

You saw it, but you imagined it too

See outlines, shadows, there's paving stones, there's

A teacup, lamps, an umbrella closing

They never last, their ephemerality

The sign you're nearing to sleep, near dreamland

They brighten - colours and details living

You stop observing, you start engaging

Awareness falters, that's fine, let go now

And drift into sleep

Maybe Guidepost #7 is the thing I've been calling exploding head syndrome, though I haven't been diagnosed, it's just very loud and I remember at last year not having/noticing it so I thought it was abnormal. What happens is, when I take a nap (not so much at night), I hear static filling my ears as I fall asleep. It kind of sounds like a drum filled with sand, if you were to let the sand roll around and placed that next to your ears. Or like something moving very fast like a car driving through a tunnel. I suspect it might not be the same sound each time, but I'm not sure. It's extremely loud to the point as if it should be painful, and it's kind of scary; yet I know that it's not real noise and can't hurt me, so I kind of enjoy it like it's loud music. (Though I also futilely hope that I'll break through the noise into some alternate universe or something.) And sometimes the sound segues into a dream; I remember one time I dreamt that I was listening to some band performing and it was very noisy like the static. I think (almost?) every time, though, after some time listening to this static or having this loud dream, I just start sliding back out of sleep or to some earlier stage, though I usually go right back to sleep. It feels like the sound comes from preexisting sounds from like my family talking or my ears ringing that get magnified by my brain or nerves.

This also seems to happen with touch; often times when I start to dream / hallucinate, I have this tickling sensation all across my torso that gets really really strong, and I try to ignore it or reinterpret it as sexual, but it seems to always wake me up eventually because it just doesn't go away. It feels like this comes from my blanket or shirt being folded slightly uncomfortably, and the sensation getting magnified, though at the same time, I don't think straightening out my shirt or blanket really fixes it ever.

Imagining motion seems to make me fall asleep or at least enter a kind of dizzy/dreaming stage. Some examples: when I was younger, after spending a lot of time jumping on the trampoline I'd remember the bouncing sensation when I was falling asleep, though I don't know if I necessarily used it to fall asleep. Last summer I learned how to skate on the Rip-Stik, and imagining doing turns on it when I was falling asleep made me feel like I was falling endlessly but in a relaxing way, and I remember consciously trying to get that sensation.

The ideas in the post seem to be similar to some lucid dreaming techniques. I'm not very acquainted with that terminology / community, though I suppose one thing that seems sort of related is learning what your eyelids look like in order to catch yourself when you have a small awakening, which IIRC happens before dreams. I suppose this whole process of observing hypnagogic hallucinations is basically lucid dreaming, just with being aware of a different phenomena.

Fascinating! Since falling asleep is arguably a bodily process as well, I wonder if you also have observations about the bodily sensations during the stages? Or do you try to be exclusively aware of the visuals and try to not to be aware of the body?

I try to maintain my concentration on what I see, and so deliberately don't pay attention to other sensations.

I haven't experimented much with the other senses in this way. I wonder if you could get similar results by concentrating on bodily sensations (or some other sense) that I've gotten by concentrating on the visual. Seems like it'd be a good avenue for experimentation.

Some more guidepost #7 experiences: I used to take daytime naps frequently, and ended up getting a lot of experience of #7. For me there was a lot of scary phenomenology in the beginning. Often I would see flashing occult symbols, hear loud noises and feel like my body was rapidly falling or being pulled off in some direction. If I let the fear take over I would wake up. But when I eventually learned to just observe the sensations, and solidly believed that they were nothing dangerous the sequence would reliably take me directly into lucid dreams.

Not sure how common these experiences are. Maybe they are more common during morning/daytime naps (and some lucid dreaming techniques recommend setting an early alarm and then going back to sleep). I almost never experienced the #7 stage when going to sleep at night, instead I would just fall asleep at some earlier step.