Explorations of hypnagogia during lockdown

The restrictions during the second wave of covid-19 have been less severe in Geneva than during the first wave, although France has closed my nearby border until mid-December and instituted strict lockdown again. However, I went to a bakery the other day and saw a notice that said people aged 65 and over were asked not to leave home. I had been keeping pretty much at home in any case, and one of the things I decided to do in this period was to see whether I could achieve WILD, ie. wake-induced lucid dreaming.  I’ve previously had success with DILD (dream-induced lucid dreaming) which is the best known technique and involves becoming aware you are dreaming while you are in a dream. WILD involves transitioning directly from the hypnagogic state into the dream state while maintaining awareness throughout.

The hypnagogic state is the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, during which images, dreamlike visions and other sensory experiences may occur. To achieve WILD, you aim to remain aware as an awake dreamlike vision transitions into a full-blown dream as you fall asleep. I started to pay close attention to what I was seeing and experiencing during the hynagogic period, aiming to stay consciously aware as the dreamlike fragments arose, and to figure out how to figuratively “dive” into the dream. But this goal was postponed as I became fascinated with the variety of hypnagogic phenomena I experienced as I lay with my eyes closed transitioning towards sleep.

The first and most frequent was to see phosphenes, vague blobs of purple and greens, or more brightly coloured speckles and patterns, appearing slightly luminous on the darkness of my closed eyelids. I discovered that if I focused on these, they would expand, become more complex and brighter, sometimes becoming very bright and colourful, with a full range of colours. And I discovered that even when these were not visible, or barely visible, by focusing my attention on a very small part of the visual field, I could discover microscopic colourful geometric and fractal patterns. With focused attention, I could expand these to fill a major part or all of the visual field.

More occasionally, when I had focused on one of these expanded patterns, it would fill my entire visual field as a brightly coloured geometric pattern, often intricately interwoven like a mosaic. And this pattern might be dynamic, continually rotating and transforming. Here is one example I recorded:

I did some focusing on the colours I could see on the backs of my eyelids and drilled into them. There was an intricate and brightly coloured geometric tiling pattern which was moving dynamically and continuously evolving. It got brighter and brighter and the tiles started breaking away from the pattern which was spinning faster, and tiles were flying around in circular patterns in front of my eyes. Mainly orange, brown, yellow colours of different shades. The brightest imagery I have ever achieved with eyelid concentration (14 Oct 2020).

As I go deeper into the hypnagogic state, dreamlike images and fragments arise in my consciousness. They can become quite real experiences, like a dream, but easily disappear if I start to think about them as an observer. Their “permanence” seems to require passive immersion. Its difficult to remain “within” them while aware. They are there and I am passively aware, definitely not asleep. But as soon as I start to consciously explore them, they tend to break up and fade. I presume this is the gateway to lucid dreaming, but I haven’t yet figured out how to achieve WILD. My experience with DILD was that my lucidity was similar to that in the waking state, and I could think about and decide what to do, although there certainly was a risk of exiting the dream by becoming “too lucid”.

But the really fascinating phenomenon I discovered is the hypnagogic hallucination. Some simpler experiences of this have been not too dissimilar to the geometric mandalas I described above. But the images are more complex, and hang in space rather than filling the visual field. Here is an example:

I was lying down in the hypnagogic state. At one point I had a very detailed and intricate 3d heraldic design floating in space in front of me. Yellow, bronze colours. Circular design and the intricate parts of it were in constant motion. At the top were 2 heraldic lions who were talking to each other, and one was saying he likes jogging, and jumped out of the circle and started running (15 Oct 2020).

The more complex hallucinations involve me “seeing” the room I am in, even though my eyes are closed. I can look around and see the walls and furniture. And quite often, I discover that the space around me is filled with complex pipes and machinery. In these hallucinations, the lighting is usually very low, not too dissimilar to the actual lighting if I opened my eyes, but enough for me to see what is around me, and the details of the machinery. Here is an example:

Last night as I was lying in bed falling asleep, I saw in front of my closed eyes a large intricate machine, about a metre cube, with lots of pipes and complex bits. I opened my eyes and the machine was still visible in front of me, the near corner only about 6 inches away. And I could see into the machine, its parts were very solid, and very 3 dimensional.  There have been several visions like this recently, very different from the dream-like hypnagogic imagery which seem somehow in my mental space and not so clear. Once I get into this state of very clear solid vision I am still quite conscious, but not sure whether I am awake or dreaming. Pretty sure I am awake but in a somewhat altered state. Well of course I would have to be given what I am seeing with my open eyes. (15 Oct 2020).

Here is another:

Lying in bed to go to sleep. Eyes shut.  I started to see through my shut eyes an intricate piece of machinery that filled the space in front of me. Dim light exactly the right lighting for the night-time bedroom. I studied the machinery in front of me, and it morphed into an intricate set of moving shapes, all coloured brown and grey, rather like a very complex set of gears made from angular geometric shapes that intermeshed and turned each other. This expanded to fill the visual field in front of me, then morphed back into the more static piece of machinery that was maybe a metre cube and consisted of fairly tightly packed tubing and structures.  So real was what I was seeing that I thought my eyes must be open. I checked by opening them and instantly what I was seeing disappeared and was replaced by the actual bedroom without machinery in it.  (29 Oct 2020)

There have been a couple of times when similar hallucinations persisted when I opened my eyes. I check that I am awake, and I can see stuff that really cannot be there.  In one instance, I found this somewhat disturbing, and I still think about sometimes.

I had a vision where the space around me was filled quite densely with twisting shapes, a bit like strips about 6 inches long, coiling and twisting in space. I opened my eyes and these shapes were still visible. I got up to go to the toilet and I could clearly see in the air dark streamers of smoke that were quite defined and in constant motion writhing and twisting and moving. They were quite dense and visible in the air all around me. Quite beautiful. They persisted for the several minutes I was out of bed but disappeared when I lay down again and shut my eyes. (Early Nov, 2020)

To summarize, I am experiencing three classes of hypnagogia quite regularly:

  1. Focussing in on very small detail in the largely black field of the back of my eyelids and finding dynamic geometric coloured patterns, which I can go into or expand and sometimes they become quite bright and colourful. Remind me very much of the visual imagery experienced with psilocybin. Sometimes these morph into structured visions like the circle with the two lions I described above.
  2. Hypnagogic visions which are very much like waking dreams, often with indistinct imagery which disappears easily if I try to focus too much on it. And I tend to temporarily lose lucidity from time to time while seeing these visions. I come in and out of lucidity.
  3. Seeing quite real seeming things in the space around me with eyes closed. These are often very solid and colourful, can be dynamic and fill space around me. These sometimes remain visible when I open my eyes. Can persist for quite some time then go away.

The first two are phenomena that happen most nights. The third is less common, maybe occurring a once or twice a week if I am paying attention to prolonging the hypnagogic  state and not transiting from the “waking dreams” into sleep. I’ve done a little searching online for research on hypnagogic visions. It seems that the first type of phenomenon is a common occurrence when there are no stimuli in the visual field, for example using blindfold or other forms of sensory deprivation such as the “dark” retreat.  The more complex geometric, fractal and dynamic patterns are hypothesized to arise from loss of stability in the nervous system connecting eye and brain:

“Evidence suggests that the form constants of phosphenes are directly related to spatial relationships between the ring-like structure of the retinal cells and the grid-like or columnar neural structures of the visual cortex. The spontaneous production of geometric hallucinations is due to excitation and loss of stability in these retinal-cortical signal coupling pathways.”  James L. Kent. Psychedelic Information Theory. 2010

There is a literature exploring so-called hypnagogic hallucinations, and my third class of phenomena probably fit here, though my examples seem to be mainly variants of an oddly specific hallucination. I wonder whether its some sort of subconscious expression of my urge to seek patterns and underlying structures in reality.

Other types of hypnagogia include tactile and auditory hallucinations, sleep paralysis and sleep jerks. I have only occasionally experienced an auditory hallucination that was not part of a dreamlike vision. For example,at the end of a transformative breathwork session I distinctly heard a voice say “You can sit up now” and knew it was not anyone in the room speaking. Sleep jerks happen from time to time, when nerves fire in the body and I jerk. Never knew it had a name till I was reading up on hypnagogia. And I recently experienced sleep paralysis during the hypnagogic state.

There is a lot of information online from doctors and psychologists reassuring people either reassuring people about sleep paralysis or seeing it as a symptom of a clinical condition, so I presume a lot of people find it very frightening. In my case, I was lying in bed eyes closed, and suddenly became aware that I could not move my body or limbs. I had no fear, just curiosity. I lay there thinking  “Can I move?” and just paying attention to the feeling of my limbs and body.  It seemed to me that the main factor was that I  felt unable to issue the command to move my limbs. Not that I was actually physically unable to do so but that my brain was inhibited from issuing the instruction to do so. It felt very much like a hypnotic paralysis command I experienced years ago. At some point, I thought “is this sleep paralysis?”  After some time of being unable to move, I decided to command myself hypnotically to come out of the state, and was immediately able to move again. Sleep paralysis while conscious in the hypnagogic state can apparently last from a few seconds to minutes. Given the spontaneous onset, I am inclined to say I experienced sleep paralysis and that it likely results from an unconscious inhibition order from the brain.

One last type of hypnagogia that I have experienced in the past, though not in the recent explorations, is the tetris effect. This occurs sometimes if I’ve spent a long time at some repetitive activity before sleep, it dominates the imagery as I grow drowsy. I have experienced this after a day of white water kayaking or a day of skiing, when the hypnagogic period involves constant moving imagery of rapids or snow that I feel am travelling over, and see in front of me. After a day’s boating I sometimes can still feel the waves as I lie in bed. Or most distressing of all, after a day of focussed work, I have had the experience of continuing to perform work activities in the hypnagogic state.

And just before I posted this, I came across a description of hypnagogic visions of complex machinery, which it describes as the sign that a WILD is about to occur: “My hypnagogic imagery often features the most complex machinery I’ve ever seen and which I don’t have the technical vocabulary to describe. Cogs, pistons, and other unnameable mechanical parts are all assembled by some technological wizard (my dreaming mind?) into intricate movements. Whenever I see one of these monstrous machines, I know I’m about to have a WILD.”

OK, maybe its time to explore the dream world…….

2 thoughts on “Explorations of hypnagogia during lockdown

  1. Fabulous descriptions. I understand you describing it in “scientific” terms. I can never quite bring myself to do so. Somehow I am always hoping there is some non-material, transcendent element to such things. But perhaps science and transcendence are not mutually exclusive. That at least would be my hope!

  2. I tend think of it in terms of the outside of things (science) and the inside of things (qualia, feelings, consciousness, transcendence, etc) and the inside is definitely very interesting, particularly when inside expands to include everything. I’ve had some transcendent experiences of ego dissolution where body and mind dropped away, but I’m not sure whether these hypnagogia are gateways to such experiences. So far they have just been very strange and interesting. I hope they may become a stepping stone towards lucid dreaming. LD is claimed to be a gateway to transcendence, and is practiced in some forms of Tibetan Buddhism. Apparently it helps you to realize that the dreaming and awake states are not so different, both forms of samsara (deluded consciousness). Practicing lucidity during the dream state is also said to be a step towards remaining lucid during deep sleep, when all that is present is the ground of consciousness.

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