The Trippy State Between Wakefulness and Sleep

Apr 25, 2016

By Vaughan Bell

There is a brief time, between waking and sleep, when reality begins to warp. Rigid conscious thought starts to dissolve into the gently lapping waves of early stage dreaming and the world becomes a little more hallucinatory, your thoughts a little more untethered. Known as the hypnagogic state, it has received only erratic attention from researchers over the years, but a recent series of studies have renewed interest in this twilight period, with the hope it can reveal something fundamental about consciousness itself.

Traditionally, the hypnagogic state has been studied as part of the sleep disorder narcolepsy, where the brain’s inability to separate waking life and dreaming can result in terrifying hallucinations. But it’s also part of the normal transition into sleep, beginning when our mind is first affected by drowsiness and ending when we finally lose consciousness. It is brief and often slips by unnoticed, but consistent careful attention to your inner experience after you bed down can reveal an unfolding mindscape of curious sounds, abstract scenery, and tumbling thoughts. This meandering cognitive state results from what Cambridge University researcher Valdas Noreika calls a “natural fragmentation of consciousness” and the idea that this can be tracked over the early minutes of sleep entry is the basis of recent hypnagogia research.

A recent proof-of-principle study, led by Noreika, intensively studied a single individual as he repeatedly transitioned into sleep while the brain’s electrical activity was recorded using EEG scalp electrodes. The would-be-sleeper was asked to press a button when he experienced an intrusive thought or image, and to verbally report it to the sleep researchers. The descriptions were pleasantly bizarre: “putting a horse into a sort of violin case and zipping it up,” “the phrase learning to consume consciously from a master,” “visual image of a curled up music manuscript.”

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8 comments on “The Trippy State Between Wakefulness and Sleep

  • Pretentiousness aside, I am a lucid dreamer….sometimes. However, I can consistently get and stay in the hypnogogic state in early morning. Under certain conditions, i can get lucid during the hypnogogic state and have an hour long hallucination.

    I am a very light sleeper and have struggled with what i thought was insomnia for decades. It turns out that I have a hypersensitivity to stimulants. A single cup of coffee at 6 am can make me unable to sleep at midnight. I quit all caffeine 8 years ago and now sleep much more consistently. I sometimes feel like I never get “all the way to sleep” overnight. But the restfulness afforded during that hour of half sleep half awake is rejuvenating to me.

    BTW, my wife has night terrors. We are quite the dysfunctional pair!!!!

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  • A while back for several years I set two alarms, one an hour earlier than the other. The first would wake me an hour before the other. I would immediately turn it off and go back to sleep. Often I could pick up the threads of a dream that I knew would otherwise have eluded me. (This was when I was starting to form my theories about the Prosaic Apparatus my mooted daytime interpolataor and gap filler and night-time practicer of narrative generation given rather random sub conscious pop-ups from the nightly pruning and memory consolidation.) Often they continued in their prosaic form, flat and projected as described here. But sometimes they would take on two other forms, surreal defeating any real sense of narrative and glorious 3D colour feelies and in gratifying control. This latter was certainly lucid dreaming and makes me highly dissatisfied with Netflix. The former (surreal/impossible) is just fascinating. This morning I saw people and cars but I accidentally saw “into” them in some sense. They were made of interdigitated narrow black and white square prisms whose height sort of gave the recognisable form but also in some not physically possible way had whispy curved tops that seemed to exist somewhere else. I understood this coded for the colour I should have been seeing….. I had had an aha moment. These kinds of impossible things I tend to link to unconscious, evolving thoughts, normally kept out of the way by failing the various subconscious potential-saliency heuristic tests.

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  • 6
    Ted Foureagles says:

    I often read to fall asleep. Very frequently I’ll be “reading” along and realize that I’m asleep, and so the unfolding narrative must be coming from my mind and not from the book. But it doesn’t feel like something from my mind — it feels like the original words of someone else. I see the words, and sometimes images, on the page. Now and then I have to go back a few pages before the next reading to discriminate what’s actually there vs. what I’d dreamt.

    Most of my dreams don’t feel like movies; they feel as if I’m there, with full color, sound feel, smell… Often the timeline is non-linear, and objects or situations may morph into something different or even impossible. And often they begin and end with an awareness that I’m dreaming, though this seldom holds through the middle of the dream. Sometimes it’s a relief to find that it’s just a dream, and sometimes it’s a disappointment. Very seldom can I lead myself back into a dream that I want to keep. I was able to do it last night, probably because she was so remarkable.


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    There is a rare
    and marvelous sensation
    upon awakening,
    where reality is still a blur
    and the shadows work
    with your sleepy imagination
    to recreate the scene
    of your last dream.
    There is a warm glow to this place.
    The lights are soft.
    The colors are soft.
    Your lover is at your side.
    Everything is just as it should be.
    And you try with your very soul
    not to wake up,
    hoping to remain forever in
    the mist of your dream.

    —Daniel McVay

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  • I have very vivid dreams nearly every night, and I almost always remember my dreams in detail. Sometimes the atmosphere or mood of a dream colors my whole waking day. I also sometimes realize I am dreaming, and can change the details around me by thinking things like, “Hmm – this house is awesome, but I’d rather have lighter wood in the furniture”, and the furniture will change. Or I’ll add a pool or a some music. I used to dream quite frequently about being able to levitate and fly; there was a specific “feeling” of effort involved, and sometimes I would scare myself by going too high or too fast. The sensation was of sitting and pulling my feet up off the floor or ground, then willing myself to float upward. I often used this in dreams to escape some situation or travel rapidly. Just last night I dreamed about flying around the coast of Vancouver Island, zooming in as necessary for a close look at cliffs, beaches, waterfalls. It was great! My husband, on the other hand, claims to rarely dream or remember his dreams. I have a hard time understanding that – it seems a rather dull way to pass the night.

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