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Most people can identify the physical signs of sleep as it sets in. We’ve all experienced the droopy eyelids and slowed, deepened breathing that occurs as our body readies itself for slumber. Meanwhile, our mind is going through its own shift toward sleep, crossfading our sights, thoughts, and ideas from throughout the day into an uninhibited dream space.
This transition from wakefulness to sleep is known as hypnagogia, and it varies so starkly from person to person that no two individuals may have the same experience. Some see sensational imagery, while others hear a variety of sounds, including voices, music, or any number of unusual noises. Hypnagogia is also associated with bodily sensations such as floating, or the hypnic jerk, the sudden sense of falling forward caused by a muscle twitch during this stage. This transitory state can last for several minutes or only a few seconds.
If there’s one thing researchers agree on about hypnagogia—and its opposite state, hypnopompia, the transition from sleep to wakefulness—it’s how vividly the sensations within these states express themselves. Those who experience the brief period between wakefulness and sleep envision staggering and sometimes mind-altering imagery.
The process has come to be known as liminal dreaming—the word liminal referring to the murky area between consciousness during this transitory state.
Jennifer Dumpert is a writer, lecturer, and workshop leader who teaches experience-based forms of dreamwork to promote the exploration of conscious and subconscious states. She explains that a fluctuation in our brainwaves cause overlaps in consciousness from wakefulness to sleep, which in turn induce the imagery of liminal dreams.
“When you’re awake and paying attention, you’re in beta,” Dumpert tells BTRtoday. “Somewhere between 13 to 30 Hertz (Hz), which is cycles per second. When you’re going down into the first level of sleep, it’s theta waves, then you’re between four to seven Hz.”
During hypnopompia, the same fluctuation from beta to theta waves occurs in reverse, pulling us out of the deep-dreaming stage of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, through theta, and into wakefulness. The imagery and sensations experienced during hypnopompia are very similar to those in hypnagogia.
“In REM, your brainwaves are actually the same when you’re in beta,” Dumpert explains. “That’s also a very weird state. It’s a stage when you wake up in the morning, if you wake up slowly, when you’re half in dream and half in imagination.”
It’s this uncommon state that has led generations of researchers, inventors, and creatives alike to mull over the concept of liminal dreaming for its possible meaning and benefits.
Austrian psychoanalyst and Freud-contemporary Herbert Silberer wrote about hypnagogia as the purest manifestation of autosymbolism, where current thoughts are converted into visual metaphors.
Scientist Frederich August Kekule discovered the benzene ring while in a hypnagogic state, and mentions of hypnagogic imagery have been associated with some of the most brilliant minds in human history, including Aristotle and Albert Einstein.
Inventor Thomas Edison developed an intricate routine to put his hypnagogic visions to good use. As he began to feel tired, he would sit in a chair and hold a ball in each of his hands, directly over metal plates placed on the floor. Upon falling asleep, the balls would drop from his hands onto the metal plates, waking him up immediately. Edison would then jot down ideas or images that came into his head during his brief dream state.
Famed surrealist painter Salvador Dali actually employed a similar technique, except that in lieu of balls he used a large, brass Spanish key, and he sketched his ideas rather than write them down.
“Edison invented everything and Dali is very dreamlike, and so they’re both harnessing the hypnagogic state for creativity and problem solving,” Dumpert says.
Dumpert posits that the reason liminal dreaming might inspire creativity is due to the major shift in thinking that occurs during hypnagogia and hypnopompia.
“I think a lot of it is because in these dream states which are a little less narrative, they’re very free-associative,” Dumpert says. “We’re very much unfettered by ego concerns, by the ideas of ‘Oh, that’s good enough, or that’s not good enough.’”
Because we maintain part of our wakeful consciousness during hypnagogia, the problems or thoughts we have during the day are cast in a whole new light through liminal dreaming.
“Our brains never stop thinking, but in dream states you’re thinking in a totally different way,” Dumpert says. “Especially ideas you already have, that are lodged in there. When you’re asleep, you churn those same ideas over and over again, but you do it in a different way. I think that gives rise to an original way of approaching the same ideas or problems.”
The science of shifting brainwaves seems sound and the benefits of liminal dreaming appear to be bountiful—not to mention that they’ve been lauded by some of the greatest minds ever produced by mankind. But due to its variance from person to person, Dumpert believes that to truly understand liminal dreaming, it must be experienced for oneself.
“I don’t believe objective reality is the only way you can measure subjective experience,” she says.
So the next time you take a seat in your favorite chair for a nap, keep a pen and paper nearby–you never know what you might dream up.