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Hypnagogic Harvests of a Sputtering Brain

We don’t let blind people drive cars. Or people who are bad at math program missile guidance systems.

If we did, it’d be “interesting” to see what happened.

But interesting in the “consequential, and most likely disastrous” sense. One that few of us would opt for.

Luckily, we’ve each got a little internal critic – a Jiminy Cricket of Logic, if you will – who aggressively pulls the e-brake on ideas that don’t measure up to his standards of logical prudence. No matter how interesting those ideas might be.

This probably saves our skins numerous times daily. These illogical ideas need someone whack-a-mole-ing them.

There is an exception, though: That class of ideas that is both decoupled from logic, and utterly inconsequential – since they can’t inflict themselves on the real world.

I’m talking about dreams.

Specifically, I’m talking about hypnagogic imagery – those dream-like images and ideas that flit through our minds as we down-spin from consciousness into sleep.

They’re like the thought equivalents of a Rube Goldberg Machine – where a normal idea as you lay down to sleep reminds you of something else… that was sort of like that time… when that song was playing… and what was that one lyric? It always made you think of…

And then you’re asleep.

You’ll probably recall hypnagogic imagery from your own life, because sometimes when you’re in this state, something will jolt you awake – a noise, an errant cat – and after you’ve got your bearings, you’ll realize that moments before, your mind was filled with absolute nonsense.

This past year, I’ve made a habit of trying to harvest ideas from this nonsense.

A Silver Lining on the Sleep You Don’t Get

I’m going to play my “I’m Not A Doctor” card and write something that if I were a medical professional, would be downright irresponsible.

There are certain upsides to being sleep-deprived.

Yeah, it’s not a popular position, and I know the counterarguments. They are logical, weighty, and relevant. But the Rationalization Engine that is my mind, thinks of it this way:

If circumstances are going to sleep-deprive me anyway, can I find a hidden upside?

And I do, in the form of creativity.

Allow me to elaborate.

In an earlier phase of my life, I did a lot of creative writing. I was one of “those people.” And I found, consistently, that I did my best first-draft writing late at night.

Editing was a different story.  At night I didn’t have the logical cojones to hold a double-handful of plot-threads and character arcs and prosaic flourishes all at once. My logical side, Editor-Jesse, was pretty good at that stuff. But he kept strict 9-to-5 hours. That guy wouldn’t stay up late.

“In hypnagogia, the Rails of Logic disintegrate before the Train of Thought itself disappears…”

But the other half of my writer-self, Creative-Jesse, could stay up until the wee hours. And though his command of logic was marginal, he came up with interesting ideas. It took time for him to articulate them, though. The initial burp of an idea-in-progress would sound ridiculous, headed straight for the waste-paper basket. But if he had some time to gum around with it, there was sometimes a worthwhile kernel in there.

(Think of how ugly babies are when they’re first born – but after a week they’re pretty darn cute. Am I wrong?)

Here’s the thing: If Editor-Jesse had the physiological staying-power of Creative-Jesse, and had been present for the late-night sessions, he would have stopped Creative-Jesse’s newborn ideas dead in their tracks.  In fact, this is what happened when I tried writing during the day. I could do it procedurally, but I never got the never-saw-that-one-coming creative breakthroughs that would happen at night.

Your Train of Thought, Minus the Rails

When we’re awake, we’re always thinking about something.  (Except you prodigious meditators, I know, but bear with me here.) We talk about our “Train of Thought” – the one that we lose when we try to remember what we were just talking about, and realize it has jumped the tracks.

All through the day, the Train chugs along… And at night when we sleep, it dissolves into the black of unconsciousness.

But this doesn’t quite happen all at once. The Rails of Logic disintegrate before the Train itself disappears. And unbounded by logic, the train can careen to some interesting destinations in those pre-sleep moments.

We’ve all slept before, so I’ll assume you’re familiar with this. (If you haven’t slept, stop reading right now and try it. You’ll like it.)

“If circumstances are going to sleep-deprive me anyway, can I find a hidden upside?”

While asleep, the brain behaves quite differently.  The motor cortex goes on standby, so you don’t physically act out your dreams. And your hippocampus shuts off your long-term memory’s writing systems, so you don’t remember your dreams, either1.

Thus, we rarely remember the Train of Thought’s itinerary during these off-the-rails, logic-free detours as we enter into a night’s sleep.

Which is a pity – because, unconstrained by logic, I’m at my creative best.

So I’ve been developing a little hack to capture this hypnagogic creativity-uptick…

I’ve become an expert napper.

Naps, You See, Are Hypnagogic Prime-Time

As opposed to night-time sleep, when you generally have to move through all the major sleep-phases before getting to REM (dream-state)… naps can short-cut you in straightaway. (There’s science behind this, but I won’t go into it here.)

I find that the shorter-duration, less-deep sleep of naps makes me better able to remember the content of my dreams, as well as pre-sleep hypnagogic imagery.

But for usefulness, it’s the hypnagogic imagery, not the dreams, where I get the real value.

By the time I’m dreaming, there is no conductor on the Train. The chances that my dreams will be applicable to anything in the real world are next-to-nil. But the hypnagogic state still has vestiges of whatever I was thinking about when I laid down to nap… So if I’m conscientious about it, I can “seed” my hypnagogia with the ideas I want to explore.

Since I’ve gotten good at this, I’ve started taking two, sometimes three naps a day.

I find my hit-rate on half-decent ideas is not bad – maybe something legitimately useful that I might not have otherwise come up with, one day out of two.

What Are Some Examples?

  • I’ve thought of solutions to business problems.
  • I’ve thought of approaches to difficult conversations.
  • I’ve thought of catchy names for boring things I needed catchy names for.
  • I haven’t cured cancer yet, but I’ve only been doing this systematically for about six months.

(And, to be fair, I rarely think about cancer as I’m taking my naps.)

Was I Going to Put a Pro-Sleep-Deprivation Spin on This?

Yes, I was. Here it goes:

I know that many people complain “I can’t nap.”

To which I reply: “If you cut your night-time sleep short, you’ll find daytime napping a heck of a lot easier.” And a few naps throughout the day are great for your alertness and your neurochemistry – whether you’re sleep-deprived or not.

A Hypnagogic How-To

Even if you’re not a fan of sleep deprivation (and I can’t blame you), the fruits of hypnagogia can still be yours.

Here are some shortcuts:

  1. Use the Nap Pose.  My ability to nap has been revolutionized since I discovered the “Nap Pose.” Flat on your back, arms just a little out from your sides, palms facing inward or downward.  If you feel the urge to switch positions, don’t.  Stick with it. The idea is to give your brain time to settle into hypnagogia.  Don’t make it about your body and “trying to find a comfortable position.” Just watch the show going on in your head. Keep watching. It’ll get interesting.
  2. Put a dark blanket over your eyes. Don’t cover your mouth or nose so breathing is difficult. But black out your vision. Not a wimpy blanket, a thick blanket. Keeping stray photons from penetrating your eyelids will make getting sleepy much easier. It also, I believe, makes the hallucinatory images stronger, since they’re not competing with real signals from your optic nerves.
  3. Look deep into the Nothing… I’m going to sound so damned Californian as I write this; please forgive me.  But remember being a kid and lying on your back, looking up at the clouds, trying to decide which ones looked like what animals, or whatever?  For me, a sure-fire way into hypnagogia is to do the same thing with the blackness in front of my closed eyes.  Look for the imperfections in the blackness.  What does that look like…?  What does that remind you of…?  Stir it a little bit, try to add an element, be a movie director…  I find that focusing on my sense of vision, while simultaneously depriving myself of visual input, is a great way of forcing entry into this state.  (This is similar to the idea behind a sensory deprivation tank, minus the auditory and tactile deprivation.)

Currently, I’m only a one-man study.  But I’m guessing that the combination of the above techniques will work for most people, to achieve a harvestable hypnagogic slideshow on a regular basis.

Needless to say, sometimes your hypnagogia will reveal to you nothing of consequence.

Sometimes it might be good, but you’ll forget it anyway.  After all, you’re falling asleep.

But remember, the little logical-you falls asleep first.

That pesky, dogmatic internal critic – who censors ideas he deems unfit for the waking world – falls asleep faster than your creative self.  And if you can catch him napping, you just might be able to smuggle some creative genius across the borders of sleep, back into reality.


1 Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to disable this feature in your brain’s Settings panel?

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