How to Use Your Hypnagogic Sleep State for Creativity and Idea Generation

By on June 21, 2014

Many people are fascinated with their dreams, it’s a chance to explore the landscape of your mind in a detached way and to leave reality behind for an hour-or-so of pure weirdness. It’s like being in a particularly trippy-and-also-insightful computer game. Like one of my favourite games of all time in fact: NiGHTS Into Dreams.

creative hypnagogic state

But while dreams are fascinating, I’ve always been equally intrigued by the state just before we fall asleep and start dreaming. You know, the part where your thoughts start trailing off into nonsense and you catch yourself thinking something like ‘it’s high time I painted the rabbits’. Or maybe you’re just thinking about something so inane and random that you know you would never normally have those thoughts consciously.

The Creative Power of Hypnagogia

This is called Hypnagogia, and to many thinkers throughout history it has been an important tool for problem solving and creative thinking. Advocates for the use of hypnagogia include Edgar Allen Poe (Stallone’s personal hero!), Thomas Edison and Aristotle.

I’ve talked a little about the nature of creativity before, when I was reviewing the ‘smart drug’ Modafinil. In that video I talked about how being highly focused was actually a barrier preventing creativity. Many people report feeling ‘less creative’ on Modafinil and similar supplements that boost cognition and I can report similar effects myself. That because when we’re focussed and our brain is high in energy/full of adrenaline, we will get a ‘tunnel vision’ allowing us to concentrate hard on just one task.

When we relax however and let our mind’s ‘wander’, we stop focussing hard on one idea and instead just follow our neural networks around our brain… seeing what interesting connections we can find. As we get tireder we lose the energy required to focus and our brains start to wander, eventually leading to the sheer weirdness that is dreaming.

This is also why some people use alcohol for creativity. It’s why ambidexterity may aid creativity (because it strengthens communication between the hemispheres) and it’s even why some artists will use drugs like cannabis to be more creative (even though this can permanently damage your focus and drive). Meditation could also be useful, or even ‘holotropic breathing’ (hyperventilating to induce hallucinations… though I don’t recommend that one).

In a way there’s a trade off, you either get focus and productivity, or you get relaxation and creative ideas. This allows us to break outside some of our cognitive biases – such as functional fixedness – and to have more unique insights.

But you don’t have to start drugging yourself to experience either of these extremes, and if you can take advantage of that sweet spot right before you fall asleep, you can let your brain wander through its interconnected databases to find unique associations that might lead to new ideas.

Entering Hypnagogia – My Experiments and Advice

Apparently Thomas Edison used to use hypnagogia by taking power naps (which have many other benefits too – we’ll come back to these!), but while he dozed he would hold a steel ball in his hand over his lap. Once he reached that point where he started to drop off, he’d drop the ball in his lap and he’d wake up – only to immediately write down all the images and thoughts that had come to mind in that state.

I don’t have any steel balls (other than the ones in my boxers), so I at first planned on using a glass of water that would spill on my lap when I dozed off. Hannah, my fiance, was not happy with this idea, so instead I looked online and found an alternative – holding a spoon over a plate. The noise of the spoon dropping onto the plate should wake me up.

Unfortunately this didn’t work either, because I just couldn’t doze while holding a spoon in mid air. Ten minute alarms didn’t really do it either as I’d fall completely asleep or not doze at all before they went off…

What eventually did work for me was going to Center Parcs (itself something of a dream landscape) and then trying out the spa. Here they have a ‘meditation room’ in which you lie on stone slabs while listening to peaceful music. This was actually perfect as the environment lulled me to sleep, but the stone prevented me from falling completely into a slumber.

dream landscape

I have since tried by sleeping on my wooden floor, and that seems to do the trick too.

So what did I discover? What amazing ideas did I come away with?

Sadly nothing… I even set out with an objective in mind one of the times: to come up with an idea for a fitness app. Unfortunately all I ended up doing was thinking about matchboxes… such is the nature of the hypnagogic state that you can’t really control where your brain goes.

I’ve tried a few times and if I’m honest I’ve never come away with anything that useful. That’s a bit disappointing, but I just want to be honest with you here!

Perhaps Edison was just talking shit?

Saying you came up with an idea in your ‘hypnagogic sleep state’ is much cooler than saying ‘yeah I just thought of it’…

That’s not to say I think it’s a useless state. I think it would be more useful for artists perhaps, or even fiction writers. Likewise it’s definitely interesting and does give you a bit of an insight into the way your brain works…

My advice would be simply to see the value in these more relaxed states of consciousness, and to try being more aware of hypnagogia to see if anything useful does come from it. Since thinking more about this, I have found I’m more inclined to notice my own thoughts while drifting off to sleep which are generally entertaining. Perhaps something useful might come of them yet…?

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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