On Hypnagogia

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Talking of not romanticising creativity makes me want to celebrate Sally Swain...Talking of not romanticising creativity makes me want to celebrate Sally Swain...Just sharing with you a nice penny-drop moment I had earlier in the year when a friend shared a short article on hypnagogia. No, I didn’t know the word previously either, but I was delighted to learn it, as when something has a word you know that other people share the experience of it too.

I had long been a bit perplexed that, whilst the standard descriptions of sleep phases placed REM sleep in the depths of the night, preceded and followed by deeper phases of sleep, I frequently experience involuntary rapid eye movements right at the edge of sleep - as I doze off or while waking up. This is sometimes, though not always, accompanied by light dreaming - and I can often wake myself up by being surprised at the dream images. Now I know this state is called hypnagogia, I can stop being perplexed by it.

Now, if you click through to the article, you’ll also find it getting all excited about the relationship of hypnagogia and creativity. You can kind of tell they’re going to mystify it all by the picture they use to illustrate it, and in quoting Dali they’re kind of implying that his surrealist images are a direct representation of his internal dreamscape on the edge of sleep. Which I guess they may have been, but that doesn’t mean you can use hypnagogia to ‘explain’ the surrealist aesthetic; artists in other times and places also have human brains. I expect Michelangelo had some useful creative snoozes too, but you don’t see time-pieces melting off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But the point about it being an imaginatively productive state is still useful. I do a lot of arranging on the edge of sleep, and also writing. And even though I may dip in and out of dreams while doing so, I find the problems I solve in this only intermittently-rational state stay solved when I get back to work the next day. There is certainly something useful going on here, probably to do with relaxation of the brain’s executive functions, allowing the mind to freewheel, trying this, trying that, without the inhibition of excessive self-monitoring. (And just as I was developing these thoughts, another friend shared an article about the neurology of musical improvisation, which held some interesting comparisons.)

But I don’t think you have to romanticise ‘creativity’ to acknowledge this process. For sure, the two examples I cited of useful work I do in a hypnagogic state are in the disciplines often stereotyped as ‘creative’, although the nature of the work I grapple with in that state may be the nitty-gritty of technical detail. Other things I get done include workshop-planning (is education a ‘creative industry?’), menu-planning and financial planning. I am sure that engineers, computer programmers and gardeners would have equally fruitful naps.

Though it does occur to me that one thing people in the so-called creative industries have probably in greater abundance than those in STEM disciplines is the freedom to float in hypnagogia. If you have to leave your home and go to a place of work for fixed hours each day, you are probably torn from your sleep each morning by an alarm clock, and bumped into the day. The delicious cogitative bliss of waking up slowly gets pushed to the weekends. Likewise, if you’re stuck at work and really need to have a bit of down-time to process the detail in a state of quiet somnolence, there isn’t usually the opportunity to go and take a nap to think about it. At least, that was my experience of full-time employment.

The discipline of BICHOK (Bum In Chair, Hands On Keyboard) time is essential to getting creative work done. But equally, the brain needs processing time, opportunities to ruminate and experiment. You can have different thoughts out on a walk from those you can have in the shower or over a cup of tea. And now I know the word hypnagogia I can validate my propensity for taking naps as a sign that I’m working well.

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