Notes on Hypnogogic Imagery

Keith Basterfield
Magonia 22, May 1986

The hypnagogic state, on the awake/sleep interface, has received scant attention from professionals. The most detailed review of the state, conducted by Schacter (1976) noted that "There are no standard experimental procedures, comprehensive theoretical systems or well-know empirical controversies" (p.152). Holt (1964.), Hebb (1968) and Tart (1969) all noted the lack of discussion in the psychological literature on the subject.

Likewise, writers on the paranormal do not seem to have paid much attention to the scattered accounts which perhaps indicate a relationship between the two topics. Monroe (1974.), and American businessman, writing of methods of entering his numerous out-of-body experiences (OBEs), related that the 'borderland' sleep state was "perhaps the easiest and most natural method ..."(p200) Carrington, a world renowned psychic researcher, co-authored a work with another prolific experiencer of OBEs, Muldoon. In this book they wrote that. "In other words, most projections will be more succesfulconsciously if they begin in the hypnogogic state, when coming out of sleep." (Muldoon and Carrington, 1968, p.70)

Psychologist Palmer (1978) in an indepth article on OBEs suggested that the OBE almost always occurs in the hypnogogic state. The experience going under the title of an incubus attack, the sensation of lying paralysed whilst an invisible entity presses on your chest, has been ably explored by Hufford (1982) who spent ten years gathering first-hand reports of such events. He found that: "The state in which this experience occurs is probably best described as sleep paralysis with a particular kind of hypnogogic hallucination (p.246)

Another psychologist, Gooch (1984) in explonng the theme that we haunt ourselves also came across people who reported having been set upon by invisible entities. One of his subjects was experimenting with the hypnagogic state when, " ... I was seized from behind by a man-like entity," the adventures with which are related in Gooch's book. (pp.19-22)

Twentieth century people also report imagery that
could well provide subject matter for
beliefs in witches and frightening supernatural beings

"The history of hynagogic images, interpreted supernaturally as 'visions', 'omens' and precognition, rather than naturalistically, is probably a long one", wrote McKellar and Simpson as long ago as 1954.

Again McKellar (1972) commented "Interesting is the fact that contemporary twentieth century people also report imagery that could well provide subject matter for beliefs in witches and frightening supernatural beings." (p.45) "Out of the Body Experiences almost always occur in the hypnogogic state."

So, a number of people have related var ious aspects from under the paranormal umbrella, to the hypnagogic state. Just what IS this state? It is an altered state of consciousness and is found on the awake/asleep Interface, particular ly when falling asleep. As one relaxes, lying down with eyes closed, a region of consciousness is entered where visual, auditory and even tactile and olfactory Imagery can occur. The contents of these Images may be of the events of the day or contain bizarre elements. Little control is available to the percipient of its appearance, departure or content, which can be frightening to the viewer.

The imagery ranges from simple patterns of coloured light to complex, integrated scenes. Objects perceived may seem strange, appear to be viewed from an unusual angle, or have extreme clarity of detail. One may imagine that with these combinations, some extremelt bizarre accounts can be generated. Commonly experienced hypnagogic imagery is that of seeing 'faces' in the dark or of hearing one's name called. The area presents much potential for research, and the purpose of this article is to draw researchers' attention to this little studied state.


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HOLT, R.R. 'Imagery: return of the ostracised. American Psych. 1964, 19: 254-266
HUFFORD, D. The Terror that Comes in the Night. University of Pennsylvania Press.
McKELLAR P. and Simpson, L. Between wakefulness and sleep: hypnagogic imagery. British Journal of Psychology 1954,45: 266-276
MONROE, R. A. Journeys out of the Body. London, Corgi, 1974.
MULDOON, S. &. Carrington, H. The Projection of the Astral Body. London, Rider, 1968
PALMER, J. 'The out of body experience: a psychological theory'. Parapsychological Review. 1978,9:19-22
SCHACTER, D. L. 'The hypnagogic state: a critical review of the literature'. Psychology Bulletin 1976, 83(3):452-481
TART, C. Altered States of Consciousness. N.Y., Anchor.