In this post we look at hypnagogia—the vivid imagery perceived in the state between waking and sleeping, from the perspectives of magic as well as brain science. I need to make a disclaimer first—I am not a brain scientist but a mere practitioner of the magical arts! Science, in my opinion provides amazing insights into the workings of the brain, but has by no means solved the age-old problem of the origin of consciousness. The conventional neurological theory that consciousness is produced in the brain as the result of electro-chemical processes strikes me as reductionistic and counter-intuitive, and based on an outmoded 19th century materialistic paradigm. It contradicts widely experienced phenomena such as telepathy, out-of-body and near-death-experiences, ghosts, spirits and other weird inexplicable “things that go bump in night”. Rather, I see the brain as the mechanism that focuses consciousness which is a non-local phenomenon that transcends the physical body and ordinary senses. Rant fininshed, let’s move on to the subject of hypnagogia, because it sheds light on the visions experienced by shamans, mystics and magicians.
Using a multi-disciplinary approach combining neurology, psychology, and clinical studies, the state between waking and sleep—known as “hypnagogia”—is being explored by science. The term was coined by the nineteenth century psychologist Alfred Maury who derived it from the Greek–hypnos (sleep) and agogeus (guide). Dr. Andreas Mavromatis, who in my opinion is one of the more open-minded scientists based on his willingness to study psychic phenomena, has extensively researched hynagogia. He links it to dreams, daydreams, schizophrenia, meditation and creativity—as well as mystical and paranormal experiences such as psi and telepathy.
In fact the hypnagogic state of being “awake while dreaming” has been known to mystics for ages, mentioned by the Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblichus who wrote of “voices” and “bright and tranquil light” that came to him in the condition between sleeping and waking” believing they were a “god-sent” experience. The 18th century visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg wrote about his hypnagogic visions while awaking from sleep. Artists have used hypnagogia to explore imagination and enhance creativity. The surrealist painter Rene Magritte referred to his paintings as “the representations of half sleep”. Salvador Dali harnessed hynagogia for artistic inspiration. He trained himself to doze in a chair, resting his chin in spoon, with arm was propped on a table; when his muscles relaxed on the verge of falling asleep his chin would drop causing him to awaken–often in the midst of a hynagogic dream or vision, which he would then proceed to paint.
Mavromatis theorizes that hypnagogic phenomena arise from all three parts of the brain: the central core (reptilian brain), the limbic system (mammalian brain), and the cerebral cortex (neomammalian brain). What is “conscious” and “logical” to one brain may be “unconscious” to another—explaining the surreal quality of hypnagogic experiences which may be the result of what he terms “old brain” activity. He writes that hynagogia is brought about by the activation of the thalamus and other old brain structures which cause the cortex to “idle” as at the brink of sleep, where a minimum of cortex activity occurs. Cortical brain activity is associated with the “new brain” and our conscious ego. Its inhibition allows for the activation of the “old brain”—the brainstem core, the hippocampus, medulla oblongata and thalamas—which operate through imagery and symbols associated with mythological consciousness. Gary Lachman perceptively writes that the “new brain” shuts down enough for the old brain to “turn on”—staying on just enough to observe the old brain’s consciousness. He states that in hypnagogia “one brain watches another”.
Hypnagogia is characterized by physiological responses such as relaxation and reduced respiration, leading to increased carbon dioxide in the blood, similar to the state achieved in meditation, according to Mavromatis. He also points out that hynagogia activates the pineal gland in the thalamus located in the area known as the “third eye”—associated with spiritual visions and enlightenment, and described as “the seat of the soul”. The pineal gland is the only organ in the body which produces the hormone of melatonin; this in turn affects the synthesis and release of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain which have a tranquilizing effect on the central nervous system. Interestingly, melatonin is thought to increase with meditation exercises such as relaxation and visualization which are related to hypnagogia.
Mavromatis believes that from an evolutionary perspective, hypnagogia may offer new potentials such as being able to retain consciousness of one’s surroundings while sleeping or exploring the internal world. It could provide the ability to dream without losing consciousness—the same state that yogi’s aspire to when learning to acquire continuity of consciousness unaffected by sleep. He sees hypnagogia as a state in which “rationality and nonrationality are brought to a synergetic relationship”, which could be explored to enhance artistic and scientific insights, awareness of dreams, psychic development, and personal problem solving. Ultimately the hypnagogic state enhances the integration of the unconscious and conscious mind and can be used to access visionary states of consciousness.
So what is the relevance of hypnagogia for the practicing shaman or magician? Magical techniques such as “scrying” rely heavily on its use. The word scry derives from the Middle English word meaning to “see something unclear or distant” and the practice is used for inducing visions and divination. Ancient Egyptian, Babylonian and Jewish magicians practiced scrying using bowls of water, oil, as well as lamp flames. Central Asian shamans gazed into crystals and circular metal toli mirrors—to practice scrying, clairvoyance, and induce visionary journeys. In the Renaissance era the preferred medium for scrying was the crystal ball or mirror. Several of the most prominent magicians of the period used crystal gazing to establish contact with angels and other spirits of the otherworld, such as the Elizabethan mage Dr. John Dee who worked with his clairvoyant partner Edward Kelly, scrying into various crystals as well as an obsidian mirror.
The art of scrying is practiced by staring into a luminous, reflective, or translucent surface or focal point until hypnagogic visions are seen on its surface or in the “mind’s eye”. One begins by gazing into a scrying medium–such as a mirror or crystal–and waits until colored clouds or mist appears on the surface, eventually forming into recognizable shapes or symbols which can then be interpreted for their divinatory meanings. Scrying is easier said than done, and can take a fair amount of practice, depending on one’s natural ability, though like any skill it improves with use.
Other visionary techniques such as Jungian active imagination, pathworking and shamanic journeying also involve hypnagogia in the sense that one’s conscious self observes the spontaneous arising of unconscious imagery during the process. In hypnagogia “one brain watches the other”–often leading to surprising insights and realizations that cannot be obtained through conscious thought alone.