Creativity is unavoidably linked to a state called hypnagogia. Just like creativity, this altered state has various definitional theories and estimated casual attributions. However, in my own words, hypnagogia is a relaxed, meditative state that is usually associated with lighter stages of sleep; it is also the state of the mind and body right before succumbing to sleep. Furthermore, it has been greatly linked to meditation, as it is when the body and its external environment are forgotten, and attention is solely focused mentally.
Hypnagogia varies from person to person, from situation to situation, but is most often associated with certain bodily sensations and visual imagery. These phenomena include the feelings of floating, falling, or vibrating, and visuals usually consisting of geometric patterns and shapes. However, the phosphenes (in layman's terms, the appearance of light when there is none) can take the shape of very detailed images, even specific landscapes and faces. Sounds, though not the most common type of experience, are also frequently reported, in terms of buzzing, static, water, even voices, and music. As I stated previously, the sensations during hypnagogia are highly dependent on the person and context.
There are many theories as to the neurological basis of hypnagogia. An early explanation claimed that this state is the best example of auto-symbolism, which is when whatever we are thinking is converted into visual metaphor. Some psychologists note that the experienced hypnagogic imagery and sensations are less like that seen during REM sleep; instead, they have much more in common with states such as meditation, sensory deprivation, and the psychedelic effects from hallucinogenic substances. Some medical researchers suggest that the pineal gland releases an increased amount of DMT during hypnagogic states that is characterized by predominant theta brainwaves. (Theta waves are regularly associated with deep meditation, light sleep, and some REM sleep. It is interesting to note that research indicates that hypnagogia can be experienced during pre-alpha, alpha, and theta brainwave patterns.)
So where does creativity come in with all this? To bring this closer to home, think of all the times you have had a great idea or solution upon waking or just falling asleep. This was your hypnagogic state coming into play. Hundreds of famous creators have utilized the hypnagogic state, whether they used that specific term or not. Though creativity and hypnagogia related phenomena are hard to define, it is indisputable that creative breakthroughs can be created, fostered, and realized during hypnagogic states.
In class, we watched Steve Wozniak talk about how he had his eureka moment in conceptualizing the method of putting colors into computers. He had not slept for four days and four nights. Wozniak reported laying down, being incredibly relaxed, almost to the point of sleep, but not quite asleep yet. Suddenly he started visualizing dots in sequence moving across his closed eyes' perception. He immediately awoke with the beginning of his breakthrough in the color input of computers. This all came to him during the hypnagogic state after he had been contemplating how to accomplish such a seemingly impossible feat.
Another example touched upon in class was with the chemist August Kekulé. He was trying to understand the structure of the molecule benzene. He fell asleep in front of a fire and visualized a classic ouroboros as a series of molecules made out of snakes, each one swallowing the tail of the next snake. He suddenly knew (and could visualize) the previously unknown chemical structure of benzene.
Thomas Edison famously utilized a very specific technique when it came to his own creative process of problem solving. Whenever he was stumped on a particular problem, he would settle himself in a comfortable chair for his regular twenty minute naps. In front of him, he would have a pad of paper and pencil ready to jot down anything that came to mind. While napping, he would hold steel bearings, and on the ground, beneath his hands, were tin plates. As he began to slip into sleep, one or both of the bearings would slip out of his grip, clashing onto the tin plates, and fully waking Edison. It was in that period of being half-awake, half-asleep that countless new ideas and solutions came to him.
Salvador Dali used a similar method for new ideas that he called “slumber with a key.” Instead of steel bearings, he used a heavy key held in a suspended arm above a plate. He would start to fall asleep, and the key would fall onto the plate, rousing him. He would wake up with new images to illustrate and new ideas to convey. His use of the hypnagogic state is undoubtedly one of the reasons he has such vivid dream imagery in his art. He was in fact painting from his semi-conscious dreams!
As just shown, no matter the field or domain inhabited, any person can utilize hypnagogia in creative thinking and problem solving. Whether that person is an artist, chemist, inventor, engineer, or scientist does not matter.
But why is this so? According to the hypnagogic specialist Dr. Mavromatis, "most, if not all, of the conditions of creativity are present in hypnagogia." Another psychologist, Dr. Budzynski, wrote, "the Twilight State (i.e. hypnagogic state) is important because it represents a state of mind which facilitates creative associations and the assimilation of certain types of information, both verbal and imaginal, without the usual critical screening which is operative during the waking, fully conscious state."
By focusing attention inwards and letting go of external stimuli, the brainwaves within your head slow into the alpha-theta region (depending on your experience, practice, and present context). This allows creative thoughts, insights, and ideas to surface seemingly without effort. Self-induced hypnagogia is not only a possibility, it is attainable for everyone! However, since it may seem difficult to maintain this state without falling asleep (as it is basically putting your body to sleep, while retaining your mind's consciousness), some see it as an ungraspable task.
But it is entirely possible for every living person. Hypnagogia has already been present in many different mediums, whether it be lucid dreaming, yoga nidra, day dreaming, meditation, Buddhist practices, or sleeping/waking itself.
This is where our readings come in. My favorite was Kaufman and Beghetto's “Four C Model of Creativity,” and I think hypnagogia can play marvelously into that. Whether you are engaging in everyday creativity (little c), personal interpretation of experiences (mini c), professional creativity (Pro-c), or eminent creative accomplishments (Big C), hypnagogia can be an incredibly useful aid. Not only is it possible for all levels of C/c, it is already happening. Various artists, of all types of C/c, utilize hypnagogia whether they realize the phenomena or not. Plenty of past Big C creative geniuses already have (as I have previously shown). Even in little c or mini c, people utilize this state everyday. I myself have used it in different ways, and know many lucid dreamers and meditation practitioners who have as well.
Hypnagogia is not just an extremely interesting altered state; it is a process, idea, and discovery eternally tied to creativity and its catharsis.