Consciousness and Hypnagogia: Part I

Copyright © Sirley Marques Bonham, PhD

When I was around 25 years old I had this sudden dream imagery of a warm red sun low in the sky while falling asleep late one evening. It was so surprising! I had never had that before. This amazing and beautiful imagery awoke me, as I was just falling asleep. So, I tried to remember what I was thinking about right before falling asleep.

The former afternoon and evening I had spent working at the 'Vale do Amanhecer' (Valley of Dawn), a spiritist community near Brasilia, Brazil, and as a result I was feeling light and at peace. So, before falling asleep, for no special reason, I began remembering the long bus drives I had to undergo between the satellite city where my parents lived in Brazil, called Taguatinga, and the university I attended at the main city of Brasilia, the Brazilian capital. Right before reaching Taguatinga from Brasilia, there was a long and somewhat steep hill the bus had to overcome. Usually it meant a slow and boring drive uphill. So, while the bus drove uphill, I used to entertain myself by staring at the sun blinking through the eucalyptus trees planted near the road. Somehow this blinking-sun view felt peaceful and relaxed me. That was the awake-imagery that I had been thinking about right before falling asleep, and unexpectedly my unconscious mind responded to this by producing the red-sun dream-image. It was quite different from the memory I had recalled, where the sun was bright, as in the dream the sun was as if filtered through a haze, making it look red.

This experience left me puzzled for many years, as none of what I knew about the mind then would explain the phenomenon. It would take about twenty years more, and many more varied 'sun-type dreamlets' for me to understand it.

The knowledge that I accumulated from my lifelong curiosity with the mind and spiritual phenomena, started first in my family's influences on this subject, mainly due to my father's affiliation with an eclectic Rosicrucian group. Later I also had influences from the cultural 'spiritistic' knowledge and practices ever present in Brazil. On the scientific side, I developed analytic and logical abilities from my scientific education as a physicist, and later as a neuroscientist. This cultural and educational influence, plus my efforts toward the practice of a specific method to develop awareness in dreams (lucid-dreams) and to achieve out-of-body experiences, have resulted in my somewhat comprehensive understanding of the many facets of the human experience through the mind.

The goal of this article is to review several phenomena that point to a form of communication between the two aspects of the human mind, the 'conscious' and the 'unconscious' parts. I demonstrate to the reader that, in fact, there are simple means of communication to and from the unconscious part of the mind. With the practice of certain methods and self-observation it is possible to build a relationship with our unconscious in both, the unconscious mind and the 'super-conscious' mind, or what I like to call the 'wise part' of the unconscious. But first let's review briefly a few important definitions and get acquainted with hypnagogia.

Consciousness and the Mind

Consciousness has been a term frequently used in present times. In short, consciousness is related to the functions of the mind. Mind, on the other hand, can be considered to be the result of the workings of the brain, and I believe the central nervous system (CNS), as well. The mind then, is composed of the systemic interconnections between the brain's neurons, as well as the various parts of the brain and nervous system, which results in our personality with all that entails in terms of behavior. In this context, the mind could be understood as a 'virtual human being.'

The mind is usually divided into two parts: the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. Historically, the concept of the unconscious was put forth by Freud in the nineteenth century, and who is considered the father of psychiatry. The conscious mind is presently understood as that part of the mind that directs the human being's actions, the part that defines the 'I'. At the same time, the conscious mind is typically not aware of the workings of the unconscious mind. Therefore, the unconscious mind is that part of the mind that is frequently not freely accessible to the conscious mind. We will see later that it is necessary to enter certain special states of attention to be aware of the unconscious mind's workings. Also, the unconscious is frequently divided into two main parts, the sub-conscious mind and the super-conscious mind, though this division is quite arbitrary.

What is Hypnagogia?

Hypnagogia is a generic label given to the sensorial perceptions that happens 'automatically' – meaning, without conscious control, while we are falling asleep, or while awakening from sleep. Hypnagogia may happen while a person is meditating, or anytime when conscious focused attention is relaxed. There are two types hypnagogia:

Hypnagogic – (or hypnogogic) the reverie or dream imagery that happens while falling asleep,

Hypnopompic – the reverie or dream imagery that happens while awakening from sleep.

The term hypnagogia was first suggested by Andreas Mavromatis in his PhD thesis in Psychology at Brunel University (UK), later published in book form with the title: Hypnagogia: The unique state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep, first published by Routledge in 1987. (It is now out of print since its last edition – 1991.) In a note at the front page of this book, the publisher remarks that '… This is the only work in English dealing with hypnagogia, …' a statement that I believe remains true. It is worth repeating here the remainder of this statement:

'Dr. Mavromatis argues that this common, naturally occurring state may not only be distinct from wakefulness and sleep but [is] unique in its nature and function, possibly carrying important evolutionary implications. He analyses the relationship between hypnagogia and others states, processes and experiences – such as sleep-dreams, meditation, psi, schizophrenia, creativity, hypnosis, hallucinogenic drug-induced states, eidetic phenomenena and epileptic states – and shows that, functioning in hypnagogia, a person may gain knowledge of aspects of his or her mental nature which constitute fundamental underpinnings to all adult thought. In addition, functioning in hypnagogia is known to play a significant part in mental and physical health.'

It is noteworthy that I only became aware of the subject is such a wide context by the late nineties, while Mavromatis had already surveyed and catalogued all the phenomena related to hypnagogia in the eighties. That's why I consider his work as fundamental and groundbreaking toward a unified understanding of the mind, even today.  

The Concept of Reverie Revisited

The word reverie comes from the French word 'rever' (to dream), and here it refers to the set of perceptual imageries we become involved with in the process of dreaming, and of hypnagogia. The perceptual imagery so formed tends to be ' automatic,' stemming from the unconscious processes of the mind.

Sometimes reverie may also be applied to mean the fantasies or imaginations a person experiences while awake. Even though waking fantasies are not the same as reveries as just defined, they may attract or induce hypnagogia, as the experience I described in the introduction demonstrates.

The importance of the role of imagination in visualization cannot be over emphasized. For example, in the healing therapies visualization takes an important role in both, the sick person and the healer.

Patricia Norris, in her book with Garret Porter: Why me? – Harnessing the Healing Power of the Human Spirit, explains:

Gradually, through a process of visualizations and imagery, a bridge is built between conscious and unconscious processes, which include cortical and subcortical processes, the conscious and “unconscious” portions of the brain. Evidence is mounting as to neurohumoral and biochemical mechanisms whereby this can take place.

With relation to terminology, she explains that … no uniform terminology exists … to distinguish between visualization and imagery … Visualization is the consciously chosen, intentional instruction to the body. Imagery is the spontaneously occurring “answer,” qualifier and modifier from the unconscious. Thus, a two-way communication is set up by the interplay of visualization and imagery.

The relationship between visualization and imagery can be thought of as a metaphor, as the relationship between a transmitter and a receiver. The visualization acts as a message to the unconscious, including the subcortical parts of the brain and particularly the limbic system, hypothalamus, and pituitary. The images are messages from the unconscious to consciousness, much as dreams are.

Patricia Norris emphasizes the use of visualization and imagery in a person's own process of healing. However, a gifted healer also uses the same process of visualization and imagery to heal, as for example in the case of the Daskalus, a healer from Cyprus wonderfully described by Kyriacos Markides in his book – The Magus of Strovolos: The extraordinary world of a spiritual healer. Visualization was one of Daskalos' exceptional skills, one that he also emphasized in the training of his apprentices. In his practice, visualization played a very important role in both, the diagnostics and the determination of the location of the disease, as well as in the healing process.

A Comment on the Term Hallucination

In the literature the term hallucination is frequently linked to the visions seen by the mentally ill. It is also linked to the hypnagogia we perceive while falling asleep or while awakening, which is then called hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations. However, I consider that the term hallucination is more aptly linked only to the (supposedly) pathological imagery a person may see – visions of non-existing events or persons.

It is important to note that, in spite of present conventional wisdom, visions may be just a healthy phenomenon of perception, a form of communication from the unconscious, or possibly a real extra-sensorial-perception of an event happening beyond the physical world. However, many times if people who have visions visit a psychologist or psychiatrist, they may be diagnosed as mentally disturbed. This is an issue that needs to be seriously investigated starting with the visions mentally ill people tend to develop. An example of this type of investigation is Wilson Van Dusen's informal research with his mentally ill patients. Van Dusen's research, together with his studies on Emmanuel Swedenborg's work, changed his understanding of the many forms of mental disease.

While treating mentally ill patients who hallucinated, and with the collaboration of the patients, Van Dusen could talk with their hallucinated persons. He notes that the hallucinated person he communicated with through a patient usually had a completely different personality than the patient's. Also, he observed that these hallucinated persons had levels of psychological development that varied from the patient's. The more advanced hallucinated persons frequently showed wisdom, while the low level ones were frequently of an irrational type. See also the work by Adam Crabtree, Multiple Man: Explorations in possession and multiple personality, for a thorough review of the similarities and differences between possession and the psychological phenomenon of multiple personality.

In Brazil the spiritist practitioners have unofficially treated many forms of mental disturbances on the premise that they occur due to the influence of discarnate beings. This is also known as possession. However, I also have personally known of at least one case where treatment through the spiritist methods did not work, while medical methods did. Therefore, this indicates that studies on the issue of mental problems should be addressed with both, scientific and spiritual methods.

The Yoga's methods of spiritual development where there is the opening of the 'third eye' – or the Ajna chackra – are also a worthy consideration on the subject of visions. In fact, the whole subject of Yoga that deals with chackras may relate to different supposedly aberrant perceptions.

Objectives of the Present Article

Having reviewed some relevant definition, what I intend to establish for the remainder for the paper is:

1. I suggest that hypnagogia is the shortest path for communication from our unconscious.

2. I will review the several facts and examples that show the way we receive messages from the unconscious.

3. I will then suggest possible two-way means of communication with the unconscious.

Let's begin with a list of facts or situations that support these propositions:

  • Meditation may bring up reveries or perceptions that appear naturally.
  • 'Energetic' (Kundalini) phenomena are notorious in producing visions.
  • Remote-Viewing sessions may take us to hypnagogia.
  • Alpha-Theta training, from neurofeedback or biofeedback technologies, produce hypnagogia.
  • Hallucinogenic drugs, an ancient shamanic 'technology,' produce visions, or hypnagogia.
  • Hypnotic trances, through 'magnetic somnambulism', may cause hypnotic reveries or hallucinations.
  • Dreams are our natural way to have automatic imagery.
  • Hypnogogic and hypnopompic reveries, by themselves, while falling asleep and awakening, are used by lucid-dreamers and who practice out-of-body experiences.

In the following I will review these situations, in short. I am leaving dreams and the two types of hypnagogia for the last, simply because they are the ones I have the most experience with, and because they are the most accessible means of obtaining messages from the unconscious.

About The Author

About The Author

Rebecca Casale is a lucid dreamer and a science writer with a special interest in biology and the brain. She is the founder of World of Lucid Dreaming and Science Me.