Over the last 100+ years, literary and technical professionals have talked about the diaphanous state between being awake and just drifting off to sleep….that gauzy, dream-like interval which experts call “hypnagogia.”
Creative icons like Thomas Edison, Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Walter Scott, Salvador Dalí, Edgar Allen Poe, John Kennedy, Nikola Tesla and Isaac Newton have credited hypnagogia and related states with enhancing their creativity. Even Aristotle talked about it.
Most people know that Edison was a cat napper, enjoying a nice, little “siesta” to recharge. Knowing about the hypnagogic state, Old Tom did what he did best, and started experimenting with it. His experiments went something like this:
- Sit in a chair and get comfortable and quiet
- Hold a steel ball in your hand
- Start sleeping, relax your grip and drop the ball onto a steel surface or plate
- Wake up and immediately record what you dreamed or experienced.
He claimed that these experiments, sometimes assisted by his staff, helped him develop some new ideas or work through existing problems.
If you look closely at the above statue of Edison at the Fort Myers winter residence in Florida, you will notice the steel ball in his left hand to acknowledge his experimentation with hypnagogia!
Each of us have experienced these near sleep episodes but may not have understood what they meant in the creative context. Leg “jerking” as one falls asleep is one common manifestation of hypnagogia; as is perhaps hearing one’s name called, a doorbell ringing, or sudden loud sounds. Some folks may experience a kind of paralysis or even some visual effects like a shifting series of colors. We all get affected differently.
The great chemist Kekule` had a hypnagogic vision of a snake swallowing its tail to arrive at the chemical representation of a new hydrocarbon. That vision resulted in the chemical representation of the ringed molecule benzene.