Friday, November 30, 2007

Hypnopompia, or, How I Learnt to Stop Belittling True Believers and Love Skepticism

I recently had a very vivid hypnopompic hallucination, what follows is my account of it. This post is something of a departure from the usual theme and tone of this blog, but since I plan to do some research into hypnopompia and hypnogogia early next year (probably with accompanying blog entries), I figured I’d write out my experience before I forget too many details.

Hypnogogia and hypnopompia are hallucinations that occur as you’re falling asleep or waking up, respectively, and are accompanied by sleep paralysis. In other words, they’re hallucinations that occur between sleep and wakefulness (or vice versa) and, while you’re hallucinating, you can’t move because you’re paralyzed. While sleep paralysis is entirely desirable while you’re asleep (acting out dreams isn’t good for one’s health I’m guessing), it is possible to be semi-awake and mostly aware of your surroundings while still paralyzed. Surprisingly, sleep paralysis is quite common (about 25-40% of people report experiencing it) and, although incidence seems to vary across cultures, it’s found worldwide (Cheyne, Rueffer, & Newby-Clark, 1999). Importantly, sleep paralysis is not always accompanied by hallucinations, about 30% of respondents in one survey said they had experienced sleep paralysis without hallucinations. Indeed, I’ve experienced sleep paralysis (sans hallucinations) probably half a dozen times or so and was never bothered by them much. (On one occasion I got rather frustrated though – I was awake and kept trying and trying to move but couldn’t. In retrospect, I’m a bit perplexed why it didn’t bother me more).

Around 3 a.m. on November 23rd, I woke up and heard my sister Liana’s voice. At first I thought I was back in Chester House in Cape Town (where I lived with Liana for ~ 2 years, in a bachelor’s flat) but then the voice started angrily lecturing me and telling me details of the dream I just had. (Probably due to sleep inertia, I don't now remember what I dreamt, but I distinctly recall the voice referring to minute details of my dream). This went on for about 5 minutes and as I slowly became aware of where I was - about 1,500km away from where Liana lives - I realized the voice was disembodied and became more and more frightened. I must emphasize, in fact, that the word “frightening” doesn’t come near to doing justice to the feeling. It was numbingly scary, petrifying, bloodcurdlingly terrifying.

And this, remember, was my sister’s voice — not something I’m scared of under normal conditions. Other people who have these hallucinations report not only hearing things, but experience visual, tactile and proprioceptive hallucinations. They report seeing old hags, demons, aliens, ghosts or other malevolent beings or report experiencing floating or falling sensations and so on. The fact that I just heard my sister's voice makes me suspect I had a fairly mild hallucination; I can only imagine how much more frightening it must be to see, say, an alien next to your bed while you're supine and paralyzed.

That brings me to my subtitle: "How I Learnt to Stop Belittling True Believers and Love Skepticism". For me, having this experience has really driven home the argument, made most forcefully by Carl Sagan and Joe Nickell, that it's a false dichotomy to think people who have paranormal experiences are either lying or crazy. There's a third alternative: they're having genuine experiences but then interpret the experiences incorrectly. That is, people really do experience what looks for all the world like an alien standing over their bed — but it's not really an alien, it's a phantom in the brain. And that's why I've learnt to love skepticism (even more): as soon as I woke up and got over my sleep inertia, I realized what had happened and was no longer afraid. My sister was due to give birth, so she was in my thoughts; I knew what sleep paralysis was, having experienced it before, and I knew about hypnopompic and hypnogogic hallucinations from The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. (Thanks guys). So as soon as I thought about it clearly, I knew what had happened, could place my experience in perspective and I was thus saved from further negative emotions and a silly ontology.

My experience also made me realize just how compelling seemingly paranormal experiences can be. It's completely understandable that someone who regularly has hypnogogic hallucinations, lacks training in skeptical or critical thinking, knows nothing about neuroscience, and who is immersed in a popular culture full of references to paranormal entities will interpret such experiences as genuinely paranormal events. Belittling the experiences of the true believers in the paranormal, I now believe, is not appropriate — they deserve our sympathy, not our ridicule.

Cheyne, J. A., Rueffer, S. D., and Newby-Clark, I. R. (1999) “Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations during Sleep Paralysis: Neurological and Cultural Construction of the Night-Mare,” Consciousness and Cognition, 8: 319–337


  1. A few years back I had a dream that I was in my parents' house and saw a great shining ark (like Noah's ark), and had a "prophecy" that my brother was going to die.

    I woke up terrified and almost called my parents to check that everything was okay. After a few minutes I came to my senses and realised it was just a dream, although to this day it's the most "intense" (for want of a better word) dream I've ever had.

    Suffice to say that nothing happened to my brother, although at the time he was having some problems with drugs, which might have been the cause of the dream.

    However, it does give me some insight into religious thinking. The dream itself had a very "religious" theme to it. I didn't grow up in a religious environment (except years of school assemblies which I just found boring), but I do wonder is how I might have interpreted this experience if I was religious. It's quite easy for me to see how an experience like this could be interpreted by a religious person as direct "confirmation" of their beliefs. Although only a dream, the experience was terrifying and vivid.

  2. This is hardly the level of what you experienced, but I woke up one night at my parents' house convinced that there was a cat on my chest. Now waking up with a cat on my chest was nothing unusual at the time as I have lived with cats most of my life, and my cat of that period liked to sleep on my chest, (or worse, my belly when I had a full bladder; he was talented that way) but... I was visiting for the holidays, and there was no cat in my parents' house at the time.

  3. Reminds of the time I dreamnt that my school's guidance counselor was going to rape me, and he was so strong that I simply could not fight back (in reality, he is easily less than half my size).

    About half way through the ordeal, I realized that I was dreaming it, but instead of feeling releived, I just desperately tried to overcome the sleep paralysis I knew I was experiencing because I wanted to wake up and end the nightmare.

    Freud would have a field day with that one...

  4. Hi Simon, rhoadan and valhar2000... thanks for your comments & for sharing your accounts. I really do think that the prevalence of these experiences explains a big chunk of the paranormal. And, as your accounts also testify, these hallucinations can be very "real" and extremely emotionally charged for those who experience them. All skeptics should have a hypnopompic or hypnogogic hallucination just once, to place the experiences of others into perspective.

  5. I am so glad to have found this. I have been experiencing hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations for over 3 years now and until today had never known there was a term for it. I had thought I was either going crazy or being haunted. People that I talked to about this always said I was just dreaming. I knew I wasn't, but I also knew I wasn't fully awake. I am not sure if I had sleep paralysis as much as I couldn't move due to utter fear. The hypnopompic hallucinations started when I moved to my grandmothers house to take care of her in 2005. Her house was built in 1909. I would frequently (3-4 times a month)"wake" and everything around me like, my bed and the room would be as it should be but i would see things like bugs coming out of the ceiling or ladders falling towards me. Somehow I knew if I could just reach over and turn off my light, it would go away, which ALWAYS worked. In summer 2007 I moved and got married. I just knew the, as I called them, hallucinagenic dreams, would go away, because truthfully, I thought they were caused by spirits in the old house. Well, I was wrong, although the "dreams" changed in what they consisted of. Now, I will wake up and be in my bed, with my husband next to me, and something will just be off in the room. Something that shouldn't be there, or some feeling like a disturbing presence in the room. I am now pregnant and don't get much sleep at a time, and I tend to have these "dreams" much more frequently. After I get over the total fear, I know I just have to push on my husband and wake him up and they go away. The hypnagogic hallucinations have been going on lots longer but they are not nearly as frequent. When I was much younger I used to hear my mom call out my name right when I was going to sleep. It would jar me quite awake. Now when that happened to me AFTER I moved out of her house, I freaked out. Anyway, I am so glad to know that I am not the only one out there to experience this (even though I know none of it is EVER pleasant)it makes me feel better to know there is a real name and I am not crazy.

  6. Hi Daco... I'm very glad my humble entry helped you a bit. I just want to emphasize two points: (1) no, you're most certainly NOT crazy - a large proportion of people have these hallucinations, they're pretty "normal". And (2) I think it's safe to say that we can be pretty sure nothing paranormal is going on. Hypnopompia/hypnogogia are simply quirks of the brain - there's no need to invoke spirits or ghosts or anything else.

  7. Thanks for posting your experience and all the links. I've had hypnogogic/hypnopompic hallucinations since I was a teenager--mostly visual, sometimes auditory, they have easily been the most terrifying experiences I've ever had--and I only slowly pieced together the facts about what was happening. Although my initial gut interpretations, before I learned what was going on, ran more toward the psychological/moral (guilt, God was punishing me for something--this is back when I was going to church), I've long been intrigued by the connection between these hallucinations and people's experiences of the paranormal, aliens, etc. You're absolutely right, you don't have to be insane to misunderstand these things. Knowing more about what's going on seems like a powerful way to counteract the common misinterpretations. So how's the research going?

  8. does anyone ever get mixed up words right as they awake or think harmful words like kill them this only happpens when i awake now but i have the fear im going even crazier or gonna harm someone?

  9. My husband says I say VERY jumbled stuff sometimes. He ALWAYS knows when I truly wake up from one of these and sometimes, I say things to him. He told me JUST 2 days ago that I had the look and jerky movements that he thought I was trying to kill something. In fact what I was seeing was something above HIM and was trying to move him out of the way. It generally takes me a long time to get out of the sleep paralysis but in most cases now I can do it. It has been over 2 years since I first posted on this site and I thought I could share some experience from having these so frequently. After I had my last son these hypnapompic hallucinations got REALLY bad. I started having them multiple times a week. I have never seen aliens or demons. I usually see bugs. The worst one I ever saw was of my husband leaning over me when I could also see him sleeping right beside me. He was the "evil" john and he was trying to get into the real john. I also constantly wake up hearing TV's or alarms going off that really aren't. I spoke with a professional about these. I started taking Melatonin and Valarien Root at night and I try to read instead of watch tv before i go to sleep. I also started walking in the evenings after dinner. I wish I could say ANY of this has helped but truthfully it only worked for a few months and they never stopped I just had fewer of them. What I can say is I have found a way to make myself feel better about having these. My BIGGEST thing I ALWAYS tried to do from the start of my having these is to find a way to get out of the dream/hallucination. Now when I have a dream, and this has taken years for me to accomplish, I first have to realize that I am "having one of my things" as my husband likes to call it. Then, I try to focus on what is really going on. Next I always try to just will my mind to make everything go away (sometimes this actually works, it just depends.) Then I try to move or speak. If John wakes up to me trying to do this, and if I am lucid enough, I try to tell him what I am seeing (depending on what state I am in, this sometimes comes out very jumbled, but it also sometimes comes out very detailed.) If John doesn't wake up, I try to wake him up if I can physically do so so I can try to tell him what I am seeing. None of these things happens every time, but I have actually gotten pretty good at it. I am really trying hard to train my own mind to fight these hallucinations off so I can control the situation. I truly hope this helps someone and if anyone has any tips of your own for me, PLEASE feel free.

  10. I've only had two instances of sleep paralysis/hypnopompic hallucinations; the first occurred at about 1AM one night as a freight train blew past my apartment. I was jolted awake by the freight train and lifted my head so see a young girl, probably 8 years old dressed in a white frilly gown (typical horror/ghost type image) walking along the end of my bed. The hallucination lasted only about 3-5 seconds, all the while I was frozen with fear, or so I thought, and I didn't even realise I was paralysed. The second time was last week when I was babysitting a friends pet bird. I woke up suddenly once again and looked over at my partner sleeping next to me with her arm up next to her head - only the very bird I was looking after was sitting there on her arm looking at me. I had no idea it was a hallucination. After the split second I took me to look at, recognise, and react to the bird being there and getting annoyed and wondering how it was out of its cage, I went started to move to grab it and take it back to it's cage -- the very moment I moved it *POP* ceased to exist.

    Thinking on it now and reading others accounts... I think this has been going on for much longer. One night I awoke multiple times because my phone was vibrating on my computer desk in my room. The only problem was, when I got up to go and turn it off... my phone wasn't there. Then I realised it was on my bedside table and turned off, just where I had put it before going to sleep. I went back to bed and not long after, I awoke again to the sound of my phone vibrating on my computer desk. I thought nothing of it at the time...

    The most frightening thing about this for me is the fact that on each account I wholeheartedly believed what I was experiencing was reality with the only clear indicator that these things were in fact hallucinations being that they couldn't possibly be real.

  11. Growing up I always had very peculiar experiences while sleeping. I would have out of body experiences regularly, lucid dreams and experienced sleep paralysis on a daily basis. I actually enjoyed it and often looked forward to sleeping because I could literally force myself back into a previous dream and it was like watching a movie over the course of 3-4 days. Honestly, I didn't know that this was abnormal until I got older somewhere around around 11-13 years old I realized that not everyone could do these things. Sometime in my teens I stopped experiencing any of these things I assume do to sleep deprivation, being put on some meds and general anxiety. But recently I have started having hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations all the time I wake up several times a night from them and I am often very afraid because I live in a big house set back in the woods with no neighbors and my husband works overnights so I often can't tell if I hallucinated or heard a noise

  12. Cont'd: I will wake up hearing a car driving on my driveway, I have a gravel driveway and the noise is quite unique and when I hear it, the noise is very vivid as if I am near an open window. I know in my mind when I hear these things that I am just waking up possibly from a dream or something and that is just how my body adjusts, but it is really stating to scare me. I haven't been on any meds in about four years and feel o symptoms of a psychological disorder other than these hallucinations accompanied with anxiety. I do not have anxiety during the day. I do not know if this is just a normal experience or if I should go see a doctor. If I do go to a doctor I feel like they will just put me on sleeping pills which I don't want because I have kids at home and need o be able to wake up in case something were to ever happen. Any advice? Or common experiences, what did you do about it?