Tuesday, January 13, 2009


The NYT op-ed columnist David Brooks writes in his latest piece, "In Defense of Death," about prominent religious leader Richard Neuhaus and how he "used death to mystify life". What struck me is that Neuhaus seems to have had a hypnogogic hallucination, which he then misinterpreted as a message from beyond. Here's Neuhaus' description of the event, in full.

It was a couple of days after leaving intensive care, and it was night. I could hear patients in adjoining rooms moaning and mumbling and occasionally calling out; the surrounding medical machines were pumping and sucking and bleeping as usual. Then, all of a sudden, I was jerked into an utterly lucid state of awareness. I was sitting up in the bed staring intently into the darkness, although in fact I knew my body was lying flat. What I was staring at was a color like blue and purple, and vaguely in the form of hanging drapery. By the drapery were two “presences.” I saw them and yet did not see them, and I cannot explain that. But they were there, and I knew that I was not tied to the bed. I was able and prepared to get up and go somewhere. And then the presences—one or both of them, I do not know—spoke. This I heard clearly. Not in an ordinary way, for I cannot remember anything about the voice. But the message was beyond mistaking: “Everything is ready now.”

That was it. They waited for a while, maybe for a minute. Whether they were waiting for a response or just waiting to see whether I had received the message, I don’t know. “Everything is ready now.” It was not in the form of a command, nor was it an invitation to do anything. They were just letting me know. Then they were gone, and I was again flat on my back with my mind racing wildly. I had an iron resolve to determine right then and there what had happened. Had I been dreaming? In no way. I was then and was now as lucid and wide awake as I had ever been in my life.

This is classic hypogogia: it was night, so Neuhaus was quite possibly falling asleep or waking up as he had the experience, he was awake and lucid (but stationary), he experienced a proprioperceptory illusion (thinking he was upright when he wasn't), and there are ill-defined "presences" in the room. Neuhaus then simply interpreted his experience in the light of his pre-existing Christian beliefs.

In one of the very first posts on the blog, I wrote about how compelling an illusion like this can be and how we should take the experiences seriously and not belittle those who have them. Nonetheless, the interpretation of any such experience is a matter for science and, in this case, it seems clear hypnogogia is a far better explanation than visiting spooks.


  1. Ah. Thanks for identifying the word "hypnogogia", Micheal. Although I knew there was a word that described the kind of illusion, I just couldn't remember it!

    I wonder if there is a related word for auditory hallucinations - like when I wake up in the middle of the night, and swear I had heard music that woke me up; yet I know that it is just my mind making patterns out of the white noise provided by the fan and/or air conditioner :)

  2. No problem... :-)

    There are numerous auditory illusions, but that sounds like auditory pareidolia.

  3. It's hypnagogia with an 'a' and this is far from a 'classic' hypnagogic hallucination. The feeling of lucidity and the sense that he has the ability to move are not in any sense classic.