What is the Hypnagogic State?
The Hypnagogic State refers to a mental phenomenon occurring on the “threshold of consciousness” during the onset of sleep whereby lucid thought, lucid dreaming, and hypnagogic hallucinations can occur. The word is derived from the Greek hypnos – meaning sleep – and agogeus – meaning guide. Think of it as the “half-sleep” state, either immediately before or after falling asleep. Some people call this a “Lucid State” or “Wake Dreaming.”
Why does Hypnagogia Happen? What is Hypnagogia like?
When you are awake, your brain operates on alpha and beta waves for sensory processing and experience. However, as you fall asleep those waves begin to shift to delta and theta waves indicative of deeper sleep and dreaming. In the transition between waking and sleeping, you lose sensory perception and begin to hallucinate. Conceptual boundaries can be blurred or lost. The transition is also marked by reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex – the planning center of the brain responsible for decision-making and social behavior. This has been likened to the experience one has in a sensory deprivation tank.
Dr. Milena Pavlova, a neurologist and sleep-expert, says that “you wind up in the state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, and you experience some phenomena of sleep while you are still able to be awake and remember them.”  Sounds good? When this state is purposefully induced it can be very beneficial for spurring creativity; however, since this state is typically accompanied by visual imagery (think, Dali’s Dream Caused by the Flight a Bee (Around a Pomegranate, a Second Before Waking), the hypnagogic hallucinations can be disturbing, especially when not occurring on purpose.
Why use the Hypnagogic State for Creativity?
Some of history’s great thinkers purposefully induced hypnagogia to generate ideas and foster creativity. Notable proponents included: Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Salvador Dali, and Mark Twain, among many others.
In 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, Salvador Dali wrote on hypnagogia, “You must resolve the problem of ‘sleeping without sleeping,’ which is the essence of the dialectics of the dream, since it is a repose which walks in equilibrium on the taut and invisible wire which separates sleeping from waking.”
How to Use the Hypnagogic State for Creativity and Invention
For those that want to try to induce hypnagogia, there are several methods. Salvador Dali was known to practice it by resting his chin on a spoon upright on a table. When he began to fall asleep, his chin would drop and he would awaken. Similarly, Thomas Edison was known induce hypnagogia by sitting in a chair and holding ball bearings at his sides. When he inevitably fell asleep, his hands would relax and the ball bearings would fall to the ground, hitting a pie plate and making a sound that wake him up. Think of Dali’s fork or Edison’s ball bearings as the chair in Inception – a push to knock you out of the dream into reality.
A more practical method exists, however. Sit in a comfortable chair in a dark room. Extend your arms out so that your elbows are resting on the armrests of the chair. Allow your mind to calm. If you are trying to solve a particular problem, gently focus on that issue. As you drift into the hypnagogic state, your arms will relax and drop off the armrests, which should be enough to wake you up. The last step is the most important: immediately write down everything in your head – no matter how absurd. There will be a lot of cruft – but it’s all worth it for even a single nugget of inspiration.
Bonus Tips: If you have a binaural audio program which can produce theta and delta waves, you can experiment listening to that while you induce the hypnagogic state. I’ve been experimenting with Brainwave Studio for Mac by RCS Software and have found good results. They also have an application for iOS, but I have not tried it yet. And for those of us who need — but can’t find — a dark place to do this, I recommend the Sleep Master Sleep Mask  — it’s very comfortable and will block out most light in any situation. In my experience at least, best light-blocking came when I pulled it down over my nose a bit more than I thought it should. N.B. It’s the only sleep mask I’ve been able to sleep in.
 Technically, hypnagogia occurs when we are falling asleep, and hypnopompia occurs when we are waking. However, for the purposes of this article they are the sufficiently similar so that a reference to one shall include the other.
 Hypnagogia, The State Between Sleep And Wakefulness, is Key to Creativity, The Huffington Post, Feb. 22, 2016, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/hypnogogia-dreams-creativity_us_56c5d16ce4b0c3c55053de38.