What happens in the instant when we almost fall asleep? In this post I postulate a particular form of this unnerving and perhaps dissociative experience. A review of the literature suggests that this phenomenon that we are calling Daytime Parahypnagogia (DPH) appears to be a previously undescribed state of consciousness.
Mavromatis has thoroughly explored the concept of hypnagogia, which he defines as “hallucinatory and quasi-hallucinatory events taking place in the intermediate state between wakefulness and sleep”. Faure appears have introduced the term “parahypnagogic” to suggest “marginal” or fringe forms of sleep. In the present context I am using the term “parahypnagogia” to refer to any extremely brief trancelike experience bordering on sleep onset that has hallucinatory or non-hallucinatory attributes accompanied by flashes of thought, insight and/or creativity. “Daytime” indicates that the parahypnagogic experience is occurring during a usual period of wakefulness.
Informal discussion among colleagues and students over a two year period revealed that some individuals at times have had the experience of an extremely brief dreamlike episode that apparently interferes with attention and alertness. One is conscious of having this fleeting experience, but as in a dream, the memory of the content fades quickly as attention becomes refocused on the matters at hand. Jaime de Oliveira and I hypothesize that almost anyone may experience DPH.
Based on both the literature on hypnagogia and the self-report of students, we are proposing that there exists a previously undescribed state of consciousness that has elements of relaxed wakefulness, mind wandering, daydreaming, hypnagogia, spontaneous self-hypnosis, everyday trance, dissociation, meditation, microsleep , dream scintillations, waking dreams, insight flashes and creativity. However, Jaime and I contend that the phenomenon of DPH is a unique and distinct state that is qualitatively different from each of these aforementioned events.
Previous investigators into various wakeful states of consciousness have proposed various phenomena that appear to have some of the characteristics of our proposed state of DPH, yet differences exist. For example, in Erickson, Rossi and Rossi’s (1976) description of everyday trance, an individual becomes so absorbed in an ongoing event, such as an extremely exciting film, that they then exclude from awareness all other environmental stimuli. We contend that in DPH, one is similarly absorbed but on an intrapsychic level, as in hypnagogia. Foulkes & Fleisher (1975) found in a study of relaxed wakefulness that normal participants were capable of experiencing hallucinations with sometimes regressive or bizarre content. Similarly, we argue that DPH may be a common occurrence in normal people.
Daydreams differ from DPH in that the daydreams tend to be substantially longer, more easily remembered, and perceived as self-directed. Dream scintillations (flickers,) as conceived by Forbes (1949), refer to a type of dream that occurs during fleeting daytime dozing that includes hypnagogic imagery. Horowitz (1978) suggested that these dream scintillations consist of difficult to recall images that rapidly and successively intrude into consciousness, and reflect a brief but altered state of consciousness. DPH may include images and/or thoughts and creative insights, which do not necessarily occur in a rapid succession as in dream scintillations. Novella’s (1996) concept of waking dreams includes an integration of dreams and wakefulness with reports as early as the Middle Ages. He places reports of alien abductions in this category. DPH might be a wakeful dreamlike state, but unlike waking dreams, the experience is extremely brief.
Essentially, a DPH episode may last from less than a second to a few seconds. It is likely to occur when an individual is engaged in passive activity, such as watching TV, or listening to a boring person or lecture. Typically, one’s eyes are open. If one is actively involved in interacting with people or the environment in some fashion, the phenomenon does not occur. For one who has not experienced DPH, the event is somewhat akin to falling asleep for a moment while watching television, and then quickly re-awakening. However, unlike the lack of awareness that seems to occur in a brief moment of sleep, one is fully conscious of the parahypnagogic state, as well as the thoughts or images that occur during the state. Like many dreams, the memory of the content (relevant or not to what one was ostensibly paying attention to) during this state quickly fades. Reasons for the fading memory might include similar physiological and/or psychological processes that interfere with dream recall (Cipolli, et al, 1980; Taub, 1971), as well as the subject’s need to immediately refocus attention on what is happening in the external environment. Although the experience of DPH may be pleasurable, it may also become unnerving as it interferes with attention and alertness to ongoing tasks.
To explore subjective aspects of the DPH phenomenon, we conducted a pilot survey of students in psychology classes at William Paterson University. Some phrases that these students used to describe their personal experience of DPH were: I am awake and conscious and it usually occurs within seconds; vivid, yet fast; then boom, back to reality; your eyes are open, but you are not totally aware of what is going on; my ‘Twilight Zone;’ consciousness hijacking; you get into a deep sleep for a split second; a flash-dream; pleasurable but strange; not the same as a daydream; and, like a single slide from a slide show.
These anecdotal descriptions from students are consistent with our hypothesis of the DPH phenomenon. The students tend to depict the experience as a form of dissociative trance that is somewhat dreamlike, occurring in a flash, simultaneously weird and pleasurable, appearing to border on sleep onset without the subject actually falling asleep, and differentiated from a daydream.
Since the publication of this article, I did an empirical study (that I report on in a future blog post) to determine the incidence and frequency of DPH, the perceived nature of the event, and the conditions under which DPH is most likely to occur. Just click on the underlined link.
Brenman, M. (1949). Dreams and hypnosis. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 18, 455-465.
Cipolli, C., et al (1980). Memory processes during afternoon NREM sleep. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 51, 896.
Erickson, M. H., Rossi, E. L., & Rossi, S. I. (1976). Hypnotic realities: The induction of clinical hypnosis and forms of indirect suggestion. Oxford, England: Irvington.
Faure, H. (1972-1973). Toward a taxonomy of hypnagogic and parahypnagogic states [Abstract]. Bulletin de Psychologie, 26, 904-912.
Forbes, A. (1949). Dream scintillations. Psychosomatic Medicine, 11, 160-162.
Foulkes, D., & Fleisher, S. (1975). Mental activity in relaxed wakefulness. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 84, 66-75.
Hemmeter, U., Bischof, R., Matzinger, M., Seifritz, E., & Hoslboer-Trachsler, E. (1998). Microsleep during partial sleep deprivation in depression. Biological Psychiatry, 43, 829-839.
Horowitz, M.J. (1978). Image formation and cognition. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts
Khatami, M. (1978). Creativity and altered states of consciousness. Psychiatric Annals, 8, 57-64.
Kurjiaka, S. K. (1993). “Waking dream”: Hawthorne’s hypnagogic image of the imagination. Dissertation Abstracts International, 53, 3909.
Mavromatis, A (1987). Hypnagogia: The unique state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Novella, R (1996). Hypnagogia: An explanation for strange nighttime visitations. The Connecticut Skeptic, 1, 3.
Taub, J. M. (1971). Dreams recalled spontaneously following afternoon naps and nocturnal sleep. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 78, 229-231.
Note: This post is based on an article I wrote along with my then William Paterson University graduate assistant Jaime L. de Oliveira that was published in Medical Hypotheses in 2004. The full abstract and article can be accessed here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306987703003062