I was once told about a poet who would lay to sleep with a bell in his hand. As the poet would enter the edges of sleep he would naturally lose grip and the bell would fall - awakened by the noise he would immediately take to his pen. That was his creative process - the poet would write in that drowsy place between sleep and wakefulness.
While most of us are aware of the two states of being awake and being asleep, there is a state in between called hypnagogia; “the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep” or that “state of consciousness, during the onset of sleep” (Wikipedia).
It is within this borderline wakeful state where many, “artists, writers, scientists and inventors - including Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Walter Scott, Salvador Dali, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Isaac Newton”, credit their creativity enhanced (Wikipedia). Even Edgar Allen Poe described and wrote of this and the "fancies" or creativity he experienced, "only when I am on the brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so” (Wikipedia).
What is Hypnagogia?
Perhaps you have experienced this feeling; many interpret hypnagogic phenomena, “as visions, prophecies, premonitions, apparitions and inspiration (artistic or divine), depending on the experiencers' beliefs and those of their culture” (Wikipedia), but it is that moment where you don’t know if you are awake or asleep - “the borderlands between wakefulness and rest”. There there is, “a strange and fascinating state of consciousness characterized by dream-like visions and strange sensory occurrences” (The Huffington Post); “In this state, which lasts a few minutes at most, you’re essentially in limbo between two states of consciousness. You experience some elements of sleep mixed with some aspects of wakefulness - you are still able to be awake and remember”, explains neurologist Dr. Melina Pavlova (The Huffington Post).
In a hypnagogic state, the mental happenings that may occur include "lucid thought, that is the awareness of thought as you fade to sleep; lucid dreaming, a dream during which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming; hallucinations and sleep paralysis, where during awakening or falling asleep, a person is aware but unable to move or speak” (Sleep Association).
In 2001, Harvard psychologist, Deirdre Barrett, who studies sleep and its, “contributions to creativity and objective problem solving” revealed that, “ while problems can also be solved in full-blown dreams from later stages of sleep, hypnagogia was especially likely to solve problems which benefit from hallucinatory images being critically examined while still before the eyes” (Wikipedia).
Take Mary Shelley, English novelist and author of Frankenstein who admitted, “she got the inspiration for [the book] from a “waking dream” in the wee hours of the morning, writing, ‘I saw with eyes shut, but acute mental vision’”, concept for this well-known novel. (The Huffington Post).
What is Going on in the Brain During Hypnagogia?
The science is still developing, but “what’s going on in the brain to create this trippy state of consciousness? Scientists have observed the presence of both alpha brain waves — which are the dominant brain wave mode when we are conscious but relaxed, for instance when daydreaming or meditating — and theta brain waves, which are associated with restorative sleep, during hypnagogia. Typically, these brain waves occur only separately, and it may be the unique combination that gives rise to unusual visions and sensations” (The Huffington Post).
Why Are We Creative During This State?
To me the definition of creativity is knowing a lot about a lot, and if not at least knowing a little about a lot. From there being able to connect seemingly obscure things makes for creativity. It is being able to connect that two or more words, colors, patterns, in interesting ways that common folks would not at first associate. This is what makes for great artists, leaders and business people in my mind.
Perhaps creativity and problem solving then occur during this state of fringe wakefulness, hynagogic because, “the mind is cycling through thoughts, ideas, memories and emotions, making free and often distant associations between diverse concepts”, Michell Carr described for Psychology Today (The Huffington Post).
The flow of thought and the coalescence of random ideas that happens in this slightly wakeful state when we have the ability to still remember when we wake, is what past poets and notable creative minds fed on; “In some ways, hypnagogia is the best of both worlds. You get the free flow of ideas and associations that occur during REM sleep — when the brain reviews and processes memories, thoughts and feelings — but you’re still awake enough to be somewhat conscious of what’s going on” (The Huffington Post).