Hypnagogia – The strange place between two worlds

Have you ever wondered how the molecular structure of benzene was discovered? Or what was the source of Salvador Dali’s creativity? Since you are visiting the website of the umbrella association of swiss psychology students I assume you’re more interested in psychology than chemistry or art, so probably not. But I’m going to tell you this ordinary story anyways because it is more connected to the depths of human consciousness than you might think. 

Since the mid 19th century, the German chemist August Kekulé has been concerned with molecular structures, particularly in organic chemistry. Today he is considered the father of the structural formula that enables every chemist to quickly recognize how the molecule of a substance is built up. But one particular molecule gave him a headache. The structure of benzene remained a mystery to him, until one day he fell asleep on top of a Londoner bus. In a dozing state he saw dancing atoms spinning in a circle. But when the conductor’s call tore him out of his dreams, he couldn’t do anything with this vision. It was not until the winter of 1861 when he fell asleep again in front of the fireplace that he realized that benzene had to be arranged in the form of a ring. Half awake, half asleep, he saw again these dancing atoms but this time also a Ouroboros, a snake biting his own tail (Anders, 2003).

Around a hundred years later, an eccentric enchants the art world. Salvador Dali’s drawings show grotesque faces and people, geometric figures like waves and circles and all of this in strange landscapes. Surrealism is celebrated around the world for its sheer inexhaustible creativity. And to make sure that his creativity doesn’t suddenly wane, the Spaniard has developed a technique that guarantees him new inspiration. During “slumber with a key”, as he called the technology, you sit down on an armchair with a heavy key between the index finger and thumb of your left hand. An inverted plate is placed under the armrest beforehand so that the key is directly above it when the arm is placed on the armrest. Now comes a phase of relaxation. The user makes himself comfortable in his armchair and surrenders to sleep. Coupled with it is muscle paralysis, which makes it impossible to hold on to the key. It falls directly on the plate and makes a loud noise. The person who has just fallen asleep returns to the waking world. Thoughts and images that were experienced in this state of consciousness must now be recorded immediately before they fade. It is not known how many and which works of art Dalis were created using this technique. The urgent recommendation on his part to colleagues to use this intellectual resource suggests that it was part of a routine of the Spaniard (Nielsen, 1992).

You may have already experienced the phenomenon that these two stories connect with each other. Hypnagogia, as it is known, is an altered state of consciousness that occurs during the transition from the waking state of consciousness to sleep and differs from dreams, which are often associated with the REM phases, in the short duration and the fact that the person does not perceive himself as acting or asleep. Acoustic, kinesthetic and optical hallucinations often occur during the hypnagogic state. They express themselves by hearing senseless sentences or melodies, seeing colors and flashes of light or feeling floating (Dittrich, 1996). A topic that receives little attention in comparison to dreams or waking consciousness, even though it would deserve it if one considered the prominent followers of this state. So next time when you start dozing off, you may want to draw your attention to the breathtaking scenery that opens up to you. Who knows, it might even make you a famous chemist or artist.

Bibliography :
  • Anders, R. (2003). Wolkenlesen. Über hypnagoge Halluzinationen, automatisches Schreiben und andere Inspirationsquellen. Greifswald: Wiecker Bote.
  • Dittrich, A. (1996). Ätiologie – Unabhängige Strukturen veränderter Wachbewusstseinszustände. Ergebnisse empirischer Untersuchungen über Halluzinogene I. und II. Ordnung, sensorische Deprivation, hypnagoge Zustände, hypnotische Verfahren sowie Reizüberflutung. Berlin: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung. 
  • Nielsen, T. A. (1992). A self-observational study of spontaneous hypnagogic imagery using the upright napping procedure. Imagination, Cognition and Personality11(4), 353-366.
Featured image :
  • Salvador Dali. (1937). Le Sommeil. Retrieved from:

Author : Max Frutiger