My brain, hallucinating

I recently picked up Hallucinations, the latest book by Oliver Sacks, at the library. In the introduction (all I’ve read so far), he subtly echoes the language of William James when he talks about his wish to describe about “the great range, the varieties, of hallucinatory experience, an essential part of the human condition.” The headline of a recent interview with Sacks notes that he wants to destigmatize hallucinations. So this seems as good a time as any to write a little about my own experiences with hypnopompic hallucinations, which occur when you’re waking up and can be bizarrely intertwined with dreams.

The first hypnopompic hallucination I can remember occurred when I was 18 or 19. It sounds like something out of Monty Python now, but at the time it scared the bejabbers out of me. I was lying on my back in bed, and a pair of giant beaters, like the ones on a mixer, descended slowly from the ceiling before my uncomprehending eyes. What scared me was that it seemed so real, far more real than just a dream. (In fact, when I woke fully, I was pretty sure my eyes had been open while I was watching the beaters descend because the light fixture in the ceiling came slowly into focus as I woke.)

Some of my hypnopompic hallucinations are auditory rather than visual. The first of these I remember came when I was 19 or 20. I had been up in the night with my infant son, and as I was waking from a brief early morning nap, I heard sinister muttering from just outside the window at the head of the bed. It was terrifyingly real, and I was sure a couple of bad guys were about to come through the window. I struggled to scream but couldn’t (a familiar sensation; I think my body was still in the grip of sleep paralysis) until at last I broke the surface of sleep, the voices stopped, and normal life reappeared. I was briefly disoriented but intensely relieved.

After I learned a little bit more about these events and had more experience with them, they became somewhat easier to deal with. They can still terrify me, but understanding a bit about them and knowing that I’m not crazy have been very helpful. These days I can even achieve a sort of metastate in which I know I’m stuck in a hallucination or bad dream (although I often can’t do much about it). And it’s almost amusing sometimes (afterward, if not during the experience itself) to watch the contortions my mind goes through to try to make sense of things.

Sometimes the dreaming mind incorporates a stimulus from the real world into a dream, and I discovered a few weeks ago that it can be quite creative when doing the same thing with an auditory hallucination. I was dreaming as I drifted toward wakefulness in the small hours, and the dream was accompanied by an auditory hallucination, in this case a persistent sharp buzzing (this one is moderately common for me; it’s annoying, but far better than voices or the sound of a door opening when I’m alone in the house). My brain came up with a bizarre but ingenious set of explanations for the sound. The whole thing probably took less time than it will take you to read my description.

First, I was in a small lecture hall where a man was standing at a lectern on one side of the stage. On the other side of the stage, a disreputable looking old guy came shuffling out with a leering, gloating kind of look on his face; if you looked up “creepy” in the dictionary, this guy’s picture would be there. He was wearing a weird lustrous aqua-colored plastic helmet that came down over only the top part of his head, including his eyes. A narrow milky strip of plastic was embedded over the eyes, and somehow I knew that this person was looking at us all in the infrared, which for some reason was very disturbing. I tried to crouch down in my seat and drag a pillow over to cover my body.

Looking back at this in the light of day, I can almost imagine my confused mind saying, “Hang on a minute. What’s that pillow doing here?” All I was aware of at the time was that the dream suddenly shifted. I thought that I woke up even though I was still asleep/hallucinating (this has happened more times than I can remember). That explained the pillow, but what was the buzzing about? Now I was sure that I was awake and hearing some overtaxed appliance in the house.

I dreamt that I got out of bed and moved toward the door, in that curiously boneless, powerless crawl that I suspect is related to sleep paralysis. There was a split second where I was dimly aware of trying to remember if the door was open or closed. It was like reality flickering in and out of my consciousness; my mental holodeck faltered, and I could see the grid underlying the illusions. I guessed wrong, as it happened, and saw myself moving toward the closed door. As I reached for the doorknob, I was rehearsing a story to tell people later: “Yes, it’s a good thing I woke up before the refrigerator exploded.” Just before I grasped the doorknob, the noise stopped and I came fully awake, in bed, door open, house silent.

I have to give my sleeping brain big points for its remarkable creativity in conjuring up two completely different scenarios to explain the hallucination in the space of a moment or two. It was not particularly committed to reality, but I suppose it was going its best with what it had to work with. And I found its stories, reality-based or not, totally credible. I was able to watch part of the second story being constructed, and still I believed it, although perhaps not quite as fully. And yes, I know that my brain and my mind are really the same thing, and when I say “me,” it’s my brain/mind that I’m talking about. But my mental space is large; it contains multitudes, and when I write about them, I can’t call them all “I,” can I?

If any of you have experiences with hypnopompic hallucinations or other peculiar activity in your half-asleep mind, I’d be interested in hearing about them.


  1. *Long Rambling Comment Begin*

    I had similar sleep paralysis throughout my teenage years and early 20s. It seemed that if my sleep was interrupted before an hour had elapsed then that would mean paralysis would occur with a high likelihood when I went back to sleep. I had a lot of trouble sleeping at that age, so this kind of sleep interruption happened a lot. I had similar visual and auditory hallucinations of shadows creeping, voices chattering, dogs barking, buzzing, muttering, recursive false awakenings, unable to scream, etc. but I think I also experienced some more bizarre events due to the sheer number of times this was happening. I think the strangest events were waking up with some “dream” character in the room or projected onto a television that was off when I went to sleep, but on during the paralysis. If you’ve experienced it, you know that the paralysis state doesn’t have the kind of hazy awareness that a dream has, but seems much closer to the general awareness we have while awake. Since I was aware of my surroundings, eventually I tried to interact with the “dream” characters by attempting to talk to them, often just by talking in my head. The strangest part of this was I would often talk frankly saying to the characters that they are not real and I know that I am not fully awake. The response was always the same every time: they would insist that I *was* awake and argue to prove it. Despite this, there was always some indication that they were lying.. a facial twitch, sweat on their brow, etc. The absurdity of it still sticks with me today, specifically an episode where I was interacting with this mental construct which looks exactly like me, and yet it is arguing that I am wide awake and everything makes sense.

    *Long Rambling Comment End*

    1. Very interesting, thanks! I wonder sometimes if the thing the sleeping mind fears most is not that things will make no sense but that its story line will be broken. (Or maybe the waking mind too, for that matter, but I don’t like to think about that for too long.)

  2. Not as dramatic, but an example of incorporation. As a teenager I dreamt i was being chased around the house by a bear. It was actually terrifying especially when at the end the bear jumped onto my chest. I awoke to find the small family dog on my chest. While the dream felt like it took place over as much as five minutes, my guess is the sound of the approaching dog triggered the entire dream which probably lasted only a few seconds. – Tom Zeller

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