Dreams, when we are within them, seem absolutely real – despite often containing scenes and actions that, once we wake, are obviously absurd and surreal. Not only do we then dismiss then simply as a dream, but we often forget them within hours.
However, on the edges of sleep – both as we fall asleep, and as we wake up – another phenomenon sometimes occurs: hypnagogic (between waking and sleeping) or hypnopompic (between sleeping and waking) hallucinations. In these, experiencers report vivid images, feel presences, see diffuse light, have out-of-body experiences, and feel extreme emotional states like euphoria or dread.
What’s more, experiencers (39% – 85% of the population) report sense perceptions that seem quite real, and this feeling persists once they are fully awake. This is nowhere more evident than with those who suffer from regular, terrifying bouts of ‘sleep paralysis’. (Indeed, it seems that the ‘Old Hag’ can even kill.)
And it seems the strange ‘reality’ of these hallucinations on the edge of sleep – as opposed to the unreality of normal dreams – might help explain some religious visions. Researcher Adam Powell analysed 65 different accounts of religious experience from 19th-century America, and noticed a pattern: “the authors frequently noted that their unusual experiences occurred whilst in bed at night, some explicitly claiming that they were preparing to sleep but were not yet fully asleep”:
One asserted that he was ‘fully awake and yet [he] was not.’ Others concluded that their experiences were not dreams but ‘open visions’, whilst another expressed concern the following day that perhaps it was only a ‘dream of vision’ before ultimately concluding that it was a genuine ‘vision’.
That last observation was made by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism in the aftermath of a formative supernatural experiences in which an Angel visited him in his bedroom and disclosed the location of the ancient scriptures that would become The Book of Mormon.
It is interesting to note the similarity between some of these visions, and the reports of near-death experiences and death-bed visions. Joseph Smith wrote of an experience in the 1820s, that after retiring “to my bed…I discovered a light appearing in the room which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday and immediately a personage appeared at my bedside.” Similarly, teenager Norris Stearns reported that in 1815, as he lay in bed one night, “there appeared a small gleam of light in the room, above the brightness of the sun”, and subsequently he saw two spirits. (Note: we’ve written before about these similarities.)
What are we to make of this – does this mean NDEs, death-bed visions and sleep paralysis should all be considered hallucinations of a purely physical brain? Or could it be that the borderlands of sleep allow the mind to access spiritual realms, as do the near-death states of NDEs and death-bed visions?
…the so-called common sense that distinguishes waking visions from sleeping dreams might be flawed, and not just in an abstract philosophical sense. Indeed, Le Loyer and Swedenborg might have been correct; perhaps the transition between waking and sleeping is a privileged state, a so-called spiritual state. Seeing a divine agent at the bedside or one’s own body from a distance, awestruck at the bright light permeating the room, one is likely to be inspired, if not by the vividness of the event then at least by the uneasiness felt when casting it as either dream or vision (or delusion). Perhaps, reframing the experiences as hypnagogic rather than supernatural offers fresh clarity.