by Helen Currie Foster
This week out here on the creek I was iced in, with no power.
I was sitting by the fireplace wrapped in a blanket, when I came upon an unfamiliar word: HYPNOGAGIA. “Hypnagogia is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. During this state, it’s common to experience visual, audio, or other types of hallucinations. It’s also common to experience muscle jerks and sleep paralysis.” https://www.healthline.com/health/hypnagogia#:~:text=Hypnagogia%20is%20the%20transition%20between,to%20hypnagogia%20to%20stimulate%20creativity
Some people purposefully try to induce to hypnagogia to stimulate creativity. Id. According to Allison Eck, Harvard Gazette (Autumn 2022), hypnagogia is “widely thought of as a sweet spot for creativity.” https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/sleep/behind-veil-hypnagogic-sleep. Eck describes the experience of scientist August Kekulé in the mid 1800’s during his search for the structure of the compound benzene, as he dozed before his fireplace in Ghent. “[A]s he dozed, images hinting at its structure appeared in his mind’s eye. He later wrote that he saw dancing atoms beaded together along an invisible string, ‘twisting in snake-like motion.’ The atoms morphed into an ouroboros” (another new word for me: a snake eating its own tail). Kekulé realized benzene’s structure was a ring of carbon atoms, each attached to a hydrogen atom.
Scientists and innovators like Einstein and Edison, and writers like Vladimir Nabokov, “have transited this cerebral pathway in search of solutions to problems.” Id.
Have you experienced hypnagogia? I think I have, a few times, in mystery-writing, most recently in my newest, Ghosted. https://www.amazon.com/Ghosted-Alice-MacDonald-Greer-Mysteries/dp/1732722927/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1675707798&sr=8-1
On each occasion I’ve gone to bed with my mind on a plot problem, or a scene that needs to take shape. Preliminary requirements appear to include being ensconced under the covers, on my left side, envisioning a possible scene as I slide into sleep—then watching the scene begin to unfold. I try to remind my brain to remember this solution. While most dreams fly away with sunrise, these solutions have come back in the morning. If I could make this happen whenever I want (so far, no dice), a book would get finished so much faster!
This occasional experience may be “lucid dreaming,” the state of being aware that you’re dreaming. “When you wake up from a lucid dream, you actually have a more positive mood in the morning,” writes researcher Michelle Carr, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester, in Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/in-sleep-the-body-is-a-channel-to-communicate-with-the-dreaming-mind. Carr describes herself as a dream scientist: “I want to uncover ways to repair nightmares and, in their place, engineer dreams for healing.”
Hypnogagia is a big topic these days. A team of engineers and scientists at the MIT Media Lab developed a glove-like tool to help decipher dreams. Researchers are testing whether the glove may allow people to manipulate their hypnagogic experiences, which could help sufferers from PTSD and nightmare disorders feel a stronger sense of control. Again, as Eck puts it, “…[A]t the very least, drawing attention to our hypnagogic personas may bring us newfound ideas that we can act on when we wake.” Id.
Charles Dickens, inveterate insomniac, walked the streets of London at night and used dream states in his books, including, famously, A Christmas Carol. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.700882/full
Could we term it “lucid dreaming” when Scrooge is shown visions—then decides to change the dreadful outcomes by his future actions? He begs the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, “Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life?” He promises, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future…” Then Scrooge sees the phantom’s hood and dress collapse into his bedpost, scrambles out of bed, repeating that last sentence––and heads out to buy the prize Christmas turkey for the Cratchits.
Vladimir Nabokov kept a dream diary, and in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, wrote about the procession of what he called “hypnagogic mirages,” images he would see ‘just before falling asleep,” often accompanied by “a neutral, detached, anonymous voice which I catch…”
He emphasizes he is still aware during “the visions that pass before my closed eyes. They come and go, without the drowsy observer’s participation, but are essentially different from dream pictures for he is still master of his senses” (emphasis added). Lucid dreaming? https://www.loa.org/books/8-novels-memoirs-1941-1951?gclid=Cj0KCQiA54KfBhCKARIsAJzSrdotSuqt8CbUDCbTtegLG4hvxHker5ZZVuIwntp0lTzrNsY0PD5UeA8aAmQyEALw_wcB
Tolstoy’s notes show he envisioned characters in such visions. For a deeper dive, see https://ciaotest.cc.columbia.edu/olj/socsci/socsci_99pev01.html
(Side note––in Speak, Memory Nabokov also describes his synesthesia, where each letter of the alphabet appeared in its own color—depending on the language. In English a long “a” was the tint of weathered wood, but in French was polished ebony. Other letters were green, blue, yellow and so on. He also could not bear the sound of music. An unusual brain!) https://www.google.com/search?gs_ssp=eJzj4tLP1TcwTjMxr8gxYPQSKMtJTMnMzSxSyEtMys_OLwMAiy0J6w&q=vladimir+nabokov&oq=vladimir+n&aqs=chrome.1.69i57j46i131i433i512j0i512l2j46i512j0i512l3j46i512.8717j0j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
We mystery writers can mine hypnagogic moments for ideas on character and scenes––but the genre suggests a limit.
A good mystery offers the reader the chance to solve a puzzle. As set forth in the original rules of London’s Detection Club, “The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.” Nor can the detective solve by “an unaccountable intuition.” https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules
Meeting of the Detection Club in 1936.
Indeed, is there anything more irritating to a mystery reader than the tardy mention of a clue? No! Mystery readers are entitled to all clues, as soon as that clue is found, and clues are facts. The mystery writer offers a collaboration to the reader, in which the detective and reader are on the same page—fact-wise. We readers want evidence. A character’s dreams may offer insight into a character—but not evidence.
Besides—while most of us are at least mildly interested in our own dreams, unless we’re also therapists we’re not usually too interested in the dreams of others. Do you remember your interest level the last time someone began describing a dream to you? I confess my eyes can begin to glaze. Of course it’s hard to convey dreams with the color and speed and power the dreamer experienced. But in the world of mysteries, we are greedy for facts. In Martin Walker’s “Bruno, Chief of Police” series, set in a small town in the French Dordogne, Bruno’s activities are fascinating––his cooking, his love life, his detection––and while we know he had a difficult military service in Bosnia, the author doesn’t dwell on Bruno’s dreams about those days. Instead he provides us with what we want: Bruno’s memories. Those contain facts, at least Bruno’s versions of facts, for which the reader is grateful. http://www.brunochiefofpolice.com/
So I’m cautious. In my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, at least so far, Alice doesn’t share her dreams. For one thing, as observed in the New Yorker, “As for writing about them, even Henry James, who’s seldom accused of playing to the cheap seats, had a rule: ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader.’” Dan Piepenbring, “The Enthralling, Anxious World of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dreams” (February 8, 2018). https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-vladimir-nabokov-saw-in-his-dreams
The ice has melted! And Ghosted is out! Book 8 in the series is available now in paperback and also on Kindle via pre-order delivery on February 10, on Amazon. Also coming soon to Austin’s BookPeople!
Follow me at www.helencurriefoster.com.