Hypnagogic Hallucinations: Things That Go Bump In The Night

geometric shapes image demonstrating hypnagogic hallucinations

Have you ever seen something like this in the dark at night?

Have you ever switched off the bedside light, only to suddenly see strange shapes, animals or figures in the darkness? Perhaps you’ve heard voices or sounds which can’t possibly be real?

If so, it could be that you’ve experienced what’s known as a sleep hallucination, also sometimes referred to as hypnagogic hallucinations.

Many people experience hypnagogic hallucinations at some point in their lives, sometimes on a regular basis. And I’m no exception.

As a child I’d often see strange, multicolored geometric shapes in the darkness when trying to sleep. I used to lie there alternating between marveling at them and wishing them away so I could sleep in peace.

It doesn’t happen so often nowadays, but once in a while I’m still prone to these mathematical manifestations. Perhaps I should be grateful for my geeky hypnagogic hallucinations. Especially compared to the disturbing experiences that some people have.

So what exactly is this strange phenomenon and why does it happen? In this article I’ll be taking a closer look to help you understand what you’ve experienced yourself.

Definition

hypnagogic hallucinations occur when falling asleep, hypnopompic when waking upHypnagogic hallucinations are usually short-lasting experiences in which you might see, hear or feel something which isn’t real whilst transitioning from being awake to asleep.

It can be an auditory, sensory, tactile or any other sensory experience. Whatever form it takes though, it’s not real and is caused by your amazingly creative brain.

Hypnopompic hallucinations are exactly the same thing, except that they occur while you’re waking from sleep. For the sake of simplicity I’ll refer to the phenomenon as hypagogic hallucination throughout this article.

Both hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations can be very vivid, so can be disturbing in some cases. Especially if you see creatures appearing in your room, voices saying unpleasant things or feeling something touch you.

The history

Hypnagogic hallucinations were first described in 1664 by the Dutch Physician Isbrand Van Diemerbroeck. He might not have called it by the name we know it as today, but he did describe a woman who appears to have experienced hypnagogic hallucinations.

How many people experience it?

up to one third of people experience hypnagogic hallucinations in their lifetimeThere hasn’t been much research done to find out how many people experience this. But the following surveys and research show how common it might be:

1. A telephone survey in the United Kingdom in 1996 of 4972 people found that 37% experienced hypnagogic hallucinations twice a week or more.

Furthermore, 12.5% experienced hypnopompic hallucinations. It was more common among people with insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness and mental illness.

2. A review of 35 different studies in 2011 found that 7.6% of people experience sleep paralysis in their lifetime. We’ll see later how sleep paralysis often occurs alongside hypnagogic hallucinations.

3. In 2000 a survey of 13,000 people found that 38.7% experienced hallucinations, though 27% were in the daytime. 2.7% of people had them once a week, with 2.4% more than once a week.

So you can see that if you do experience hypnagogic hallucinations, you’re definitely not alone!

Symptoms of hypnagogic hallucinations

It’s possible to experience hallucinations that correspond to any of your senses, though visual hallucinations are the most common. They can be experienced from between just a few seconds to a few minutes:

  • Visual – for example the geometric shapes in the picture above. But possibly also images of people, animals or other complex shapes.
  • Auditory – this can be simple sounds like hissing, humming or whistling. But it can also be more complex sounds like human voices. It may also be extremely loud, similar to the sleep disorder known as exploding head syndrome.
  • Olfactory – perceiving smells which aren’t actually there, either pleasant or unpleasant.
  • Tactile – this can be very disturbing, such as feeling insects or spiders crawling on the skin. It can also be a strange rubbing, stroking, tapping or tickling sensation.

Furthermore, there can be more complex hallucinations as part of sleep disorders such as sleep paralysis. You may feel unable to move your body, and perhaps see or sense a person or presence in the room.

Causes

The latest international classification of sleep disorders manual in 2014 presents the following 2 main causes, though does state more research is needed to confirm them:

  • An intrusion of dream imagery onto wakefulness.
  • A lack of stimulus leading to the visual cortex in the brain creating images.

The causes of sleep hallucinations may also be related to another illness or sleep disorder. For example, they’re often associated with these sleep disorders:

  • Narcolepsy.
  • Sleep paralysis.
  • Exploding head syndrome.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness.
  • Sleep terrors.

They can also be associated with a mental illness such as Schizophrenia. Each of the above will have a particular way of explaining the causes that’s relevant to them.

In addition there are some things which might lead to an increase in frequency or intensity of hallucinations, including:

  • Stress.
  • Sleep deprivation or exhaustion.
  • Electrical activity in the brain.
  • Drugs – particularly illegal drugs such as hallucinogenics, ecstasy and marijuana. But also some medical drugs, including sleeping pills.
  • Brain damage or lesions.

Treatment

relaxing can help reduce stress and prevent hallcuinationsA doctor would want to rule out any of the other illnesses or sleep disorders first, particularly narcolepsy and schizophrenia.

If you do have one of those, then your treatment would be tailored accordingly.

For example, Schizophrenia is usually treated with anti-psychotic medication. Narcolepsy will be treated with advice about lifestyle changes and possibly medication.

For most people, however, there’s no specific treatment for hypnagogic hallucinations and reassurance is the main need. It’s something which you just need to accept as a normal part of life.

Despite that, there are lifestyle choices you can make which may help. And the same applies to those who experience them as part of another sleep disorder. Here are some ideas which may help keep the hallucinations at bay:

  • Get an adequate amount of sleep every night, follow a stable sleep schedule and don’t allow yourself to become sleep deprived.
  • Avoid illegal drugs and check with a doctor if any medication you’re taking may be causing it.
  • Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water.
  • Try to reduce your stress levels.
  • Try using a soft night light in the bedroom. This might help fill the space that your brain uses as a blank canvas.
  • If you tend to hear things, perhaps listening to music or the radio at night will help.
  • If you find yourself focusing on visual hallucinations, try to re-focus your mind on something else. So for example, breathing exercises or muscle relaxation can keep your brain occupied.
  • If it’s overwhelming, turn on a light and get up for a while, do something relaxing and then try to sleep again after 10-15 minutes.
  • Several readers have said in the comments below that wearing a sleep mask helps them.

Generally though, you can see that hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are a normal part of life for many people. Once you’ve ruled out any serious illness or disorder, then you’re left to deal with the experience in two ways.

First, try to adapt your lifestyle to make sure you do everything possible to sleep well. Second, relax and try not to worry about things that go bump in the night.

If you do find yourself becoming overwhelmed by your experiences, it might help to talk to your doctor for some reassurance. You may also find it helpful to try some relaxation techniques which can help take your mind off any hallucinations.

Your thoughts

Do you ever experience hallucinations when falling asleep or waking up? What form do they take?

Do you find they get worse at certain points in your life, or if you do certain things? Have you found anything which helps prevent them?

Feel free to describe your experience in the comments below and share any ideas you have about dealing with them.

Please note that after years of responding to comments personally, I’ve now decided to leave this discussion entirely to readers.

I will still read your comment before publishing it, but would like to leave the fantastic discussion that has grown here over the years in your hands now.

733 CommentsLeave a comment

  • My daughter sent me this link.. I finally felt safe enough to mention this disturbing phenomenon. Was questioning my sanity and scheduled a wellness visit with my doctor. Anyway it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone ( still feel that something is observing me) Good luck with that my life is not that interesting!!

  • At the beginning, 4 years ago, I had this hallucinations only when I was really tired or stressed. Now I have them every night, sometimes 3-4x/ night, even if I don’t feel tired. I wake up at night and I see people, man, women, and sometimes in the morning I remember things about them, like their name, or them making fun of me, saying that it is funny how scared I am of them. They usually are keeping distance but sometimes they get in my bed. I don’t get scared anymore, I’m like- oh it is just you? Let me sleep, please.

  • I thought I was strange for having these. It hasn’t happened lately but when I went through a stage of bad anxiety, I’d be fast asleep but feel as though someone was by my bed talking to me in a deep voice and I couldn’t really comprehend what they were saying but they would say the same thing every night. At the time I was sleep deprived as my son is a terrible sleeper and would wake up every night every 2-3 hours until he was about 3 and he still wakes up about 3 nights out of 5 and he’s 6 years old now. I also had these when he was baby and would wake up convinced that he was in my bed and i’ d acciendly rolled on him but of course he was safe asleep in his cot. It’s like even in sleep my brain is in overdrive mode lol… I was beginning to think I’d gone nuts lol. So I’m glad it’s relatively normal

  • I experience insomnia caused by these hallucinations. They are never scary, they feel like a normal dream to me, but they occur every single night, and most of the time i am consciously aware that i am on the brink of sleep, and that consciousness that i’m about to fall asleep wakes me up. This cycle happens repeatedly until i eventually get lucky and fail to notice that i’m falling asleep one time, but only after hours of this cycle repeating it’s self.

  • Ever since I was about 9 I have experience these types of hallucinations, I am now nearly 20 and only became to understand these experience through studying psychology at university. My first experience I remember lying in bed being around 9 years old and seeing a woman standing looking at me covered in blood holding a knife she then started walking towards me so I ran out of my room to my parents who still recall that night also. Second account I was in bed and the same woman was above me she flung down on my her head next to mine screaming down my ear, I remember trying to grab the back of her neck to pull her off me I could feel her hair between my fingers but I could not lift her, it felt so real. The same women is my constant hallucination. I have found that I experience these when I am sleep deprived, feeling isolated or depressed. Depression amongst other mental Illnesses are common in my family, as my nana was sectioned when she was in her early 30s after the heartbreak of her separation from my granddad she had a psychotic episode. If anyone has any similar experiences id love to here from you. As it can be quiet scary due to the issue not being something well known regarding hallucinations unlike mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

  • Hey everyone , im a 37 year old female , my first issues were the first hour of failing asleep, waking up to see figures in my bedroom and being so scared thinking i was being haunted by a presence but ive been tapped on the forehead heard male voices call out , and seen red type mists that ive litterally tried to bat away with my hands in panic, the funnist one was having had a few drinks and sharing a bedroom with a m8 at a friends house , thinking im awake , her clearly talking to me , me clearly seeing her, hearing her and responding , but believing that were trying to escape from a alien ship craft , lol honest this is true, i was so locked into the dream still playing out around me, but i was able to move my body out of the bed and even tried to climb out of the window , thinking i had found a way out for us both, it wasnt untill my friend shouted at me what the hell are you doing ,that i returned to the bed but remembered it all in the morning, the worst one was waking in my bedroom to have what i can only explain to be a old hag woman hanging from my ceiling hair all hanging down while she’s on all fours on my ceiling like out of a horror film, literally screaming something at me, that done me in , i was stuck to my bed but could see and hear all this and the fear was so intense i can still remember it today like it was real, once i fought my body to move i ran and ran got to the bottom of my staircase in major panic and realised i must be crazy , i sat on all this for 3 months saying nothing to anyone, then i had a old man sream in my face , another time i saw my bedroom wall brick by brick falling down on to my husband from the wall behind the headboard i got myself sat up to literally hold the wall back from it hurting my husband , ive literally been so scared ive pratically super human style pulled my husband over me as a human sheild from things ive seen , poor man has been through hell being woke up to me doing crazy things,and screaming etc( sometimes you want to scream but nothing comes out your mouth), ive believed with my life everything i saw and heard was real and true,i finally took myself to see my gp , ive children and i thought id loose my family to being locked up in a mental home , but couldnt take it anymore, i told my gp and she was brilliant she didnt think i was crazy or mental but took some blood tests, low and behold i had a underactive tyroid and ive a sleeping disorder (called hypogognic hallucinations so i take amitriptyline at night and on levothyroxine and since a few weeks in taking these meds ive not had bad night time sleep problems since, however i do get some pretty vivid dreams and have shouted spoke & cried in my sleep , but no nightmare maddness anymore , nothing so scary you feel like your going to die ,so if you have had something like this its likey to be a underlining issue that your gp will help you with and your not going crazy. I find keeping a note pad and pen handy to write things down to record for your gp.
    All the best to you all. Special sleepers. XxxxX

  • I have seen people dancing, floating just above eye level sitting on my bed etc. They do not seem to be dangerous to me.Some are my loved ones dead and alive. I got up last night grabbed my cell phone for light of course they dissappear when turned it on. Thinking of leaving a light on every night! They are not dangerous but I am dangerous to myself. Lol Ran inot my bedroom wall,almost broke a finger.This has been going on for years. Sad for the people but glad I have company.

  • I went several months having hallucinations of spiders crawling all over my walls nearly night last year, and they were so realistic that I would jump out of bed and attack them. When they disappeared I thought they hid under my bed, but when it was a massive swarm with nowhere to hide I just didn’t know what happened. I’ve always had a fear of spiders, so it wasn’t fun. At last I found out it was a hallucination and that it wasn’t that uncommon, which relieved me. For a while I thought I was going insane. Depressive disorders run in my family, too, which explains the fact that the hallucinations are common in my family and your whole “mental illness / sleep hallucination” connection. But I haven’t accepted these willingly. It’s really annoying, and although I know it’s a hallucination, sometimes it’s so vivid that I still attack the spider (s). Makes me dread sleeping.

    There’s just one problem. Mine happen at the same time nearly every night. I go to sleep, and almost exactly thirty minutes later I wake up and in the transition state the hallucinations appear and last around 5+ seconds. So since its in the beginning stage of sleep would that be hypnagogic, or hypnopompic because it’s during a (strangely scheduled) wake up moment?

  • What a revelation! Finally I found out the official condition for what I’ve been experiencing. I mostly see things when I wake up (either in the middle of the night, or in the morning). I see all sorts of things, from abstract shapes, geometric patterns to real things like a woman hanging herself, a boy sitting on my legs, a person standing next to my bed, windows and wallpapers that didn’t exist. They’re always visual, and they always freak me out, every time. I never get used to it.

  • Been having really scary dreams lately.. like someone is holding me down..last night I was in a weird position on the ceiling and someone was just about to enter the room and I couldn’t move… then I woke up on my back and arms in the same position in my dream.. it’s scary because I could feel someone on me .i suffer with bad migraines and was woundering if it’s connected. I’m having this experience a lot lately.

  • Hi after reading this topic .. I believe I’m having hypnagogic hullinations. This has been accuring 4 weeks every night. My question being is it because I have A pinch nerve on my lower back that may require surgery?

  • I just woke up full of fear. I had originally woken up around 3:43am. I came downstairs to make sure the house was locked. I turned on the backyard light to find a large black cat sitting there. Ive never seen him before. I went back up stairs and I fell back asleep listening to light natire sounds. I mustve been dreaming because all of a sudden while asleep I felt a strong force pushing me off my bed. It was dark in my room I couldnt see. I recall resisting the force and trying to make it to my bathroom to wash my face so I can wake up. I make it to the bathroom the lights wont turn on, Im splashing my face with water but I dont feel it. And no one can hear me. I thought I saw my youngest son pass my bedroom so I followed him downstairs, looks like he had made a mess in the kitchen, cinnamon stick figures hanging from the microwave. I pulled them off angry & I was getting mad for the mess he had caused, I called for him & no answer. I saw the garage light was on & I found my son facing down in the hamper. I threaten to spank him if he doesnt acknowledge me. Mind you hes 14! I approach him, then when he looks at me his face is blank & his body starts to fold inside the shape of our old sleeping bag. I try quickly to help him out but I couldnt. I ran back upstairs in a frantic state opened his bedroom door to find him playing on his cell phone. I laid next to him & told him I had just had a terrible dream. Of course I was still sleeping because I woke up in my bed and it was 4:20am! It felt so real. My heart rate was off the charts. What does this mean? Dreams like this have happened to me my whole life. So vivid.

  • ray county durham 70 yr of age my problem is centipedes in the toilet bowl bowl nad on the bathroom floor my wife had to confirm to me that there was nothing there this hapens at about 5.30 in the mornings straight after waking up

  • In the process of falling asleep I will often awake with a start convinced that I have seen things in my room. These things are often large spiders walking across the ceiling or wall, a little old lady or a man in a black gown standing by my bed. A couple of nights ago I saw a small cctv camera come out of the ceiling above my head as I lay in bed! Also, often as dropping off I am convinced there is a fire starting in the room! But of course when I awake and put on the light there is nothing there! I understandably find this very disturbing and in addition to then going on to have very complex, detailed dreams this makes me very nervous about going to sleep each night. I have been like this all my life and just wish it did not happen. So pleased (though sorry for others) that I’m not alone in experiencing this strange and very disturbing phenomenon.

  • I fell asleep and instantly started dreaming what seemed to be a very long dream upon waking. I woke up suddenly and my room was lit up with what seemed like candle holder with holes in it making lighted stencil patterns all over the walls, it was beautiful. Then I Felt my bed shaking a little. I got scared and grabbed my phone, I Had only been asleep for exactly one hour. I felt confused and went out to my car until the sun came up. 1st time that has ever happened to me. Weird

  • I will wake up from a sleep first I sow a spider that was a red glowing color red light. Then after seeing that for a few nights it was a red ball with glowing red lights. Then it was a green glowing wall that was just lines all over the place. I also woke up once and looked up and sow something up there with its head looking away. I was so freaked out that it was going to lifts its head up and look at me. I started sleeping with a small light on but now the things show up in the hallway. I dont mind the walls and glowing bugs. I stare at them till they go away. Its the things that look like someone that freaks me out. Haven’t told my Dr about it yet. They come and go. At times I can go weeks without seeing them. Now I know its not just me. Years ago I use to wake up and see a face all the time right in front of mine but after we moved it turned into the lights and odd things.

  • I used to see things in the room at night people sitting behind me talking to them asking them if they wanted tea. Tele changing channels by itself rats running around voices telling me what to do. I was a binge drinker and didn t eat while drinking. Horrible. I am 2 years away from drink. thank God and my friends have left. Take care. SEAN

  • I’m 23 years old, when I start to fall asleep I see this black figure sitting on my bed and then when I suddenly wake up it just goes away :/.

  • Finding this article has blown my mind! I can finally identify what is happening to me! I usually wake up with a fright as I’m just drifting off to sleep. Like as if something has startled me (I never know what!). However, it’s what happens later that is most scary. I’ve seen people sitting on my bed, a man hanging from the ceiling, spiders (they feature a lot!) and all sorts of random people / animals in my bedroom. I would say this happens several times a week.

    Depending on the situation I can ‘proper wake’ with a fright and it takes me ages to fall back over. Sometimes I have the ability to calm myself and tell myself it’s just one of my weird experiences so I can self soothe as it’s happening. Depends on the situation. Like with the spiders, I can normally watch them and know it’s not real.

    The worst time was when I ‘woke’ and a tiger was about to pounce on me. I jumped out of bed, cracked my head on my solid wood bedside table and bounced in to my mirrored wardrobe (derailing the middle panel which then fell in me). Seriously hurt myself – was badly bruised and had a massive lump on my head.

    It sucks that a lot of people seem to experience this, but, I’m glad to read that I’m not alone.

  • Im 60 years old, it happens all of the time at night, I see people in the bedroom, few days ago, I felt I saw a man sitting in my bedroom’s balcony smoking a cigarette, it was so real that I actually got up and stepped out to the balcony but nobody was out there.

  • Everytime I go to sleep I see bugs and some are really realistic, in the darkest parts of my room there’s figures but its even worst near light.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Thank you for your comment. I will read and publish it as soon as possible.

850 Shares
Share
Pin
+1
Tweet