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.

979 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I have just found this site looking for answers pretty much all your sleep problems on here i have got. I have a condition which means i cannot go into stage four sleep. besides the problems on this site i am also experiencing heightened senses which can turn to dulling of senses. also i can be active mentally then i start dreaming at the same time as if half my brain is busy other half going into REM sleep..also seeing images symbols..a heightened intuition to quite a scary level ..I understand why I have these problems ,but my two young children have also started experiencing lucid dreaming, heightened senses and intuition. yet they both sleep well ..any ideas

  • I wake up every night at around 2-3 a.m. into a few seconds of hypnopompic hallucinations of abstract shapes, lines, glowing things, or geometric patterns coming roughly towards me. They’re usually accompanied by some vague sense of menace or intrusiveness, which is a reduction from the night terrors that used to accompany them years ago. I’m 36 and have had similar experiences and since I was a teen.

    They’ve recently changed again. Previously they were clearly part of a dream-like state that resolved into full consciousness shortly after waking up and moving around, but recently I become fully awake quickly, only to see these forms as if they’re totally real and unconnected to my dreaming mind, which I find more unsettling.

    The last few years have been a period of unprecedented stress, anxiety and depression in my life, which has gotten better over the past few months, but still in the red.
    With previous experience I’ve noticed my health take a hit when a prolonged period of stress is on its way out rather than during, so I wonder if this is following a similar kind of delayed response.

  • I had lots last night. Someone tapped on my back first of all. Then I had a very vivid dream that I can still remember. After that I had several episodes of seeing patterns and faces fading and appearing. However I started on beta blockers yesterday (Propronanlol) for BP and essential tremors so I wonder if it’s that as one of the side effects is vivid dreams apparently. I’m hoping it will get better as I get used to them.

  • I have them when I’m waking up, for a few says now I feel like that a couple of rats are cuddling up to me, but when I try to catch them there is nothing there. It kinda scary

  • When i was a little girl when i was trying to fall asleep i would see tons of little spiders the same color as the firs picture in the article. I was terrified and wouldn’t take my eyes off of them. They would be floating everywhere in my room and it looked like they were all coming towards me. The only thing i would do was look at the digital clock in my room because up to where the light of the clock flashed “the halo” the spiders wouldn’t seem to be able to cross over. Now for me this lasted hours. I would know because i had to stare at that clock for a long period of time until i was finally able to fall asleep. I was terrified and sometimes i would go to my mom and la beside her but i would still see them. Other times i left my room and went to sit in the bathroom with all the lights on so I couldn’t see them anymore there since it was only in the dark.
    Now even if i shut my eyes really tight i would still be able to see them.

    This must of been the type of hallucination that happened right before falling asleep as per the articles explanation. Like i mentioned before it lasted hours for me not only minutes.

  • When it was in the middle of the night I heard keyboard clicking and I thought it was my sister so I went to the noise and found nothing. I went back to bed to hear it again. It got louder as something whispered in my ear. I hid myself in my blanket and it helped with the noise and I was finally able to get some sleep

  • I have had this for a few years now. So happy I found this site and a name for it. Always happens only at night when I am in bed. Started as bugs and spiders then it fades away after a few seconds. Now it is boxes with words in them. I saw the word peace and love once, but it happens so fast I can’t always read the words. Always upset me and have no one to talk about it to.

  • I am thankful to have found this thread. I have had multiple incidences of seeing things while I was awake well I thought I was awake.
    First time it ever happened it was probably 7 years ago, at the time my husband was in Las Vegas, NV and I was in care of our young 6 year old son. It was late at night and quiet. I woke up to my ceiling had caved in. I saw the beams, insulation blowing in the wind, my ceiling fan swaying back and forth on its wires it was vivid. I instantly got out of bed scared and ran to the living room where I stopped, processed and thought to myself seriously? So I walked back into my bedroom to see my ceiling fully intact.
    Probably about 6 months later I woke up to a Huge Red Spider crawling down the wall next to my bed. My husband is awake I immediately start backing out of bed diagonally smacking my husband leg telling him to move. My eyes never left that spider. My husband terrified of spiders is trying to find this huge spider that my eyes are locked on. I finally reach the end of the bed, my one foot touches the floor and instantly I wake up and look around trying to figure out if it was real or not. My husband hyperventilating because of a possible spider trying to calm down; I looked at him and said oh there isn’t a spider? Ok good night and I fell back asleep.
    Those are some examples of what I have been going through. I have began to think I’m crazy I need to go on medication or see a therapist. I had another one last night which prompted me to research it and found this thread. Thank you to everyone who has shared there stories! Makes me feel so much better!

  • Just the other night I woke up at around 2am and saw my cat on one of the blades of the ceiling fan hissing at me. Of course it was just a hallucination. Not just that but another night I saw a toddler that looked a lot like my boyfriends niece just with no eyes. I was so scared I turned my nightlight on and realized it was my imagination but I still felt uneasy going to sleep. I get plenty of sleep I usually go to bed between 9:30-10:30pm.

  • It’s when I first lay down still awake last night I seen my room change color paint was everywhere I see people I heard a voice one night what is it I am tired

  • I have been seeing things when I wake up in the middle of the night. It started last year. I am 21. At first I would see bugs. first meal worms were crawling across the ceiling coming out and dropping on to the bed the next time they were already in the bed and all over the sheet. Then I saw an iguana on my boyfriends leg. Then a metal spider on my stomach which I could feel. These all happened around the same time within a week. I had just gotten a leopard gecko and was keeping mealworms and roaches in the house which don’t freak me out when I am awake because they are in a closed tub. It didn’t happen again for a while but twice now I have seen a figure. Last night it was standing by my bedside table looking down toward my alarm clock. I backed into my boyfriend and told him to turn on a light because there was someone there and I was freaking out. While he got up I continued to watch the figure who was now watching me and when the light turned on it disappeared. I haven’t found a way to deal with them yet.

  • I have had this difficulty for years seeing people at the side or end of the bed and at first thought it was ghosts. After moving several times the people have followed me. Men women and children of all ages and more recently a grizzly bear!
    I sometimes wake up in a state and have to check my husband is still alive because I think he is dead.

  • I am so happy I found this group!

    I too see giant spiders on the ceiling and walls and on occasion people. One night a Green Beret was at the end of the bed with his rifle up to his eye like he was going to shoot. On another occasion, an old woman was sitting at the end of the bed.

    I know they are not real but I usually put my head under the covers until they are gone.

  • I have had these issues since my early twenties. Last night was the worse and led me here trying to figure it out. When I lived in Germany we had VERY large spiders, I always thought I was dreaming but it would happen as I’m falling asleep (of if I woke up in the middle of the night, but I didn’t know I was awake) – I’d see tons of spiders coming down to me from the walls/ceilings.

    But last night, last night was terrifying. I woke up in the middle of the night to use the restroom and I could have SWORN there was someone laying next to me in bed. I was so scared, I was so certain someone was there that when I got out of bed.. I even “crawled” over this so called person. I get to the bathroom and switch the light on, but no one was there.
    I have been woken up in the middle of the night to what I think are noises, but now i am wondering if I am being woken up and then hearing them.

  • Hi,

    I tend to see geometric structures either floating above me or falling down towards my face. It’s unsettling and I feel uncomfortable/paranoid for the rest of the night. During times of high stress I’ve seen creepy figures coming towards me or reach out for me. It’s extremely scary. My eyes are definitely open and the room is in clear view. All I can do is freeze and watch until the image fades away.

    I’ve had a lot of trouble falling and staying asleep since late childhood. Also bouts of restless leg type stuff and anxiety. I’ve always had very vivid dreams. I find I finally fall asleep and sleep deepest in the morning hours. The stigma attached to late sleepers is very annoying. During times in my life when I could not set my own schedule and had to rise early I was miserable and sick all the time, sleeping about 2hrs a night sometimes not at all. I’ve learned to just accept the sleep schedule that’s best for me and ignore the critics. Thanks to everyone who shared their experiences. It makes it less scary.

  • I have started to have hypnopompic hallucinations more often. Based off of what I have read and my own experiences mine seem to trigger by becoming overheated while i sleep. I usually have a nightmare or stressful dream, followed by waking up feeling extremely hot and thirsty and that’s when I usually have a hallucination. I have experienced seeing shadow figures in the dark across the room. I need glasses to see, but these images are crystal clear until I turn on a light and relax my self. These experiences are pretty frightening. So to stop this from happening I am trying to find a comfortable sleeping temperature. I also drink a glass of water every night before bed to avoid waking up feeling dehydrated.

  • I usually get tactile hallucinations most and it disturbs me so much that I can’t sleep. It feels as if either the blankets are pressing on me or “breathing” (moving up and down creating periods of lightness and pressure). I also get a paranoid feeling. I want to sleep and get a good night’s sleep, but this has been keeping me up. To the point where sometimes I go whole nights without sleeping. I’ve been very stressed out lately, so maybe that’s it. I admit watching some scary things a few nights ago did not help, but I really want to get rid of the sensations completely. I’m losing sleep because I’m too scared…as pathetic as that sounds.

  • I have had a LOT of weird sleep issues such as sleep paralysis, waking up thinking there is a giant bug on me and I scream and fling it off but then after we turn on the light there is nothing there. Last night I woke up and sat up to pull up a blanket and I saw a big bug and heard it buzzing as I disturbed it moving the blanket. I turned the light on and we tore apart the bed looking for a bug and found nothing. I’ve found that I’m always worse when I am over tired. I do have other serious health problems like myasthenia gravis, a seizure disorder and MS. So I wondered if it was related to that. I also have this horrible symptom where my brain shocks me back awake every time I try to fall asleep. It is violent and painful like im being electrocuted and my husband says it literally looks like I’m being shocked as all of my body jerks. So I wondered if it was a new type of seizure. Anyways, I’m a mess lol.

  • I always wondered if there was an explanation for seeing, hearing things at night. I feel a lot better after reading this article. Mine got so bad I couldn’t even watch a scary movie. I would always find my self sleep walking trying to hide. Lighting some sage always helped me.

  • Yes hello i struggle alot from anxiety and i cant cope with stress but last night i felt like a big giant spider was crawling on my arm i felt the long legs and everything so i grab it with my hand and throw it but i turn on the light quickly but dont see anything so about 5 mins later im falling back to sleep and feel that feeling of a big spider crawling on me so i wake up yelling and look around for any spiders but dont see anything im so scared that im hallucinating,im just so scared at this moment i drank depression pills in the past for severe anxiety and panic attacks, can this be something bad??do i need help??

  • So I’ve read through a lot of these comments, in some I recognise myself a bit, in some I don’t. However my problems seem to vary quite a lot from most of you, but maybe someone has experienced something similar?

    I’ve always been afraid of the dark and seem to “have seen things” whenever the lights goes out. More or less since I turned 25 which is a few months back now I’ve seen a male figure in my room, it has only happened a couple of times and believing in paranormal activity, spirits and such I’ve just brushed it off as someone given me a visit (how scary it might be though!). However since a few weeks back it has gotten a lot worse. It started out with again a male figure (dressed in military suit if it matters), then couple of nights later I woke up by someone, something (my mind??) stroking my hand with the tip of their fingers, quite hard as this is what woke me up – yes it could’ve been my other hand, however I have quite long nails and it didn’t feel as scratching nails. Or my mind playing a trick?

    Another night I woke up by someone, something slamming down on the mattress so I literally hunched back.. Then another night by the sounds of someone tapping on the mattress. I can wake up with a pounding heart without having had a nightmare. I have very vivid dreams and seem to remember most them.

    Last night I woke up at least 10 times, with a unsettling feeling, there was something weird.. One of those times I woke up as I sat back down in my bed, I’d sleep walked, which I haven’t done since I was like 7 years old. It is hard to explain exactly what it feels like and what I am experiencing, but something along these lines!!

    Now this sounds probably like I’m on drugs which I can assure I’m not, haven’t even tried once.. Or like I’m mental which again, I’m sure I’m not..

    So have anyone else experienced something similar? Not only seeing things but actually feeling them…Or am I going crazy?

    • Hi Hanna
      Thanks for your comment. Tactile hallucinations are something that some people do experience. If you read the article about sleep paralysis, you’ll find lots of examples of people talking about feeling like that they were being touched or there was something in the bed with them.
      Regards
      Ethan

    • If it helps, I can relate. I see a male figure in my room almost every night. He is also a soldier. Dressed up in uniform and everything. Sometimes I’ll see him crawl onto my bed and can feel the mattress moving under his weight. Even after I close my eyes and hope he goes away, I can hear him talking to me or sometimes yelling or singing. He’s said some very disturbing things to me and the whole thing really creeps me out. I was given lunesta by my psychiatrist and while I can usually go to sleep faster, the hallucinations are worse.

      • Oh gosh Kitty I’m sorry to hear that. That’s quite scary. I feel like a lot of these images we create can be pent up emotions, feelings, frustrations, and anxiety that we have stored somewhere within our subconscious. I am a psychology major and now I feel like going through my courses and learning many different things about our brains and our social and developmental skills I feel like I sort of apply a lot of what I read into my own head which sometimes portrays onto my life and experiences. It may sound crazy haha but I think that’s a part of it. I personally have just start hallucinating while waking up the first incident was this past Tuesday I woke up at 3:31 on the dot and when I opened my eyes through the reflection of the fridge (my room and kitchen are right next to each other) I saw a woman in a robe with some sort of head scarf on cooking breakfast. I thought it was going crazy, but after I blinked my eyes a few times I knew that I was seein it because she was still there. After about 3 minutes which felt like an eternity, she literally just shrunk to nothingness. The second experience was last night, I woke up around 2:35 am precisely and I saw a figure of a man standing in my doorway that leads to the kitchen half of his body was in my room and the other half in the kitchen as if he were stalking me and didn’t want me to see too much of him. I did see he had on a blue cotton t-shirt, black square framed glasses, and a shirt hair cut. He didn’t say or do anything but after I was he was standing way too close for my liking lol I slyly grabbed my phone and slid on the flashlight and flashed it to the spot where he was and poof! He was gone . I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t actually real and I was about to be in a bad situation . I can laugh about it now but it scared the shit out of me because it had me thinking is this a hallucination or am I now all of a sudden seeing ghosts in my house when I haven’t for over 16 years. You know what I mean? That’s I know it’s my own imagination playing tricks on me and trust me that space in brain that is waiting for an idea to fill it can be a horrible thing sometimes because we create our worst fears and really torment ourselves. I’m going to see if it happens again and if it continues the next question is what are the triggers? What is going on with me that this is now happening when I have never seen people ever before. I hope this all helps. I sleep with the tv on as well, so the light from that didn’t help even which surprised me . I hope this helps someone . Message me back!

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