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.

818 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Now its been nearly 7months this hallucinations come regularly while starting and end of the sleep at day and night..but the intensity of dreams fade away ..which means now just dreaming day to day things not scary things like before.I think all these things related with due to some toxic substances absorbed to the body.
    Thanks

  • I have been seeing animals, shapes and people. I always get scared because I always think it’s real. Seeing people is the worst, because I always think they want to hurt me. I once saw a bottle on my closet falling down and splatter, and blood came on the wall. I panicked and ran over there only to realize that nothing was there. I thought I was going crazy because none of my friends see stuff like this, and it feels like I’m all alone in this. Reading these comments makes me happy, as there’s other people who has the same problem. Can this happen because of stress and anxiety?

  • I’ve been having it for a few years now, it’s always human faces, elderly, young, middle aged, and very scary, last night it was a China doll coming towards me. I have them regularly and I get very scared, I’ve never heard of sleep hallucinations but I wish they’d stop

  • I’ve been having this problem for a LONG time. I’d say most of my life but it’s been worse the past few years. I’m a 29 year old female with no diagnosed mental illnesses or sleep disorders but I am under a lot of stress and I wake up probably more than 10 times a night that I know of. I see a lot of spiders. Almost always above me on my ceiling coming down towards me. Sometimes I freak out to the point where I have to wake my fiancé up to check. I also have two pictures of Marilyn Monroe on my wall and I wake up almost every night and think the images have changed to something completely terrifying. For a few years, I’ve also been seeing shapes float across the room after waking up in the middle of the night. They almost always look like a sea anemone. Strange, I know. And, I’ve definitely experienced Exploding Head Syndrome. Sometimes I’ll need to get up and check the house to see if something has fallen or something. I experience a lot of other things but those ads definitely the most reoccurring.

  • When I was younger if see people and monsters with glowing eyes staring at me from my bunk bed is this connected with this?

  • I am 20 and i mostly wake up to read and while i go back to bed and tring to sleep i feel like some strange thing pushes me hard and i cant open my eye, move my muscles…. this thing happens for at least 10second then i will wake and try to sleep again… what is this … is this sleep paralysis?

  • Growing up i had frequent nightmares and would see shadows. Now that I’m older I just find it got worse I’ve see doors open… lights go on off. I’ve seen the house on fire or just last night a bird trying to fly out of my house and hitting the glass. It makes me feel uneasy and it concerns my family and my husband. He’s gotten used to it but it’s so frequent and it’s so real …I can’t. Sometimes I end up getting no sleep from it.. It is kind of sad it’s just something myself and others have to deal with. One thing to as a side question …I dream every night I’d say and I can normally remember my dreams with detail. I can remember dreams from long ago too, is this somehow connected to the hypnogogic hallucinations?

  • I get them as often as twice a week, or as far apart as a couple months. But they are almost always about spiders. Either a spider is creeping toward me from the ceiling right above my bed, or there are hundreds of smaller ones all over the walls. Sometimes the hallucination will be of a figure standing near my doorway, but this one hardly ever happens. I can move during them, I almost always wake all the way up after running from my bedroom into my living room once I’ve turned on the lights. It takes me a couple minutes to realize what I just saw wasn’t real :( And I always have trouble getting back to sleep afterwards.

    • I always see spiders too. I just saw one and I swear it was real if I hadn’t watch it disappear into a shadow. But now the adrenalines kicked in and probably won’t sleep much tonight. It always happens at a period of high stress.

  • I am not well. i feel see and hear things at night every night . Im convinced that someone is liveing under my bed . Its destroying my relationship with the love of my life i see and hear and feel the bed and her moving all night and im convinced that they are engaging in sexual acts while i sleep . Im so confused and scared. Iv attempted suicide on several occasions just to make it stop .everyone thinks im over reacting i dont know what to do anymore..

    • Hi Beaubeau
      Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear you’ve been having such a difficult time. I think this is something you need to speak to your primary care doctor about as soon as possible if you haven’t already. This isn’t a time to deal with how you feel alone – seek support and help from a professional, as well as your family and friends.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • So I’ve been waking up and seeing security cameras next to my bed. When I look at them the move away and then disappear after about ten seconds…I see the same cameras every time.

  • Some of you are lucky, seeing beautiful things, amazing things. I’m 13 and every single night I see shadows and figures and hear things. Footsteps, voices, even screaming.I feel things touching me or crawling on me and I feel a presence beside me. And I sleep in a room with no electricity meaning no light or TV, and this problem has affected me so much that I hardly sleep. Its horrible. My mom just thinks I’m over exaggerating but I’m not. I know what I see, I know what I hear and its driving me crazy. Its gotten so bad that I cry when it happens, sometimes I scream at it and my mom thinks its all an act. Does anyone know how I can get her to believe me so I can get some help or something? Anything? Please!

    • Hi, I can sense your fear and understand your problem. Try talking to your guidance counselor, social worker or school psychologist. In addition to having someone to share your experiences with they may be able to help you communicate to your mother what you are going through. Otherwise when you go to your doctor for a check up, be confident and explain to him/her what you are experiencing at night. I can assure you that your doctor will understand as it is not uncommon and they should be able to help you.

  • Since I was 6 I was experiencing this. I try to ignore the shapes I see when I’m going to sleep and it’s been a while since I’ve had sleep paralysis whilst waking up. Now they’re returning.. It happened twice this week. The first experience was when I saw some what of a dead person at the foot of my bed and it wasn’t a pleasing site. And the second one I felt like my neck was broken and I couldn’t breathe. I saw my cousin just right outside of my room and I tried calling her but she couldn’t Herman me. It was hard getting the voice out and I tried getting up and it literally felt like my soul was going to leave my body if I moved more.. And the thing is there was something ready to attack me and a boy beside me watching.
    I don’t know who he is.
    I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move and felt like my neck was broken.
    I’m 17 btw

    • I have sleep hallucinations and have had then since I was 12. Now I’m 27 and in the last year they have gotten much worse. Now what your mentioning seems very specific and I believe may be spiritual. I have a lot of experience with what your going through. I don’t know what you believe in but faith in Jesus can help. I used to have awful things happen, worse than what I have learned to deal with now. Saying his name was the only thing that ended my worst encounters. I will say a prayer for you and remember one thing: fear gives darkness power. Jesus is stronger than the darkness, call on him when your frightened. Blessings:)

  • Every night for 18 years since we bought this house, I have experienced a presence in my bed. The thing is I can’t see it, but I feel someone moving around at the bottom of my bed, and it moves into my bed. I will raise my foot and it will press my foot back down. My husb never has felt anything moving in bed, only me. The thing that is bothering me is….no matter where I go this presence is there…but only when I go to bed do I feel this. Even when we went to Canada I had the same thing happen in bed.

  • Hello.
    I tend to see the classic “Hat Man” or “Cloak man” when I sleep. It usually freaks me out. One of my friends told me “It’s probably a tree shadow” But the thing is My window is blocked up. I tend to also see wolfs and birds as well.
    So, Am I going insane or just Hypnagogic hallucinations. Probably Hypnagogic Hallucinations but my friends will always say I’m going insane.

  • Hi! Ever since I was young, I have been having trouble sleeping. Before, it would be more of a dream rather than hallucinations. Now, I would see different creatures or people when I try to go to sleep. Every time I would close my eyes I would see the mysterious figure come closer to me to the point where they are in front of me, I would open my eyes and do anything else rather than sleeping like using my phone or wait till it is time to wake up. I talked to my mom about it but her experience was different than mine. Whenever I take a shower, I try to avoid closing my eyes and turning around since I am afraid of mysterious creatures lurking in my bathroom. I am afraid it is getting worse and I might need some advice.

  • I experience hallucinations that were described on a nightly basis. The most common is visual. It always occurs within the 1st hour of falling asleep. I’m 36 years old & a business owner. I’m assuming it’s due to stress but it can be a bit frustrating waking up nightly & waking my guy who it effects more bc he is fully awakened whereas I can typically go right back to sleep.
    I have tried many things to try and fight this and there hasn’t been one thing in particular that helps.

  • Hi i have a problem. I have experienced servere hallucinations as a kid, I have seen some disturbing things that you would only see in horror movies. I am 16 right now and i experienced these hallucinations when i was 8-10 years old. And i am still sleeping with light on to this very day. And i can’t sleep without a person next to me. I am still sleeping with my dad.. I don’t know what to do. What i have seen makes me wonder my sanity sometimes….

  • I just woke up & I saw a blur of a stripped snake crawling under Neath my door it was leaving out …I got up quick to see if it was actually real

  • I’ve noticed for several months now that I awake abruptly only to see an image on the wall that I ‘m facing. I do not recall ever dreaming about the image or even being asleep for that matter! I’ve seen a spider, pink spoons, and last night I saw a beautiful flower. For the last several years I’ve had insomnia and when I do fall asleep it’s in 15 minute increments (so I’ve been told) for a total of about 2-3 hours of sleep per night.

  • I, in a regular basis have the feeling of sleep paralysis. I often feel presence of smthng or some shadows i cldnt recall now. But most terrfying is that i have often seen monsters instead of people who sleep beside me. Just a day ago i woke up to find a dark creature near me instead of my mother and when she saw my anxiety and called out for me, i screamed and ran out of the room. But once i got out of the bed and my mind relaxed, i felt the real surroundings. This is 4th time i see figures instead of people. I even talk to these figures, and often i feel i am not in sleep while doing so. But oncs i snap out of it, i feel perfectly sane and normal. I often experience fluttering of heart in day time while doing my chores. There was a time when i was afraid to go back to sleep as i was sure i will be hallucinating things. I have also experienced, in day time, a voice whispering or calling out my name a couple of times. I know i have sleep paralysis but about the hallucinations, its like people are switched to someone else, know or unknown to me. And daytime arrhythmia also frightens me.

    • I’ve been having the same issue with the monsters and the shadows moving towards me. The other night I woke up screaming and I saw these monsters chopping up me and my boyfriends legs blood everywhere then I snapped out of it and was fine. What is this issue I really want to get to the bottom of it. I wake up terrified and screaming full of panic scared to death, especially when I wake up and see these monsters or moving shadows in the room. Please let me know if you get any feedback as to what we should do.

  • I used to always see weird objects floating in the room that would usually last for 5 seconds or less. I seen an orange cat once. Spiders. When it all started, it gradually got worse. In the beginning, it was once a month and then it was almost every night. One night, it wasn’t like any of the visuals I’ve seen before … I was so terrified because I seen what looked like a person under neath a colourful quilt blanket hunched over, dragging their feet towards the end of my bed ( it sounded so real ) I pulled my blanket over my head so fast. Looked again and it was gone. I started taking sleep.eaze tablets to help me sleep through the whole night. It helped a lot.

  • Hi, I am asleep and woken quickly by a vision that seems very close to me (coming at me if you will) some times it’s a man tonight it is was a dog dressed in brown last night it was a man he had on green shirt with paint on it. These visions are quick and shock me, it has happened before where the objects have been flying but now it’s happening more often. I am a lady in my late 60s believe to be normal I have just suffered a very bad flue and under a huge strain with family. Please help I feel I am going nuts and scared to go to sleep.

  • Ok…just sent comment anonymously.. sorry! Not intentional. I never want to stop having hypnagogic experiences. Ever. They have been a gift to me. I once saw the friendliest face imaginable. He was a red-headed man with wavy hair and beard. Blue or green eyes. My problem is that when I try to focus on any image…it vanishes! I’ve tried to just go with the flow when images appear, but my curiosity gets the better of me and I try to see them more clearly. This is sooo annoying for me as I want to carry on in this state but involuntarily send them away! This happened when I saw that friendly face – and he seemed to know what I’d just done…he looked dissapointed, and so was I! All images I see seem random…but they’re all welcome!

  • I found all comments fascinating…as well as puzzling! I’ve experienced hyp nagogic images since childhood and, to be quite honest, the night I don’t see anything is more disturbing to me than any night I do! I couldn’t possibly imagine my life without them, seeing as they form a part of my normal sleep routine. Sure, there have been some images that were disturbing but, for the most part, they are beautiful! I’ve seen places I’ve never been to…faces of people I’ve never met…I’ve even “been” in other time periods and other realities! I LOVE my hypnagogic images, look forward to seeing what turns up next, and wish they’d last longer!!!

  • I woke up yesterday morning hearing my son talking at 5:19am. I went to his door and told him its too late to be awake and to go to sleep. He never responded after that. I felt it odd but went back to sleep. Come to find out he had gone up sleep much earlier. I was hearing him but he was sleeping. #1 I alittle while ago turned the light off put the fan on and closed my eyes. A few minutes later I opened my eyes and saw an image that looked like a big huge spider? Bat? Thing? Spinning. I jumped up so quickly . Wtf? I put the light on…nothing. Am I going crazy or maybe it was something.

  • I’m thirteen and I see, hear and/or feel things every night. It scares me so much that I either sit up in bed or hide under all my duvets just looking around my room. I don’t fall asleep for a while as I’m so terrified. I see shadows and faces, I hear footsteps and sometimes voices and I feel people touching me or insects on me when none of these are actually there. I also normally feel a presents with me while I’m trying to sleep. I get so paranoid at night so I searched it up and found this and I relate so much. Right now, I’m paranoid. I need help to stop panicking so much at night. Any advise? Please?

  • 3 weeks ago I was laying awake in my bed trying to fall asleep. I closed my eyes few seconds, but then I heard somethings moving in the room so I opened my eyes. I saw some weird moving shadows in the corners of the room. I looked at the bedroom door to my right, I saw a big ring in the air! Inside the ring, I saw pictures moving so quickly as if there is someone recording a video and running with the camera and I’m watching through the ring. I saw skeletons of decayed and dead people as if the picture was running inside a grave. Some of the skeletons were sitting up and some were laid on muddy ground. I saw small skeletons of kids and skeletons of women with hair but decayed faces. I was in such shock I couldn’t even turn my head to the front cause I knew I wasn’t sleeping and I’m really seeing this inside my bedroom!! All of the sudden the moving picture just stopped and one of these skeletons stepped out of the ring towards me slowly. I couldn’t take it any more, I started to get scared rather than curious, so I turned to the left where my baby was sleeping in his beside crib, I hugged him and started reading Quran versus. Then I turned to the right again and everything was gone! So I grabbed my phone and wrote down every single detail of what happened cause I knew if I didnt do that I will wake up the next day thinking that was just a dream. I still have this note on my phone. At the end of it I wrote “I was not hallucinating I was not dreaming all of this happened to me when I was awake.”
    So what do you think? Is this hypnagogic hallucinations? I have had similar experiences before but they were very brief and happened when I was waking up from sleep not when I was trying to.

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