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.


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.


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.


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.

893 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I suffered from this in my late twenties and early thirties until my boyfriend literally was at his breaking point from me waking up screaming and scaring him to death. I would typically see bugs or spiders in the bed and would be – what to me felt like 100% awake – convinced they were real and there. It would happen monthly, sometimes more and started to escalate over time. I finally asked my doctor about it when I started to see figures looming over the foot of my bed. I could handle the bugs but this was terrifying. I’m posting this because this helped me and it’s worth a shot. I saw a homeopathic doctor and they gave me a dose of I believe some kind of cobra snake venom. I don’t have the name still of what I took but it worked. I have had maybe one or two episodes since but it’s been years now since I took this and I feel very much cured. You don’t have to live with this.

  • mine are always really sinister to be honest. I’m quite stuck on what to do because of how bad they can be sometimes. A good example of mine occurred around 5am last night (warning this could scare some of you)… I must’ve woken up and been asking this thing I was seeing in my room who it was for a minute, according to my friend who was with me at the time, I grabbed him and started screaming bloody murder. I remembered screaming for dear life, this evil looking demon like creature crawling towards me mumbling and bones cracking, whilst this dark black figure lingered behind just observing. I was beyond petrified. my friend claimed he saw this too but I feel as if Id just scared him into believing something was there by my manic actions and intense shrieking and crying for whatever it was to go away.

    I honestly dont know what this could come under, my night terrors last a minute or two but this went on for nearly 10 minutes all together according to my friend, and quite frankly, I am too scared to sleep tonight.

  • I have had this since I was a child. When I was a kid I had a huge Mickey Mouse holding out his hands and stars arched from one hand to the other (now it’s called a fathead) anyway. I would watch the stars dance and move before falling asleep. Now what I see mostly is lights in a grid on the walls and ceiling and I am sure that it is the true reality when I am in the state. Other times I have seen giant glow in the dark spiders on glow in the dark webs, or other bugs climbing up my wall. Once when camping I woke up to a large bang and the planets were colliding together and exploding in wondrous lights and fireworks I was sure that my bf would wake up to see it to. A few weeks ago I woke up to see claw marks gouged into the walls that was freaky.

  • I have experienced this for as long as I can remember. It is usually pretty passive and just distortions of the regular shapes of things in the dark or nonsensical images before falling asleep. I’ve always attributed it with lucid dreaming, because that’s how I always dream, and usually only see and hear things when I briefly wake up to roll over in bed coming out of and into a new dream; sometimes things just follow me out of the dream while I’m transitioning lol A very common thing is a sound I hear as I cross the threshold from being awake to dreaming and it sounds like one or two seconds of rolling your car window down at 100mph. I’m aware of these things as hallucinations and it’s often amusing to me… until it isn’t. Not often but sometimes it’s horrifying. Absolutely terrible and down right fucked up. The worst elements of nightmares, the voices of things hunting you, or seeing what scared you out of sleep in front of you or always in peripheral vision, and sometimes bad smells like from a fire all after you wake up; worse still hallucinations of those things touching or pushing me as I’m trying to fall back asleep. Dying is pretty common in dreams when I experience things like this after I wake up. It can start a trend of bad dreams where I end up dying at the end of them all. On those nights it tends to become a bad feedback loop of fear until I absolutely give up on sleep altogether and just stay up no matter what time it is. It’s very easy to become paranoid and hard to convince yourself you’re alone in empty rooms. I have no advice that will help you on nights like this one except I ALWAYS use rational thought to dispel these horrors. Keep your head screwed on. I’m not saying it’ll stop or you’ll be able to fall back asleep but just remember it’s all a dream ✌🏼

  • I have both sleep paralysis and hallucinations ,and they both suck let me tell you. When I sleep and dream,alot of times I become conscious of the fact that I’m dreaming, at time it can be fun to explore . But sometimes I’m not in control, im stuck in this dream trying to wake my self up . Usually my face is stuck to the floor in these dreams, in real life it’s the pillow. Then the room begins to slowly fill up with water and I end up drowning, a few times not just one ! Untill I finally wake up sweaty sometimes with out air ,it freaks me out to the point I almost can’t fall back to sleep . The hallucinations are disturbing as well, I usually see a huge rat or hairy spider right in front of my face. I always jump up yelling I never get used to it . Also see bugs and spiders walking on my walls ,the clothes from my closet moving and dancing as if being worn by ghost ,its super freaky .

  • Sometimes when my alarm goes off in the morning and I open my eyes I see what looks to be a spider crawling on the wall but there’s never anything there. Usually only happens if I’m startled awake though.

    • I saw something similar but it was while trying to fall asleep and now it is actually disturbing because now Um seeing something in lights going upwards l

  • I have been trying to find an article explain what I feel for a while but i couldn’t find a write words to write on a search bar, I have been taking sleeping pills for a long time now almost a year , I was taking them before for couple years and I quite and then I’m back again , at first I used
    To take couple pills and rest ,then it didn’t work after a while so I took more and more then I started combin 2 different sleeping pills to make me sleep faster and deeper, at the beginning I didn’t experience anything as I put my light off and go straight to bed , after sometime as of now I take the pills dose which is too high and it take quite sometime for it to kick me in bed so I stay up watching movies on my iPad while the room is dark and shortly after 10-15 minutes I start seeing weird things in the dark not around me but on my own body my own hands and fingers something like wires ,bugs around my hand ,breaking fingers,nails coming off and on of my hands many visual hallucinogens and it makes me so scared I get my phone and opens flash light and I see nothing then I put off flash light and I start seeing it again , it’s very disturbing and scary , I tried to quite sleeping pills and sleep normally but doesn’t work sometimes I try and I end up sleeping late after hopless trial and take the pills and finally sleep and wake up tired , I also try to decrease my dose which is 10 pills a night but I feel it doesn’t work or maybe I don’t give it a time to do so, I also experience some memory shortage after taking the pills and lack of speaking , It sometimes take me a good 20 or 30 minutes to reply a text message from a friend at night because I’m lost and I don’t know what to say and keep re-read the text to make sure it’s correct some othertime i ignore and I don’t reply because I don’t know what’s going on , o catch up myself texting my bestfriend last weekend at night out of the blue telling here that I’m depressed and I wanna suicide and she got
    Crazy and called me but I was sleeping next morning she is telling me o read the text and I don’t know why I said that , yes I’m having some difficult times and depression and I think about that a lot but I never thought I would text someone and tell them that.. I’m so scared and know what to do

    • This is a side effect of sleeping pills. I would suggest you see a doctor 10 pills to put you to sleep seem excessive.

  • I have had hallucinations since I was in elementary school . I am currently 15 and they are so bad , they use to be worse and some nights they get that way but I haven’t had them In a way to that extreme . I hallucinate music when it’s not there , someone calling my name, voices or mine talking and suddenly getting loud startling me . I usually at night when I’m trying to sleep (I have insomnia ) can see figure or things in the corners of my eyes but when I look nothing’s there . I’m so paranoid of sleep paralysis I will never sleep on my back and continuously have to whisper quietly one word to myself or move a finger when I’m trying to sleep to make sure I can still move . This has been all I can remember all my life and I’m so glad to know I’m not crazy . Recently my sister has said I talk in my sleep and I will wake up crying out of no where or when she talks to me when I’m half asleep I will say such weird things that make no sense and I think to myself that was so weird or think it’s not and when I’m fully awake remember it and cringe . I’m afraid of the dark because I can’t see what’s in it and I feel like someone’s with me and am afraid I will see more things so I usually sleep with a lamp on or a little light . I know this fear is irrational and that these hallucinations aren’t not real but trust me if I could stop them from Happening I would . These two past years I’ve been sleeping on my sofa to scared to go to my room because that’s where most of these happen. When I was smaller I was so terrified of the dark but shared a room with my sister my mom would force me to turn of the light and I would cover myself with my blanket including my face , crumble myself up , facedown on my pillow and cry or think of something else usually never sleeping . My hallucinations will happen when I haven’t slept at all due to my insomnia , before I sleep, during , after . Basically the only time I feel safe sleeping is in the day time . Also other hallucinations I have are dark figures or jump scares or shadows , like two days ago I seen a weird face slowly moving towards me while I was in the middle of sleeping . These weird hallucinations effect me so much I get mini heart attack’s over little normal things when not hallucinating and am extremely PARANOID to the extreme where at night I have this fishtank that’s reflective and I think I will see someone in the hallway looking at me so I cover it with a blanket . Another weird thing I do is go around the house before it gets dark just before it’s about to and close all the curtains perfectly and turn on all the lights like in my room or kitchen . This became a normal thing to me I never thought anyone else suffered from it and i just need advice and suggestions or similar stories because this is not the way to live i can’t take this i can’t describe it to anyone else , have never talked about it to anyone else and today when I stumbled to this article I knew god had heard my prayer .

    • I have experienced these things as well since I was a child. I am 35 and need a night light I do not like the things in the shadows. I too suffered from Insomnia for a vary long time. Maybe ask your doctor for a sleep study let the doctor know how much it effects you.

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