Eccentric artist Salvador Dali believed that one of the secrets to becoming a great painter was what he called “slumber with a key.” “Slumber with a key” was an afternoon siesta designed to last less than a single second.
To accomplish this micro nap, Dali would sit in a chair with his arms resting on the armrests and his wrists dangling over them. He held a heavy metal key between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, and placed an upside-down plate on the floor directly below the key. The instant Dali dozed off, the key would slip through his fingers, clang the plate, and awaken him from his nascent slumber. In that moment, Dali observed, one walked “in equilibrium on the taut and invisible wire that separates sleep from waking.” The artist recommended this practice to anyone who worked with their mind, believing that the tiny nap “revivified” one’s whole “physical and physic being” and left you invigorated and inspired for an afternoon of creative labor.
Dali said that he had learned the “slumber with a key” trick from the Capuchin monks and that other artists he knew also used it.
The secret Dali had discovered involves entering a state called hypnagogia. Today we’ll discover what’s behind it, as well as how you too can discover new dimensions and insights along the boundary between wakefulness and sleep.
Hypnagogia and the Hypnagogic Nap
A regular sleep cycle consists of four stages. In the first, we’re technically not asleep, but are on our way. We spend about 5 minutes in Stage 1 sleep, though it can last longer. Brain activity begins to slow down; body temperature starts to drop; muscles relax; eyes move slowly from side-to-side. We lose awareness of our surroundings but we’re still easily jarred to wakefulness. If you’ve ever been woken just as you were dozing off, and claimed you were only “resting your eyes,” you were likely roused during Stage 1 sleep.
The experience of this transitional state between wakefulness and sleep is called hypnagogia. You’re floating at the very threshold of consciousness; your mind is sliding into slumber, but still has threads of awareness dangling in the world. You’re truly “half-asleep.”
While you’re in this state, you may see visions and hallucinations (often of shapes, patterns, and symbolic imagery), hear noises (including your own name or imagined speech), and feel almost physical sensations that relate to what you spent the day doing (like swimming in waves or riding in a boat). You may feel like you’re bobbing, floating, or falling (which is why you sometimes wake up from Stage 1 sleep with a jerk). The experience can essentially be described as “dreaming while awake.”
Hypnagogia can be experienced both when you’re transitioning to falling asleep, and again when passing through Stage 1 on the way to waking up (it is then called hypnopompia). In fact, because you repeatedly ascend and descend through the sleep cycle over the course of a given night, and even experience a few brief awakenings, you likely delve into hypnagogia at those times too; I know Kate has reported receiving revelatory-like answers to questions in the middle of the night in the midst of one of these half-asleep/half-awake states.
However, one’s memories of the hypnagogic states experienced during the night and as you rise in the morning are often plagued by grogginess and forgetfulness. Moreover, the hypnagogic state you pass though as you’re first falling asleep for the night will likely be forgotten by the time you arise in the morning. It’s for that reason that Dali and many other creative types experimented with intentionally inducing hypnagogia as part of a micro-nap during the day. By so doing, they could purposefully wake themselves up right before crossing the threshold into Stage 2 sleep, and immediately write down the insights that had arisen during their brief slumber. They found that these “hypnagogic naps” boosted their creativity and opened their minds to new insights and solutions to problems.
Why would the hypnagogic nap have such an effect? The answer largely remains a mystery, as Stage 1 sleep generally, and hypnagogia specifically, have not been well-studied. The hypothesis is that the state allows for the fluid mixing of the things one has been working on during the day, with dreamlike thoughts — the collision of the conscious and the unconscious. Professor Andreas Mavromatis argues that during hypnagogia, the “newer” (evolutionarily speaking), rational parts of the brain are inhibited, while the “older,” more primitive parts (which think in imagery and symbolism rather than words and well-defined concepts), have freer rein. The usual dominance of the prefrontal cortex and its rules of logic are checked, and the typical constraints placed on what’s possible are loosened. Thus, the mind is free to play around, make associations between divergent ideas, and come up with imaginative solution to problems.
Famous Men Who Took Hypnagogic Naps
However it works, many great men from history who produced amazing innovations in science, math, music, art, and literature swore by the power of the hypnagogic nap. The practice has been around at least since the time of Aristotle, and was particularly popular during the Romantic Age, which prized the pursuit and discovery of intuitive insights.
William Blake and John Keats had visions during their wakeful-dreaming that inspired their poetry. Keats’ “Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds” begins with a description of the hypnagogic state:
Dear Reynolds! as last night I lay in bed,
There came before my eyes that wonted thread
O shapes, and shadows, and remembrances,
That every other minute vex and please:
Things all disjointed come from north and south, –
Two Witch’s eyes above a Cherub’s mouth…
Few are there who escape these visitings, –
Perhaps one or two whose lives have patent wings,
And thro’ whose curtains peeps no hellish nose,
No wild-boar tushes, and no Mermaid’s toes;
But flowers bursting out with lusty pride,
And young Æolian harps personified;
Some Titian colours touch’d into real life”
Beethoven is said to have received inspiration for compositions while half asleep on carriage rides to Vienna. And another famous composer, Richard Wagner, penned an entire opera based on a dream he had during a quick catnap.
Writer Sir Walter Scott said he was at his most inspired the first half hour after he woke up in the morning: “When I got over any knotty difficulty in a story, or have had in former times, to fill up a passage in a poem, it was always when I first opened my eyes that the desired ideas thronged upon me.”
Robert Louis Stevenson credited much of his writing to the “Brownies” who visited him while he slumbered, weaving the threads of his stories in his head, and said he could hardly distinguish what part of his work was “done sleeping and what part awake.” In fact, the plot of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to Stevenson when his wife abruptly woke him from a dream; he spent the next 3 days locked inside his room bringing what he had seen to life.
Edgar Allan Poe said he never had trouble putting his thoughts into words, except when it came to describing the “fancies” he experienced during his frequent, intentionally induced descents into hypnagogia:
“I use the word ‘fancies’ at random, and merely because I must use some word; but the idea commonly attached to the term is not even remotely applicable to the shadows of shadows in question. They seem to me rather psychal than intellectual. They arise in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of most intense tranquility — when the bodily and mental health are in perfection — and at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these ‘fancies’ only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so…
These ‘fancies’ have in them a pleasurable ecstasy, as far beyond the most pleasurable of the world of wakefulness, or of dreams, as the heaven of the Northman theology is beyond its hell. I regard the visions, even as they arise, with an awe which, in some measure, moderates or tranquillizes the ecstasy — I so regard them, through a conviction (which seems a portion of the ecstasy itself) that this ecstasy, in itself, is of a character supernal to the human nature, is a glimpse of the spirit’s outer world.”
Yet it has not only been esoteric artists who have credited their creativity to hypnagogic naps, but rational scientific types as well. Isaac Newton, Descartes, and Einstein were all said to have gotten insights into their theories and innovations while lost in a half-awake reverie.
Like Dali, inventor Thomas Edison was very intentional about his hypnagogic naps. He would sit in a chair while holding ball bearings in his hands. On the floor, directly beneath his fists, he would place aluminum pie plates. As soon as he fell asleep, the ball bearings would fall on the plates, creating a loud clatter that would instantly rouse him. Edison would then record the images and ideas that were swirling in his head right before he returned to full consciousness. These unique naps helped him break through the dead ends he would arrive at in his experiments.
Chemist August Kekule made some of his most important discoveries via the hypnagogic nap. While riding a streetcar one night, he got sleepy and “fell into a reverie” in which atoms danced before his eyes, revealing to him the way in which they linked together to form a chain. When the conductor called out his stop, Kekule snapped to wakefulness, but the imagery remained. He spent the rest of the night sketching out what he had seen — notes which would become the fundamental theory of chemical structure. Later in his life, he discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule while he was half-asleep in front of a fire. As he drifted between wakefulness and sleep, he had a short dream in which he saw molecules form into snakes and one of those snakes bite its own tail, thus forming a closed ring. He awoke “as if by a flash of lightning” and “spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of this hypothesis.”
Eminent mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincare regularly had insights into the theorems he was developing suddenly come to him both while he was out and about, and “in the morning or evening while in a semi-hypnagogic state.” Poincare believed the “the subliminal self plays an important role in mathematical creation,” for it was able to discern which of the many theories generated by the mind “are harmonious…useful and beautiful” and thus worth pursuing. Poincare posited that the unconscious acts like a “delicate sieve,” which sifts out useless ideas, and brings the good ones to the attention of the conscious mind. A man who doesn’t hone this power of intuitive discernment, he argued, “will never be a real creator.”
How to Take Your Own Hypnagogic Nap
I’ve experimented with the hypnagogic nap myself and had success with it. I’ve come up with several blog post ideas while exploring the very edge of sleep, and have felt a general boost in creativity afterwards.
If you’d like to try hypnagogic napping out for yourself, below you’ll find some tips both from my own experience, and from the famous men of history who mastered the art.
Thoroughly study the issue/problem you’d like to get insight about. What makes the hypnagogic state such a fertile petri dish of illumination is its combination of information you’ve consciously studied, with ideas that have been fermenting in your unconscious. You can’t hope to get insight into something you don’t already thoroughly understand; you first need to feed your unconscious with real facts and let them germinate. Then, when the time is right, and you have taken your conscious work as far as it can go, it’s time to prevail upon your subliminal self to reveal a new angle on the problem. Poincare elaborates on the necessity of this groundwork:
“sudden inspirations…never happen except after some days of voluntary effort which has appeared absolutely fruitless and whence nothing good seems to have come, where the way taken seems totally astray. These efforts then have not been as sterile as one thinks; they have set agoing the unconscious machine and without them it would not have moved and would have produced nothing.”
As a case in point, Stevenson’s idea for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde didn’t materialize unbidden and completely unfamiliar in his dream; rather, he “had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man’s double being.” He just couldn’t figure out how to execute his idea. Then, when some bills became due, and necessity dictated the writing of something, anything, “For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort.” It was only then that parts of the Jekyll and Hyde storyline finally arrived in his sleep.
Have paper and pencil ready. When you wake up from your nap, you’ll want to record the insights and ideas in your head right away before they leave you. So have something to write at your side. I usually keep a pocket notebook and pen next to me.
Pick a small, heavy, and metallic object to hold. It could be a key like Dali or ball bearings like Edison. A spoon’s another popular choice. Me? I use my lucky talisman coin for added mystical, woo-woo effect because I’m a Romantic like that. Don’t do a G.I. Joe Kung Fu Grip on your object. You’ll never go to sleep like that. Just hold it loosely in your hand.
Drape your arm over the chair’s arm or your bed. You can do this either sitting or lying down. I’ve done both to great effect. Either way, you’ll want to position the hand holding the heavy, metallic object so that it’s hanging above the floor. So if you’re sitting in a chair, drape your hand over an armrest. If you’re lying in bed, let your arm hang over the side.
Place a hard dish/pan directly beneath your hand. When you fall asleep, and the object you’re gripping releases, you want it to land on a pan or dish directly below your hand and have it make a loud noise. Aluminum pie plates work great, a la Edison. But if you don’t have those around, a Pyrex dish or metal pan will do (just make sure your metallic object isn’t so heavy/big that it’ll break the receptacle upon impact).
Nap. Now, just close your eyes and let yourself descend into napdom. Just when you’re about to fall asleep, your mind will start hallucinating and a swirl of images/colors/noises/sensations will come into your mind. At the same time, your body will relax, and you’ll drop the object from your hand.
Write down your insights. Wake up and write (or draw) any ideas that came to you right before you woke up. Be prepared for some of them to be absolutely bonkers and silly. But more often than not, you’re going to discover some great insights using this napping technique.
Verify your inspiration and expand on it. Poincare notes that even when an insight you receive feels totally right and true, and usually is, occasionally your unconscious will deceive you and spit out an idea that seems useful, but really isn’t. So it’s important to examine the veracity of your insights post-nap. “It is necessary,” Poincare writes, “to put in shape the results of this inspiration, to deduce from them the immediate consequences, to arrange them, to word the demonstrations, but above all is verification necessary.”
Poincare also points out that “It never happens that the unconscious work gives us the result of a somewhat long calculation all made…All one may hope from these inspirations, fruits of unconscious work, is a point of departure for such calculations.” In other words, your unconscious isn’t going to spit out an idea lock, stock, and barrel; rather, it will furnish inspirational hints that then need to be fleshed out and expanded on through conscious study and work.
Stevenson only had a few of the scenes of the Jekyll and Hyde story come to him in his dream; he had to work like a mad man to fill in the rest. And both times Kekule received a hypnagogic insight, he spent the rest of the night turning visions of dancing atoms and circling snakes into real theorems.
Practice! The more you practice the art of hypnagogic napping, the better you get at it. That’s certainly been my experience. The more times I’ve tried it, the more my sessions produce ideas that I can actually use.
Kekule found that over time, his “mental eye” was “rendered more acute by repeated visions of the kind,” and this allowed him to more readily distinguish structures and details amidst the swirl of imagery floating before his mind.
When Poe first began his experiments with hypnagogic napping, his ability to consistently enter this dreamy state was sporadic. But with practice he “developed the capacity of inducing or compelling” hypnagogia whenever he wished. He even became able to wake himself up right before sliding into Stage 2 sleep without assistance from the object-drop technique:
“I have proceeded so far…as to prevent the lapse from the point of which I speak — the point of blending between wakefulness and sleep — as to prevent at will, I say, the lapse from this borderground into the dominion of sleep. Not that I can continue the condition — not that I can render the point more than a point — but that I can startle myself from the point into wakefulness, and thus transfer the point itself into the realm of Memory; convey its impressions, or more properly their recollections, to a situation where (although still for a very brief period) I can survey them with the eye of analysis.”
Poe hastens to add that even his finely tuned ability to induce and control a hypnagogic state was predicated on the presence of “favorable conditions” — good health in body and mind, and a generally tranquil mood. So even with practice, don’t expect an illuminating, mind-bending trip into hypnagogia every time you try to get there. But when you do get a chance to explore the boundary between wakefulness and sleep, here’s hoping you see the seeds of a brilliant new math theorem or the start of the Great American Novel.
Happy hallucinatory napping!
Read More on the Power of Sleep
What Every Man Should Know About Sleep
22 Ways to Get a Better Night’s Sleep
Unleash the Power of the Nap
The Napping Habits of 8 Famous Men
How to Pull an All-Nighter
Why and How to Become an Early Riser