The hypnopompic state (or hypnopompia) is the state of consciousness leading out of sleep, a term coined by the psychical researcher Frederic Myers. Its mirror is the hypnagogic state at sleep onset; though often conflated, the two states are not identical. The hypnagogic state is rational waking cognition trying to make sense of non-linear images and associations; the hypnopompic state is emotional and credulous dreaming cognition trying to make sense of real world stolidity. They have a different phenomenological character. Hypnopompic and hypnagogic hallucinations are frequently accompanied by sleep paralysis, which is a state wherein the person is consciously aware of their surroundings but unable to move or speak. For this reason they are often frightening to a person newly experiencing them. These hallucinations are believe to be the source of many perceived supernatural experiences.
Hallucinations are commonly understood as "sensory perceptions that occur in the absence of an objective stimulus". As this definition implies, though like dreams most hallucinations are visual, they can encompass a broader range of sensory experience. Auditory hallucinations are thus also common: "patients can hear simple sounds, structured melodies or complete sentences". Slightly less common but not unheard of are "somesthetic" hallucinations involving our sense of touch and location, with such experiences ranging from tactile sensations to full-blown "cenesthopathic" or "out-of-body experiences", which involve sudden changes in the perception of the body’s location, or even a sense of movement of the entire body. Finally, a unique characteristic of hypnopompic hallucinations is that as opposed to dreams, wherein we rarely understand we’re asleep, here sleepers do indeed have "the clear subjective awareness of being awake" yet are frequently mentally and physically trapped in the experience.
The objective difference between the subjective experiences of dreams and hypnopompic hallucinations emerges from a close look at our sleep cycle and its attendant brain activity: there are essentially two types of sleep, REM sleep, which is indeed categorised by "rapid eye movement" and NREM, which stands for "Non-REM". In REM sleep, our brains are extremely active. In particular, during this stage, both our brain stem, which is the home of our most fundamental physical drives, and the parts of the cortex related to our most complex logical-cognitive functions experience highly intense electrical activity. As this perhaps suggests, REM is where the majority of dreaming occurs—it’s been all but confirmed at this point that dreams originate in the brain stem, a spark from there driving our more logical mind to contemplate and consolidate, through dreaming, memories that relate to fulfilling our fundamental drives. Conversely, there is almost no electrical activity during NREM sleep. It will thus be no surprise that NREM is what is referred to in layman’s terms as "deep sleep", which is characterised by the complete quieting of the mind, to include dreamlessness and by muscle "atonia", which is to basically say paralysis, a complete motor disconnect. A last critical point in this regard is that REM sleep cycles are bookended by NREM stages, which is to say that when we fall asleep and wake up, we first fall into and last arise from, NREM sleep.
It is precisely at this last point, though, that a minor glitch, as it were, in brain chemistry, can cause hypnopompic hallucinations: occasionally during deep NREM, "transient patterns of neural activation in brainstem structures resemble[ing] micro-wake "fragments" can occur". As the origin of the fragments and their name implies, they have a twofold effect: first, just as in REM sleep, these brain stem fragments essentially activate the dream mechanism. Second, they indeed catalyse a near-waking state. However, this spark is often not powerful enough to jar us completely out of deep sleep, and so only our mind fully awakens, leaving our body trapped in the atonia of deep sleep. Another reason why hypnopompic hallucinations are often such horrible experiences, is because micro-wake fragments appear to be related to serotonin and dopamine deficits—these deficits predispose us to negative mental states, which likely causes the hallucinations to resemble our worst dreams.
These mental experiences are indeed often deeply damaging: across cultures, the experience of hypnopompic hallucinations are strongly related to "visitations of spirits, demons or other grotesque creatures belonging to traditional folklore". Thus, in the Anglosphere, hypnopompic experiences often entail the sense that an "Old Hag" or some similar "nocturnal spirit" is sitting on the sleeper’s chest, inducing both paralysis and an increasing, suffocating inability to move. Anthropologists have discovered references dating back to the High Middle ages of similar figures in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman traditions, most prominently the "mæra" from the name of which figure we derive the word "nightmare", and which appears to have roots in ancient Germanic superstitions.
Similarly, subjects belonging to Yoruban-African diasporas report feeling as though they are being "ridden" by the evil manifestations of their versions of the African pantheon—ridden is the vernacular for possession by the gods, who are often referred to as "divine horsemen". Interestingly in this vein, African-American communities that have been reliably linked to the Yoruba peoples, appear to conflate the cultural interpretation of the experience, referring to "being ridden by the witch". Perhaps most chilling of all, though, are the Japanese interpretations of the experience, which are often grouped under the heading of kanashibari, which translates loosely to "buried alive and bound in metal".
Future research horizons
Owing to similarities between hypnagogic hallucinations and those experienced by sufferers from dementia, parkinson’s and schizophrenia, significant progress is being made on understanding the neurobiological basis of this experience. To illustrate, researchers have identified "a common neurofunctional substrate [which] points to a shared pattern of brain activation" underlying elements of schizophrenic delusions and these near-waking hallucinations: "with regional grey matter blood flow values being maximally increased in right parietal-occipital regions" during hypnagogic hallucinations and many schizoid episodes. There is reason to believe, then, that such painful near-waking experiences could soon be rendered obsolete.
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