The Hypnopompic State

Just as the period of transition into sleep has a name (the hypnagogic state) so does the transition from sleep to wakefulness. It is called the hypnopompic state, a label suggested by Myers in 1904. The most characteristic feature of the hypnopompic state is disorientation. The hypnopompic state usually occurs when people are awakened out of a deep non-REM sleep stage such as stage 4. The person is forced to become oriented to outside reality long enough to do something (like answer a telephone) but never really wakes up completely.

What is the hypnopompic state? What is its characteristic feature? What have doctors been known to do?

People can do intelligent things in a hypnopompic state. Doctors have been known to answer the phone at home and give intelligent, detailed instructions about how to treat a patient, only to be puzzled the next day when somebody thanks them for advice they do not remember dispensing.

Like sleepwalking and sleeptalking, hypnopompic disorientation seems to occur more readily after alcohol consumption, which encourages the deepest sleep: stages 3 and 4. A person awakened during this phase of sleep can be profoundly disoriented.

One afternoon I went to Happy Hour. After drinking a couple of beers I went back to my apartment and fell asleep on my bed. The next thing I knew, the phone was ringing. I must have been in a deep sleep because it took me a few seconds before I realized that the phone really was ringing and I wasn't just dreaming it. My first reaction was to jump out of bed real quick. Then I experienced the weirdest feeling. I was standing there looking directly at the phone and listening to it ring, yet I stood there panicking, trying to figure out what I had to do to hear the person on the other end of the phone. It didn't even occur to me that all I had to do was pick up the phone and answer it. After the phone had rung several times I finally thought to pick it up and answer it. By this time I was sweating from all the panicking, but I did answer the call. This whole little episode seems strange and scary to me, and I can still remember it vividly to this day. [Author's files]

What hypnopompic experience did Shepard report and why was he startled by a 19th Century description?

Psychologist Roger Shepard of Stanford University was often inspired by images which occurred for a few seconds while he was awakening. Shepard (1990) reports the events of one morning in 1970:

With eyes still closed on that morning, I suddenly saw before me an immense, luminously shimmering, golden array of diamond-shaped panels separated by burnished beveled strips... (p.35)

Shepard described diamond-shaped patterns in a lattice or connected pattern. Shepard was startled to find similar descriptions in the writings of Sir John Herschel, who experimented with chloroform (an anesthetic) in the 19th Century. Herschel reported vivid "filigree-like" images of "rhombic lattice works." Similar patterns are common in the hallucinations of the hypogogic state (see the reference to "geometric patterns" on the previous page) and they can even be produced by pressing the eye from outside, so this must reflect a property of the human visual system.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey