Sleep Health

Exploring the Unseen: A Deep Dive into Sleep Hallucinations

June 25, 2024
Charles Belinky

Sleep Hallucinations: A Peek into the Dreamlike World

Many people experience the strange sensation of seeing or hearing things that aren't actually there. These fleeting shadows or strange sounds, known as sleep hallucinations, are more common than you might think.


Hypnagogic hallucinations occur as we drift off to sleep and involve seeing things that are not present. Surprisingly, almost 40% of people have reported experiencing this phenomenon. While it's a common symptom of narcolepsy, anyone can develop hypnagogic hallucinations (Cheyne et al., 1999). 


Understanding the difference between these hallucinations and those related to mental health issues can help individuals better understand their own experiences. 


This article will explore hypnagogic hallucinations and share tips for preventing them!

What Are Sleep Hallucinations?

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, seeing things that seemed to be there but disappeared the second you turned on the light? If so, you may have experienced sleep hallucinations. This sleep disorder is a type of parasomnia involving imagined events that can be extraordinarily vivid and feel real. 


These hallucinations are usually visual, but they can also involve other senses like touch, taste, and even motion. They can be confusing, leaving you unsure if you're awake or asleep. And while they may seem like nightmares, the difference is that they are recognized as dreams and are not considered real (Cheyne etal., 1999). 


Sleep hallucinations can be downright terrifying, especially when they involve complex visual images of people or animals. Upon waking, you know you are awake, but the images can be so real that you are filled with a sense of fear and disbelief.


Sleep hallucinations can occur at two specific times: 

  • Right before you doze off 
  • Upon waking up


These occurrences can also be an indication of narcolepsy, especially if they happen during the day. And in some cases, sleep paralysis may coincide with these hallucinations.


  • Separate occurrences such as sleepwalking and talking can also take place. 

What Causes Hypnagogic Hallucinations?

Hypnagogic hallucinations are a fascinating topic, and while experts are not entirely sure what causes them, they do know that they share similarities with both daytime hallucinations and dreams. 


Previous research suggested that hypnagogic hallucinations might result from REM sleep patterns intruding during waking moments, but current research does not support this hypothesis.


While hypnagogic hallucinations are generally harmless for most people, they can be more common in those who experience sleep disorders or have certain health conditions. For example, people who struggle with narcolepsy, insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, and mental health disorders are more likely to experience hypnagogic hallucinations (Denis et al., 2018). 


Sleep deprivation can also sometimes lead to hallucinations, known as sleep deprivation psychosis. However, experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations on their own does not necessarily indicate the presence of an underlying disorder.


What Indications Indicate A Sleep Hallucination?

Everybody experiences a hypnagogic hallucination at some point in their sleep cycle, but not everyone understands what it is! Among the signs of hypnagogic hallucinations are some of the following:

Visual Hypnagogic Hallucinations: 

They are quite common, ranging from vibrant colors and shapes to moving images. They are not related to dreams but are rather spontaneous occurrences that happen during the sleep cycle. 


Imagine looking into a kaleidoscope, seeing an array of shapes and colors that move and twist in fascinating ways. This is similar to visual hypnagogic hallucinations, which range from vibrant colors and shapes to moving images. These occurrences are spontaneous and happen during the sleep cycle, separate from dreams. While they may not be associated with stories or narratives, they are often described as incredibly captivating, highlighting the brain's unique complexity.


Interestingly, while hypnagogic hallucinations themselves may not be associated with stories or narratives, people who experience them often describe them as incredibly captivating. The brain is an enigma, and sleep hallucinations are a great example of its unique complexity.

Auditory Hypnagogic Hallucinations:

As humans, we are capable of experiencing a plethora of sensations and perceptions, including auditory hallucinations during sleep. It's fascinating how our mind can create such realistic sounds, like a phone's ring or a loved one's voice, without any external stimuli. 


What's even more intriguing about these hypnagogic auditory hallucinations is that they tend to lack any narrative or context. There's no story being told, no underlying plot or theme, just sounds. It's almost as if our brain is playing background noises, similar to what one might hear in a crowded shopping mall or busy street (E Scammell, MD, n.d.). 


These hallucinations can be both eerie and enchanting. It's a reminder of the sublime power of our minds and how much we have yet to understand about the complex relationship between the brain and sleep.

Sensory Sleep Hallucinations:

Have you ever felt like you're falling, only to jolt awake and realize you never really fell?This sensation is also called a sleep paralysis hallucination and can occur during the transitional phase of falling asleep. But what about when you feel someone in the room with you, yet no one is there? That's a sensory hypnagogic hallucination that can be quite unsettling (Hallucinations: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia, 2013). 


These hallucinations often go hand in hand with sleep paralysis, a condition that temporarily immobilizes the body during REM sleep. It's no wonder that many people who experience these hallucinations often report feeling scared or anxious. 


Despite their unsettling nature, these hallucinations are not uncommon, and research has shown that they are often due to the brain's misinterpretation of sensory input during the highly suggestible state of the hypnagogic period (NationalInstitute of Mental Health, 2020). 


How To Prevent Hypnagogic Hallucinations?

Sleep is essential for a healthy lifestyle, yet many people struggle with sleep deprivation and its negative effects. One of these effects can be hypnagogic hallucinations – vivid and often frightening hallucinations that occur during the transition from wakefulness to sleep. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of experiencing these hallucinations.

  • Maintain Good Sleep Hygiene
    • Keep a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.
    • Ensure your bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet to create an optimal sleep environment.
  • Avoid Stimulants Before Bed
    • Limit the use of screens (phones, tablets, TVs) before bedtime to reduce blue light exposure.
    • Avoid consuming caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine in the evening.
  • Incorporate Relaxation Techniques
    • Engage in stress-relieving activities such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or gentle yoga before bed.
    • Consider listening to calming music or using a white noise machine to help you relax.
  • Address Underlying Conditions:
    • Seek professional help if you experience persistent sleep hallucinations, as they may indicate underlying sleep or mental health disorders.
    • Follow any medical advice or treatment plans for conditions like insomnia, narcolepsy, or anxiety.
  • Create a Bedtime Routine:
    • Establish a calming pre-sleep routine to signal your body that it's time to wind down.
    • Read a book, take a warm bath, or practice gentle stretching exercises.
  • Optimize Your Sleep Environment
    • Use blackout curtains to block out light and maintain a cool temperature in your bedroom.
    • Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows to support restful sleep.

By incorporating these practices into your daily routine, you can improve your overall sleep quality and reduce the likelihood of experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations. However, if these measures do not alleviate your symptoms, consulting a healthcare professional may be necessary.

What Is The Difference Between Sleep Hallucinations And Nightmares?

The human mind is a mysterious and complex creation, especially regarding sleep. While most people are comfortable with dreaming, few are aware of the hallucinations that can occur during the hypnagogia stage of sleep. These so-called hypnagogic hallucinations are entirely different from nightmares, although the two share some similarities (Denis et al., 2018). 


For example, both occur during sleep and are often accompanied by vivid and sometimes frightening imagery. However, there are significant differences between the two. 

  • Nightmares are defined as frightening dreams that are often associated with fear and can be recalled in detail upon awakening. 
  • On the other hand, hypnagogic hallucinations are typically a series of moving images that may or may not be accompanied by sounds or bodily sensations and are not usually associated with fear. 


Sleep deprivation psychosis and sleep hallucinations can be eerie and even unsettling phenomena, but they are simply a product of the brain's complex workings during the different stages of sleep.


Frequent nightmares can be disturbing and unsettling, but they are more than just bad dreams. For adults, nightmares can be a symptom of a larger underlying issue.PTSD, psychiatric conditions, certain medications, and certain sleep disorder shave all been linked to an increase in frequent nightmares (Ohayon et al.,1996). 


While nightmares are terrifying, hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis can bed own right terrifying. These two separate phenomena can often coincide, masquerading as a nightmare. 


Sleep paralysis often leaves a person feeling awake but unable to move their body while hallucinating sounds or sensations, such as a person in the room or on their chest. If this occurs as a person is falling asleep, it's called a hypnagogic hallucination. 

How Do Sleep Hallucinations Get Treated?

If you're experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations, don't worry - they can be treated. The first step is to get to the root of the problem by addressing any underlying conditions. 


You can expect to see a decrease in the frequency and intensity of these hallucinations with proper treatment.


According to the National Sleep Foundation, following these guidelines can help:


Age                                                 Sleep  Hours

13–18 years     ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~    8-10

18–64 years    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~     7-9

adults 65 and older   ~~~~~~~~~~   7-8

Doing the following may also assist in mitigating hypnagogic hallucinations:

  • To avoid laying awake and contemplating anxious thoughts, wait until you are quite drained before bed.
  • Maintain a consistent sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.
  • Sleep in a calm environment and maintain adequate sleep hygiene.
  • Alcohol, narcotics, and medicines that may produce hypnagogic hallucinations should be avoided. If the drug has been advised, consult with your doctor before modifying or discontinuing it (Pagel, 2000).


Sleep is a precious commodity that often eludes us, leading tom strange and unsettling experiences when we are deprived of it. One of sleep deprivation's most unsettling side effects is experiencing sleep hallucinations. These vivid hallucinations seem all too real but are simply figments of a tired mind. 


It's an eerie experience to 'see' something that isn't there, and it can be quite alarming when it happens for the first time. If you're dealing with sleep hallucinations, you're definitely not alone. It turns out that 80% of those who are severely sleep deprived have experienced these types of hallucinations before. 


Of course, the obvious answer to this problem is simply getting more sleep. However, you can take other proactive measures to try and minimize these unsettling occurrences. 

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