If You Can't Get to Sleep

By GELETT BURGESS

WHEN you put out your light, lie down on your bed, and close your eyes — what do you see? Some will say they see nothing. Probably, then, they drop off to sleep quickly. Some will say they see blackness. But it’s difficult to see absolute black when the eyes are closed, and some oculists assert that unless you have perfect vision it’s impossible.

Others will doubtless say that they’ve never noticed what they see when their eyes are closed in the dark. And that’s the correct answer for most people. Few are interested in such an apparently insignificant subject. People are likely to be so absorbed in their own thoughts that they really are unconscious of the strange pictures that pass in front of their eyes before they fall asleep. It is a common experience not to notice things even when one’s eyes are open. Intense thought or emotion often makes us look without seeing.

Now the things we see while awake— objective images — are visible, we know, because light waves are reflected from external objects onto the retina. Exactly what causes the appearance of the subjective visions we see when our eyes are closed is not definitely known. They are called hypnagogic images — hypnagogic meaning “leading to sleep,” or “drowsy.” They are supposed to partake of the nature of dreams, and most psychologists consider them to be influenced by the subconscious mind. Such illusions and other hallucinations are now being studied as factors or indications of personality.

Everyone, presumably, sees different images when his eyes are shut. Dr. D. Slight, a Scottish psychologist, speaks of the first thing to be seen as the “photosphere,” a bright shining spot revolving on its own axis. Many of his own subjects, however, fail to testify to having seen it. I’ve never seen a photosphere, I never hope to see one; and so I can give only my own experience in hypnagogic vision.

Next to folklore, the plot of a play, or the history of a bridge game, nothing in the world, I suppose, is more of a bore than the description of another person’s dreams. But these hypnagogic pictures aren’t really dreams, and it will be necessary to describe some of my visions at least fully enough to show how they may be used to induce sleep. They’ll be more interesting if you check them with your own experiences when you go to bed tonight.

When my eyes are closed in the dark I see, at first, only a nebulous appearance, as of dim lightgray spots mottling a dark background. The whole field of view seems to be vibrating. Over this surface, pale clouds begin to drift and swirl. Fixing and holding one’s attention on these vague and changing patterns of light and shade is the first step in putting yourself to sleep.

To woo slumber, you see, your mind should be passive. It is almost impossible, ordinarily, to “make your mind a blank,” as is so often advised; but close attention to these hypnagogic images prevents one from straying off in active thought. One’s mind is passive, yet aware and receptive.

The best technique for producing these images, I’ve found, is to keep the eyes focused to near vision. That is, I imagine a picture screen a short distance in front of my eyes — at about the distance for reading. Upon this screen I watch the changing forms. It is important to maintain this near-vision focusing because when the eyelids are closed the lenses naturally accommodate to the more restful long-distance focus. If that is permitted, our attention to the images is likely to relax; we forget to watch what we see and begin to think about what Fred said, or that date for tomorrow, and so we are kept awake.

Slight recommends fixing your eyes on a spot straight before you, so that vision will function by means of the “yellow spot” of the eyes, the macula lutea near the center of the retina. I confess I don’t know what that means, exactly, and I doubt if it matters. But though this fixation and concentration is by no means easy while the figures are vague and formless, as soon as images begin to appear they are entertaining enough to assure your attention. These are the pictures which you probably have often seen but of which you have been scarcely conscious.

Hypnotism nowadays is accomplished by mere oral suggestion. The patient is told, “You are getting sleepy . . . you are falling asleep . . . you are sleeping.” But in the early days of the science the hypnotic trance was induced by fatiguing the senses of sight or hearing. The patient was made to stare at revolving mirrors or into a crystal ball, or was lulled by some soft, monotonous tone. When you’re bored you’re fatigued, and don’t you tend to become drowsy? A dull book will often do the trick. By this hypnagogic method, what induces slumber, probably, is partly the fatigue caused by the effort to maintain the optic lens focused for near vision, and partly the mental concentration involved in close observation. It is, anyway, a true autohypnosis.

Most children tell of vivid images they see when their eyes are shut. It was in trying to recover this lost ability that I was led to discover an effective method of putting myself to sleep. I used to practice every night when I. went to bed, studying attentively the forms I saw, no matter how indeterminate they might be. I didn’t attempt to produce visions: I simply remained passive but attentive, letting what might appear. I found it restful and amusing, next, to try to make pictures out of the confused lights and shadows, just as one tries to see pictures in the fire, or in the clouds — “very like a whale.”

As I kept my attention fixed, more and more definite images began to appear. Faces or objects, queer, incongruous objects, would suddenly flash into view. They were momentary, like snapshots, but startlingly distinct. Never were the faces or scenes anything I had ever seen before.

Gradually I developed a technique for hastening and developing these pictures. I found that if I imagined myself moving, — as if sailing up a river, — the blurred masses would slowly become more distinct and take the shape of hills, cliffs, and trees along the shore I was passing. Or I would imagine myself walking along a city street, and so long as I kept moving forward, house after house would glide past me backwards in a continuous changing panorama. Again I would find myself unexpectedly in a room where furniture, decorations, carpet, everything, were seen in sharp detail. But as these images are evanescent, to keep them coming I would have to move on, out of that room, into another, go along hallways, up or down stairs. Everything always seemed so real, but, knowing they were only imaginary, I could even boldly throw myself out of high open windows and float down to the street below.

When the power of producing these illusions is developed one can have the most amazing adventures. The only trouble is that when they have become most realistic and exciting you usually fall asleep. And then, when you cross the “threshold of consciousness,” instead of passively witnessing the hypnagogic scenes, you step up onto the stage of the show and become an actor in a dream drama.

The special advantage of this method of inducing sleep is that a habit is formed — a habit, that is, of going to sleep. The mental mechanism soon becomes automatic. For, if you find that you can put yourself to sleep in this manner, a confidence in being able to fall asleep at any time is created. This gives a powerful suggestion to your subconscious mind. Just as almost anyone can for a few times at least make himself wake at any given hour, so, if you have schooled yourself in this hypnagogic way, you often have only to give yourself the command, “Go to sleep!” — and the next thing you know, it’s tomorrow morning.

In fact, this has worked in my own case so well that now I miss all the fun I used to have when I went to bed. No more imaginary travels in the queer, hypnagogic world of the mysterious night. I see that dark, mottled surface for a moment, and then I’m off to life’s stratosphere — the realm of dreams.