You can reach the center of a circle from any point on the compass. Similarly, you can reach into your unconscious from a variety of different starting points. One starting point is hypnogogic imagery. This technique produces autonomous inner imagery that can be captured just before you fall asleep. It’s a somewhat difficult technique to master, but when mastered it can provide strong images. This imagery can be either visual or auditory—it cannot be controlled or directed. Some people are even able to envision fantastic surreal imagery in colors that appear deeper and plusher than seemingly possible.

Salvador Dali used this technique to conjure up the extraordinary images in his paintings. He would put a tin plate on the floor and then sit by a chair beside it, holding a spoon over the plate. He would then totally relax his body; sometimes he would begin to fall asleep. The moment that he began to doze the spoon would slip from his fingers and clang on the plate, immediately waking him to capture the surreal images.
Hypnogogic images seem to appear from nowhere, but there is a logic. The unconscious is a living, moving stream of energy from which thoughts gradually rise to the conscious level and take on a definite form. Your unconscious is like a hydrant in the yard while your consciousness is like a faucet upstairs in the house. Once you know how to turn on the hydrant, a constant supply of images can flow freely from the faucet. These forms give rise to new thoughts as you interpret the strange con¬junctions and chance combinations.

z. Think about your challenge. Consider your progress, your obstacles, your alternatives, and so on. Then push it away and relax.
2. Totally relax your body. Sit on a chair. Hold a spoon loosely in one of your hands over a plate. Try to achieve the deepest muscle relaxation you can.
3. Quiet your mind. Do not think of what went on during the day or your challenges and problems. Clear your mind of chatter.
4. Quiet your eyes. You cannot look for these images. Be passive. You need to achieve a total absence of any kind of vol-untary attention. Become helpless and involuntary and directionlessYou can enter the hypnogogic state this way, and, should you begin to fall asleep, you will drop the spoon and awaken in time to capture the images.
5. Record your experiences immediately after they occur. The images will be mixed and unexpected and will recede rap¬idly. They could be patterns, clouds of colors, or objects.
6. Look for the associative link. Write down the first things that occur to you after your experience. Look for links and connections to your challenge. Ask questions such as:
What puzzles me?
• Is there any relationship to the challenge?
• Any new insights?
• What’s out of place?
• What disturbs me?
 What do the images remind me of?  What are the similarities?
 What analogies can I make?
• What associations can I make?  What do the images resemble?
A restaurant owner used hypnogogic imagery to inspire new promotion ideas. He kept seeing giant neon images of different foods: neon ice cream, neon pickles, neon chips, neon coffee, and so on. The associative link he saw between the various foods and his challenge was to somehow use the food itself as a promotion.

The idea: He offers various free food items according to the day of week, the time of day, and the season. For instance, he might offer free pickles on Monday, free ice cream between 2 and 4 P.M., free coffee on Wednesday nights, free sweet rolls in the spring, and so on. He advertises the free food items with neon signs, but you never know what food items are being offered free until you go there. The sheer variety of free items and the intriguing way in which they are offered has made his restaurant a popular place to eat.

Another promotion he created as a result of seeing images of different foods is a frequent-eater program. Anyone who hosts five meals in a calendar month gets $5o worth of free meals. The minimum bill is $20 but he says the average is $30 a head. These two promotions have made him a success.

The images you summon up with this technique have an individual structure that may indicate an underlying idea or theme. Your unconscious mind is trying to communicate something specific to you, though it may not be imme¬diately comprehensible. The images can be used as armatures on which to hang new relationships and associations.

A college professor who taught a mixed-media art class was bored with the traditional first assignment of painting a self-portrait. He wanted an exercise that would explore space and perception. Using hypnogogic imagery for inspiration, he saw technicolor trees dressed up like human beings walking around and talking. He thought about this image for days, and then the idea for a new assignment struck.

The idea: He had his students personalize a two-by-four board and carry it around with them everywhere. The students shaped and designed their boards to express their experiences, personalities, and interests. The board served as a yardstick for students to relate to their environment and forced them to work with materials they wouldn’t normally use.

One student made an environmental statement by painting her board blue and black, attaching tree branches and press clippings about forest fires, and scorching parts of it. Another student made his board an extension of his Mexican heritage. He decorated it like Mexican folk art, with carvings of an eagle, snake, and cactus. He depicted his family tree and attached cloth poinsettias, a rosary, and even a pinata.


This article was authored by Michael Michalko author of Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques). His website is

3 responses to this post.

  1. Michael–it’s great that your ideas continue to flow and provide learning to the creative community


  2. I like your description of the unconscious. One that I use, which I think also Carl Jung used, is that the unconscious was like the stars, which are actually present in the daytime but which we do not see because of the brightness of the sun (which can be seen as the conscious mind). The sun blocks out the stars most of the time but it doesn’t mean that they are not there.

    Dali is one of my heroes. A great secular and spiritual painter, notably for his Catholic faith. I’ve read several of the books he’s written, including Diary of a Genius, which is actually a bit satiric if you read it correctly. It’s actually a hilarious read.


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