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. 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 conjunctions and chance combinations.


1.        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 voluntary attention. Become helpless and involuntary and directionless. You 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 rapidly. 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 ice cream,  free wine, free desert, free soup, salad, shrimp cocktails, and so on. He advertises the free food items with neon signs inside the restaurant, 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  are offered has made his restaurant a popular place to eat.

Treat the images as fact, but make no assumptions about them except that you experienced them, and that somehow they must make sense. One workshop contemplated ways to clean up the environment. One of the participants reported that she got the following image using this technique. She imagined finding a dead bird on the beach.

What is your interpretation? What is the associative link between the image and the challenge? Can you use the image to produce an idea to clean up the environment?

The workshop made the following associations:

A dead bird found on a polluted beach. The hand that polluted the beaches killed the bird.

 The same hand tenderly holds the bird. The hand did not intend to kill the bird.

 The hand is a corporate hand.

These associations led to the idea of asking oil and chemical companies for a hand in cleaning up the environment. They approached Exxon Chemical and asked them to convert collected trash into plastic, barnacle-proof beach benches.

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 immediately comprehensible. The images can be used as armatures on which to hang new relationships and associations.

A chemist, who had the task of improving seed corn, imagined images of seeds wearing heavy clothing in the winter and shorts in the summer. This inspired him to think symbolically of how to protect seeds from the elements. The image of clothing inspired him to think of synthetics, including polymers. This led to his idea of intelligent polymer seed coatings, which shift properties as conditions change. The seeds can be planted in any weather or season. They lie protected and dormant when it(s cold outside and sprout as soon as the soil reaches the right growing temperature.

Mercedes-Benz engineers worked for a long time to design an aerodynamically efficient compact car that was safe and spacious. One day an engineer imagined a box fish which he had seen years ago. He and his colleagues studied the bony skin structure of the boxfish and designed the bionic car.

 One of the most famous examples of how scientists benefited from the Hypnogogic technique was Fredrich Kekule(s discovery that benzene and other organic molecules are closed chains or rings.  ( a result of an image in which he visualized a snake biting its own tail. Thinking analogically, he hypothesized from this image that the carbon atoms in benzene are arranged in a ring.

Rather than use logic and mathematics to explore possibilities, Einstein would sometimes explore fundamental and abstract principles through his  images by constructing imaginary metaphorical scenarios. He would interact with imaginary beings in imaginary worlds, not with disassociated numbers and facts. For example, he would visualize himself walking alone down a street and falling in love. Two weeks later, he would imagine meeting the woman he fell in love with for the first time. He would then question and examine the metaphor for ideas and conjectures that he could apply to his real-world problem. How can you fall in love with someone before you meet them? This particular imaginary scenario helped him to think about acausality.

On other occasions, Einstein imagined himself as a two-dimensional being living in a two-dimensional world with a flat measuring rod conducting experiments on infinity, as a man in an elevator being pulled through space by some imaginary creature, or as a blind beetle circling a perfect sphere endlessly. One of his imaginary metaphors was riding on a beam of light holding a perfect mirror trying to see his reflection. According to classical physics, you could not–because light leaving your face would have to travel faster than light in order to reach the mirror. Einstein played with these mental pictures and made up different rules for the universe. It was this kind of thinking that led to his famous theory of relativity.

Einstein explained in his journals how complex ideas can be, and how they often come in forms that are hard to translate. Part of his magic was taking his whimsical abstractions and making them into concrete ideas.

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