This post by Adam J Powell is the third in a one-week takeover (Nov 30 – Dec 5 2020) of The Polyphony by Threshold Worlds, an interdisciplinary project exploring the nexus between dreams, narrative and liminal cognition. The project is supported by the Institute of Advanced Studies and the Institute of Medical Humanities at Durham University. Before the project ends its first phase on December 9-10 with a conclusive workshop, team members were invited to write a short text exploring work-in-progress ideas generated within the past three months of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and multimedia exchanges.
If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.
– Number 12:6, The Holy Bible
Behold I have dreamed a dream; or in other words, I have seen a vision.
– 1 Nephi 8:2, The Book of Mormon
A couple of years ago, I published an essay in the Lancet based on archival historical research I had conducted into nineteenth-century religious experiences. As I reported there, in many of these accounts of seeing and hearing the supernatural, I observed a pattern. Although there were many records of what one might call the archetypal religious experience – an individual is alone and in prayer in the woods (dessert, wilderness, back room, etc.) when a bright light appears and/or a loud voice is heard telling of future events or calling the individual to righteous action – I also encountered a somewhat smaller number of experiences that began in bed at night. These reports sometimes included details such as, ‘I had just told my spouse goodnight and laid my head on my pillow when, suddenly,…’ Some explicitly prefaced their accounts with statements like, ‘I was neither awake nor asleep.’ This sounded a lot like hypnagogic (between waking and sleeping) and hypnopompic (between sleeping and waking) hallucinations to me. Often referred to simply as ‘hypnagogia’, this liminal state at the edges of sleep frequently results in quasi-perceptual visual, auditory, and tactile phenomena – including bright lights, geometric shapes, felt presences, and voices.
As I explored these historical accounts with increasing interest and fervour, I also noted that there seemed to be confusion and inconsistency in their labelling. For some, such a nocturnal event was a ‘dream’, for others it was a ‘vision’. For several, including Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism who was reportedly visited in his bedroom by an angel disclosing the location of buried tablets that contained the text of The Book of Mormon, the anomalous experience was described variously as a ‘dream’, a ‘vision’, and a ‘vision of dream’. In my essay, I suggest that this inconsistency or equivocation may have less to do with the limits of the English language and more to do with prevailing dualistic philosophies of mind. Unfamiliar with hypnagogia (although the term was coined during the nineteenth century) or the notion of liminal consciousness, these individuals may have been forced to describe their experiences as either a sleeping dream or a waking vision, despite their justified reticence to commit to either. In fact, the perceptual and phenomenological overlap experienced in this liminal state may have rendered hypnagogic hallucinations particularly fecund for generating religious experiences/interpretations, as dreamlike content ‘visited’ one’s physical bedroom in a moment when one was, indeed, ‘neither awake nor asleep’.
Now, my even more recent investigations of spiritual and religious experiences among both contemporary Spiritualist mediums and members of the Church of England have corroborated and elaborated my historical research. As a forthcoming article in the Journal for the Study of Religious Experience describes, many practicing mediums and Christians report auditory hallucination-like experiences occurring at the borders of sleep. For the great majority of those who do, the experiences are characterised as truly externally auditory and ambiguous in content. The clarity of the voices heard as well as their rather ambiguous messages then leads to the final commonality among these cases: later attribution to a supernatural agent.
If my hypothesis is correct, once again these individuals may experience such nocturnal voices as particularly vivid due to their being hypnagogic and, therefore, confounding and in need of subsequent explanation that can account for their uneasy fit in the category of dream. The ambiguity of the content, perhaps also an indication of the experience’s origins in a liminal experientially overlapping state of consciousness, may complicates things further. Spiritual or religious attributions may rise to the occasion, offering an interpretation that does not stress one’s view of the possibilities of human consciousness or risk venturing into the stigmatising territory of mental illness.
Adam Powell is a Research Associate in the Institute for Medical Humanities and the Department of Theology & Religion at Durham University. He has published across the social sciences, theology, history, and the medical humanities. He tweets at @powell_adamj