Dreaming, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1997

Hypnopompic Imagery and Visual Dream Experience

George Gillespie1


1 Correspondence should be addressed to George Gillespie, 20 W. Third St., Moorestown, NJ, U.S.A. 08057-2412




Scannable hypnopompic lattice imagery sometimes reaches as far as the eyes can turn. Although these lattice patterns superficially appear to curve around the viewpoint, closer examination reveals that the visual image is flat over the entire scannable area. Moreover the lattice imagery and subjective experience of the head are found to form a spatial whole. Certain events during lucid dreaming demonstrate that visual dream experience, like the hypnopompic lattice imagery, appears within a visual field that is mobile within a larger scannable area. From ordinary dreaming to lucid dreaming to lying awake, there is a continuity of seeing, of scanning, and of the "I" who sees. The concepts of dream seeing, a dream body with eyes, and of an "I" who sees in dreams are examined.

Key words: hypnopompic imagery; lucid dreaming; scanning; visual dream imagery.


Occasionally I see hypnopompic imagery when I wake up, before I open my eyes. The visual field is normally dark or blank shortly after dream imagery and before hypnopompic imagery. The imagery that follows consists of two-dimensional patterns. Since I have just awakened, I am no longer aware of dreamed body imagery. I am aware of my body in bed. Although I usually keep my eyes shut as long as the imagery remains, sometimes I open my eyes and can see the image against a bright blank wall or ceiling. By the time the image fades away, I am usually fully awake.

I have recorded more than 250 observations of hypnopompic imagery (see Gillespie, 1989, 1990). I have seen two major types: lattice patterns, such as those described and illustrated by Roger Shepard (1978), and oscillating imagery, a variety of which has been described by Whitman Richards (1971). Experiences of both types have contributed to the concepts that I present here, but it will suffice to describe only lattice imagery, of which I have seen 88 clear cases.


The lattice patterns have been mostly of three types: a crossing of horizontal and vertical lines or columns, forming perfect squares; chessboard imagery; and contiguous hexagons. Lattices may contain dots, small lines of light, dark squares, or mottled areas that are not integrated into the pattern. These types and elements of hypnopompic imagery appear also in drug-induced hallucinations and have been called hallucinatory form constants (Siegel & Jarvik, 1975). The imagery is often as intense as neon light. Although the patterns are highly geometrical and regular, they differ from what is usually called mandala imagery, in that they have no central focus and no division into opposite sides. Nor are they accompanied by intense emotion or numinosity.

Because lattice patterns remain unchanging from roughly three to ten minutes after I awaken, I am able to study them. I study them by scanning them. Although the image is not physically before my eyes, my eyes move in coordination with my internal scanning of the image. Shepard reports that he too could "successively attend to different parts without the pattern itself appearing to move" (1978, p.172).

The fullest cases of lattice imagery show a continuous pattern as far as the eyes can turn. Every part of the pattern remains fixed in location, not within the visual field, but within the limits set by the movement of the eyes. For every position of the eyes, I experience a specific part of the pattern. If I see a certain square by turning my eyes to the upper left, I can put it out of view by turning my eyes to the lower right. The pattern is unaffected by movement of my head, for it moves as a whole with my head. The total area that I scan when I move my eyes, I have called the visual surface (Gillespie, 1990). If there appears only a small piece of lattice surrounded by darkness, it remains in a precise location within the visual surface, even though my scanning changes its location within the visual field. More precisely, although the subjective experience is of scanning an image that fills the visual surface, only that much of the pattern that lies within the visual field at any time can be called an image, because that is all that I see. What lies beyond the visual field is only potential image.

When lattice imagery fills the visual field, I find the visual field to be round. Hypnopompic imagery does not have the spatial limitations that perceptual imagery has. The binocular perceptual image is roughly oval, limited by the projecting out of the head around the eyes. During perception, when I see with one eye and then with two, I see the monocular image expand laterally to form the binocular image. Just as the binocular image is larger than the monocular, the hypnopompic image, when it fills the visual field, is larger than the perceptual image. The perceptual oval is expanded upward and downward to form a circle. With the fullest lattice imagery, I find the total scannable visual surface to be round also.

Out of the great variety of lattice imagery, here are two examples:

1. June 11, 1985. Over the visual surface, there was a chessboard pattern, except that the dark squares, all the same size, were smaller than the lighter squares and did not touch each other. The lighter area thus predominated and consisted of maroon and yellow particles of light crowded together like grains of sand. The yellow particles were more numerous by far. No further pattern or meaningful form was discernible in the particles.

2. November 7, 1986. There was a lattice of squares as precise as graph paper, created by thin lines of light crossing each other against a dark background. I opened my eyes and could discern the pattern against the white wall.


When a lattice pattern fills the visual field without a break, the image looks like a dome set around my viewpoint. However, when I study the details of the image, I find that there is never any departure from the strict parallelism of the lines, columns, or rows of the pattern. I have traced lines carefully back and forth across the visual surface, row by row. Lines never converge and rows never narrow. The image across the visual surface reveals itself as flat. I see the same strict parallelism and flatness when I study the visual field as a whole, keeping my gaze centered on one spot. The pattern across the visual field nowhere deviates from its strict regularity as it would have to if it were a domed surface. If I forget about perception and perspective, I can even see the visual field as a whole as flat. The contrast is between what the image proves to be upon examination (a flat plane across the visual field and over the entire visual surface) and how it appears when I do not analyze it (as if curving around me).

During hypnopompic experience, I am aware of a specific orientation to the visual field. I see a top and a bottom, a left and a right. This orientation is determined by the spatial relationship between my visual field and the subjective experience of my head. My visual field and my experience of my head form a spatial whole. The upper part of the visual field appears near the upper limit of my head, and the lower part near the lower part of my head. The image across the visual surface presents the same spatial relationship to my head. As I scan the image, I associate the upper area of the pattern with the upper part of my head and the left and right sides with the left and right sides of my head. This is especially so when my eyes are closed (as they usually are) and I do not see the pattern against the walls of my room. I experience lattice imagery as precisely aligned with my head. The lines, columns, or rows of all lattices remain strictly horizontal and vertical in relationship to the head, no matter where they appear within the visual field or visual surface. Hexagons are horizontal-topped or vertical-sided. I see horizontal lines as leading from the left side of the head to the right. Vertical lines divide the left side of the head from the right. Every part of a lattice is fixed in location not only within the visual surface, but within the whole visual-head experience.


This analysis of visual imagery as the internal, scannable, spatial distribution of color challenges some contemporary theories of visual imagery. A number of those who have theorized about internal imagery deny that there can even be spatial and color imagery, primarily because of the homunculus problem (Block, 1983; Crick, 1979; Dennett, 1992; Gibson, 1986; Neisser, 1976; Pylyshyn, 1981). The problem, it is suggested, is that an internal image consisting of color and visual-spatial form would have to be something like a picture (Block, 1983) or a television set (Crick, 1979) or a movie screen (Dennett, 1992) in the head and would therefore need a homunculus, a little man in the head, to look at it. Since this is impossible, it is concluded that there cannot be an image in the head. Internal imagery, if it can still be called imagery, must be in the form of descriptions or propositions or must be only anticipations of seeing. However, the problem of the seeing homunculus is brought about by likening an internal image to some external thing that cannot be seen unless an eye looks at it.

To understand the seeing of hypnopompic imagery, we have to forget about eyes, light waves, reflecting surfaces, and sources of light. We can begin with three observations: (a) When I regard the image without analysis, I see it as curving around my viewpoint; (b) yet on closer examination it doesnít curve around but rather proves to be a flat plane across the visual field and over the entire visual surface; and (c) finally, every part of the pattern throughout the visual field is precisely similar and undistorted, as if seen face on, with no angles of vision. The first observation tells how I understand what I see. I see the image as curving around me, because I know from everyday visual perception that what appears within the visual field lies around me. However, my understanding of the image does not reveal its true nature. The last two observations describe the image as it is Ė as flat and as having a strict regularity with an undistorted face-on look throughout the visual field. These characteristics tell us something about seeing the image.

The entire image appears as if seen face on along lines of sight perpendicular to the plane of the image. There are no distortions or variations in size or shape, as there would be if any of the pattern were seen from an angle. I mention lines of sight only as a means of describing the look of the image. The problem is that the concept of line of sight is based on perception (a poor model for internal imagery) and necessitates a seeing homunculus at one end of the line of sight.

The way to avoid the homunculus problem and also to explain the face-on look with no angles of vision over the whole visual field is to forget not only lines of sight but also any distinction between the image and seeing. By assuming the identity of the image and seeing, all the misleading parallels to visual perception are avoided. There is no inner eye or mindís eye. There are not two things, image and seeing, but one, a seeing that is spatial, consists of color (including black, grays, white, brightness, and darkness), and has no object. Scanning, according to this explanation, is only a directed movement of the visual field over the visual surface. A comparison can be made between visual imagery and pain. If I have a headache, I cannot differentiate between the headache that I feel and my feeling of the headache. The pain that is experienced is itself the experiencing of pain. Just as I need no pain-feeling homunculus to feel my headache, I need no seeing homunculus to look at my visual image.

Who, then, is the seer? How do I see the image? These questions still use everyday language and concepts that prejudice an understanding of visual imagery. When there is seeing, I say, "I see." There is the event, and there is the way of talking about it. There is no need for a seer or a seeing "I" apart from seeing. Although the image functions as seer, seeing, and seen (to use everyday language), it is only one thing, not three, and I identify myself with its function as seer.


Of all types of nonperceptual visual experience (including hypnopompic, hypnagogic, dream, hallucinatory, eidetic, and afterimage), lattice imagery, with its stable, regular pattern and obvious face-on appearance over the visual field and visual surface, is best designed to reveal the flatness of the visual image and the identity of the visual image with seeing. The scientific ideal of parsimony calls for a single explanation of visual imagery as far as possible. According to the model based on my observations of lattice imagery, visual dream imagery lies two-dimensionally across the flat visual field and is itself the seeing of the imagery. How the percept-like imagery of dreams must be distributed across the visual field so that it seems to be placed in all directions around the eye I suggest elsewhere in a discussion of visual perception (Gillespie, 1990). As the image is itself the seeing, no internal or dream eye is needed. The only scanning there can be during the dream is the directed movement of the visual field over the visual surface.

Certain lucid dream experiences that I have recorded support the suggestion that visual dream experience appears within a visual field that is mobile within the visual surface and that dream seeing and scanning are continuous with hypnopompic seeing and scanning. The primary distinction between ordinary dreaming and lucid dreaming is that in ordinary dreaming, the dreamer does not know he or she is dreaming, and in lucid dreaming, the dreamer knows it is a dream (Gackenbach & Bosveld, 1989; LaBerge, 1985). When I realize I am dreaming, visual and body imagery continues as a rule from the ordinary part of the dream to the lucid part without a discernible change. Although unusual visual phenomena can occur in lucid dreaming, either spontaneously or due to my manipulation of the dream, these phenomena occur alongside of or evolve out of dream experience that does not otherwise differ from that of ordinary dreaming. Out of a variety of possible examples, I will describe two lucid dream experiences that show similarities to and continuity with the seeing and scanning of hypnopompic imagery.

I dreamed (January 28, 1987) that I was in my grandmotherís kitchen. I felt a strong tug on my clothing, but saw no one near me. I realized I was dreaming and remembered my intention to examine darkness in a lucid dream. So I closed my (dreamed) eyes, and my visual field became dark. I floated up and began to toss about with great force. I finally discerned in the darkness a faint collection of patterns. There were eight to twelve irregularly-shaped contiguous regions, each containing its own pattern. Most of the regions had a striped or herringbone pattern, one simply had dots, and one had a chessboard pattern. The imagery was a faint irregular version of elements that appear in hypnopompic imagery. In spite of my tossing about, the imagery remained in a stable scannable location as if before my eyes.

When I woke up and became aware of my body in bed, the patterns continued without a break, but became dimmer. The patterns were in a fixed location within the visual surface, and I was able to scan them for what seemed like 20 seconds longer. My waking scanning of the patterns was subjectively no different from my scanning them while dreaming and was similar to my usual scanning of hypnopompic imagery. The patterns had become, in effect, hypnopompic imagery. I have experienced three times the scanning of stable patterns, lines, and spots in lucid dreams, and this is the one time in which the imagery continued after I awakened.

The second experience included what I call a "stable intense light" (Gillespie, 1989). I dreamed (April 1, 1982) that I entered a large empty room. I realized I was dreaming and wanted to dance. Then I saw a light like a sun at the upper edge of the visual field. Soon there was intense vibrant light throughout the visual field. I was euphoric as I spun around in the center of the room. In spite of my spinning, the sun remained in a fixed location, which I thought of as to the upper left of my left eye. When I turned my eyes up, I saw it directly.

When I woke up, the sun-like disk (but not the rest of the light) remained for some time while I kept my eyes shut. I could turn my eyes up to the left to see it. I could look toward it and away from it during the dream and also after awakening. Since I woke up with the left side of my head against my pillow, the light could not have originated outside the eye. Nor was it due to pressure of the pillow against the eye, for then the image would have been entoptic and would have followed my eye movement. It would not have been scannable.

I have experienced 41 cases of stable intense light. These lights, usually one at a time, but not always, remain in a fixed scannable location before me, regardless of my kinesthetic experience. They take various forms and occasionally are accompanied by ordinary visual dream imagery. In this and in one other case, such a light remained after I awakened, confirming that stable intense lights are scannable because they are fixed in location within the visual surface.

In both dream examples, seeing, scanning, visual field, and visual surface continued from dream to hypnopompic imagery. As I dreamed, in spite of my spinning or tossing around, visual imagery remained in a fixed location within the visual surface. Each time I woke up, I continued seeing the image in that location and continued to scan it. During dreaming, my visual field and visual imagery had remained anchored to my sleeping head. The "I" that looked and scanned in the dream became the "I" that looked and scanned while lying awake. The question of how I see when I dream became the question of how I see when I study hypnopompic imagery, and the answer is the same. The image itself is the seeing, whether I dream or lie awake, and when there is seeing, "I" see. Even if there is little self-reflection during a dream, the memory of seeing in a dream provides the "I" for "I saw in my dream."


Apparently, many people feel that in most dreams they are not bodily present (Federn, 1992). However, some (including myself) normally feel they are bodily present in dreams, and the body seems to have eyes that see. This body must be explained. There are three elements of dreaming that give me the impression of having a body with eyes that see.

1. There are subjective body experiences. I do not mean experiences of a body, but experiences that I think of as belonging to my body. While dreaming, I may feel blinking eyes, an increase in heat or cold, a tap as if on the head, a tug as if someone pulled my clothing, or movement as if spinning or floating. I believe that these experiences tell me about my body.

2. The visual image may portray the lower part of my body from the viewpoint of my eye or portray my face as if in a mirror. My subjective body experience is normally coordinated with this image, and I identify my experience with the body that is portrayed. The visual image may show someone looking at me or talking to me, giving the impression that someone sees my body. However, what I see is image only, and not the perception of my body or of other people.

3. Because there is a visual image, I believe that I am seeing with eyes. The percept-like imagery of dreams even indicates where my eyes and thus my dream body must be located within the scene. However, no eyes see the image.

These experiences suffice for supplying a body in dreams, and no three-dimensional dream body corresponding to this visual and body imagery is needed. If there were a dream world, I would need a dream body for moving around in it. However, the only evidence for a dream world is the percept-resembling imagery itself. Just as there is no need for a dream body to correspond to dreamed body experience, there is no need for a dream world to correspond to the imagery that portrays a world. There is no more to be seen than the imagery seen. There is nothing out of sight or not yet seen. There is to the dream body only the imagery of the moment, and what is missing is not normally noticed. Paul Federn has observed that "even in exhibitionistic flying dreams, . . . the body ego is seldom complete" (1992, p. 127). In fact, a dream body would create another version of the homunculus problem. How could a dream body see? Could there be dream retinas and light waves? It is simpler to recognize that no dream world, body, or eyes are needed to account for dream seeing.

No dream experience, whether body imagery, emotion, memory, or sound, can be studied as closely as seeing can, but we can apply to all dream experience what we learn from the study of seeing. Just as the visual image appears to need no seeing or seer other than itself, we can perhaps say that all dream experience needs no experiencing or experiencer other than itself. Just as when there is visual dream imagery "I" understand that "I" am seeing, so when there is a tug as if on the clothing or a feeling of floating, "I" understand that "I" feel a tug or that "I" am floating. When there is euphoria, memory, or music, "I" understand that "I" am euphoric, "I" remember, or "I" hear music. Through the transitions of waking up, just as the "I" that sees dream imagery becomes the "I" that sees hypnopompic imagery, the "I" that experiences all dreaming becomes the "I" that experiences lying awake.

To complete the analysis of visual imagery and scanning, there is another use of the word "I" to consider. When there is lattice imagery, the way to talk about it is to say, "I see lattice imagery," even if there is no seeing "I" apart from the image itself. But when I say, "I am scanning lattice imagery," what is happening? There is lattice imagery with a movement of the visual field across the pattern, which "I see." While no seeing "I" is needed other than the visual experience itself, the "I" that directs the movement of the eyes must be other than the image that is scanned. The "I" who decides to trace the lines, directs the visual field over the visual surface, carefully shifts attention from line to line, and finally stops the scanning cannot be the changing visual experience that it directs. While the analysis of lattice imagery leads to an understanding of the "I" who sees, it does not tell us so readily about the "I" who is other than visual experience and directs it.


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