‘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 19th-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 (desert, 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 also explicitly prefaced their accounts with statements like, ‘I was neither awake nor asleep.’ This sounded a lot like hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations to me.

As I explored these 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 19th c.) 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 supernatural interpretations, as dreamlike content ‘visited’ one’s physical bedroom in a moment when one was, indeed, ‘neither awake nor asleep’.

Adam J. Powell, October 2020