‘Sleeping Without Sleeping’: How To Create Like Salvador Dalí

Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí hacked the body’s natural sleep cycle to give him insanely creative ideas. You can too.

David Charles
11 min readNov 21, 2010
Dali and Rhinoceros by Philippe Halsman (WikiArt.org)

Salvador Dalí was one of the great artists of the twentieth century. I can’t show you any of his paintings here because that’d be copyright infringement, but the chances are high that you’ve boggled at his surrealist melting clocks, elephants on stilts and quite possibly his lobster telephone. His work sells for millions.

Dalí’s paintings and sculptures are considered some of the most creative ever produced. If that sounds like an assertion, then at least it’s one supported by a computer algorithm.

In 2015, Ahmed Elgamma and Babak Saleh from Rutgers University published a ‘computational framework for assessing the creativity of creative products’ that ranked thousands of paintings according to their originality and influence. Dalí comes top of the charts, as this graph shows (stupid yellow arrows are my own):

Creativity scores for 5256 religious paintings from the Wikiart dataset (AD 1410–1993), emphasizing originality in computing the creativity sores. The horizontal axis is the year the painting was created and the vertical axis is the scaled creativity score. (Adapted from Elgammal and Saleh, 2015)

Okay, okay, you get the picture: Dalí was an insanely creative chap. But where did he get his ideas from? And, more to the point, could little old you steal his secrets?

In reverse order, the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘the humble micro nap’.

Read on, Macduff!

‘Slumber with a key’

In his 1948 book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, Dalí explained in detail how he used varieties of sleep to energise his work. Indeed, sleep was so important to Dalí that four of his first six ‘secrets’ concerned the divine realms of Morpheus.

Sleep not only gave Dalí the ‘physical and psychic calm’ needed to paint, but also stretched his creative powers beyond his waking capacity. Building on the old adage to ‘sleep on it’, the famous painter makes bold promises for our down time:

[Y]ou will secretly, in the very depths of your spirit, solve most of [your work’s] subtle and complicated technical problems, which in your state of waking consciousness you would never be humanly capable of solving.

He goes further:

[A]s you are stretching and yawning voluptuously […] you will be able to say to yourself, without fear of falling into exaggeration, that the principal part — that is to say the sleep — of the work is already done.

That’s worth restating: sleep, for Dalí, is the most significant element of work. Try telling your boss that.

It’s not all golden slumbers, however. Dalí told painters to wake early and work hard. This is why he recommended an afternoon nap as ‘indispensable to your efficient labours at the end of the day’.

Dalí’s third secret (after choosing brushes and blending colours) is an absurdly short napping technique that he called the ‘slumber with a key’, which he would use to lay bare the radical ideas of his subconscious.

This technique wasn’t for mere relaxation or entertainment: we can all see the dominant creative influence of dreams in Dalí’s art. And so here, finally, we come to his much heralded micro naps.

Dalí’s trick was to walk ‘the taut and invisible wire which separates sleeping from waking’ and experience dreamlike hallucinations that were both inaccessible during waking consciousness and, in deeper sleep, obscured by the fog of amnesia.

Without further ado, here’s the full recipe for Dalí’s ‘slumber with a key’:

[S]eat yourself in a bony armchair, preferably of Spanish style, with your head tilted back and resting on the stretched leather back. Your two hands must hang beyond the arms of the chair, to which your own must be soldered in a supineness of complete relaxation. […]

In this posture, you must hold a heavy key which you will keep suspended, delicately pressed between the extremities of the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Under the key you will previously have placed a plate upside down on the floor. Having made these preparations, you will have merely to let yourself be progressively invaded by a serene afternoon sleep, like the spiritual drop of anisette of your soul rising in the cube of sugar of your body. The moment the key drops from your fingers, you may be sure that the noise of its fall on the upside down plate will awaken you.

Dalí makes it very clear that this slumber is nothing more than a ‘fugitive moment’ and should last less than a quarter of a second — and even that might be too long.

This is ‘sleeping without sleeping’ and gives you access to the essence of a dream, without what Dalí scornfully calls the ‘heaviness’ of a longer siesta that will rather ‘enslave’ you for the rest of the afternoon.

Wait — what just happened?

Woozy head filled with a rapid succession of lurid images, sounds and sensations? Congratulations! You have successfully completed Dalí’s ‘slumber with a key’ and attained what sleep scientists call the hypnagogic state.

Hypnagogia is just a fancy Greek word for the transition from wakefulness to sleep. It’s a state characterised by alpha-theta brainwaves and can lead to hallucinations, out-of-body experiences and lucid dreaming (waking dreams under your control).

Normally we’d forget these weird happenings as we transition into the next phase of sleep, but with practice we can learn to balance on the edge of sleep and wakefulness and even to control our hallucinations to a certain degree.

Like Dalí, we can use hypnagogia to revivify our ‘whole physical and psychic being’ ready for the afternoon’s creativity.

10 secrets of the creative hypnagogue

  • Remember that hypnagogia is not sleep: as Dalí explained, it is precisely the point between sleep and wakefulness. This is important.
  • The key to hypnagogic creativity is the observation of the consciousness of your subconscious mind as you walk Dalí’s ‘taut and invisible wire’. Relax, close your eyes, but stay watchful and observe yourself drifting off.
  • The prerequisites are drowsiness paradoxically combined with an effort to think. If you only feel drowsy, then you risk falling into deep sleep; if you only apply an effort to think, then your mind will stay awake.
  • Therefore, don’t try hypnagogia when you are too tired. Late night hypnagogia will probably lead to deep sleep. Dalí’s suggestion of an afternoon micro siesta is perfect.
  • If you think that deep sleep is a risk, don’t use your bed. If you do use your bed, prop yourself up with a pillow. Best of all: train yourself to use an armchair with a headrest (preferably Spanish style).
  • If you don’t have the exact ingredients for Dalí’s ‘slumber with a key’, you can use anything that’ll make a loud enough noise so that you wake when your muscles relax and the object drops. I use a heavy teaspoon and a dinner plate.
  • Dalí was perhaps being a little ungenerous when he suggested you nap for less than a quarter of a second, but hypnagogia only lasts up to five minutes. If you wake up after twenty, you’ve probably been asleep. Try again when you’re not so tired.
  • Try concentrating on the changing patterns of your mind as you drop off. Don’t think about what you are thinking about, but observe the way in which your thinking is changing — a change in consciousness perhaps.
  • For me, there’s a point where I feel the body go numb (the onset of sleep paralysis) and I know that in a few seconds my mind will dip into subconscious activity. If I don’t fall asleep, I know that I will be able to observe this state.
  • Be patient. At first, you’ll probably struggle to enter a hypnagogic state. You need to build the napping habit. Keep trying, but don’t force it. As Dalí warns:

To achieve a painter’s slumbers will, in fact, require a long period of training.

Bonus: Hypnapompia

Hypnagogia has a mirror image at the end of the sleep cycle. The transition from sleep to wakefulness is called hypnopompia.

Hypnopompia seems to be identical in brain-activity to hypnagogia and a lot of us have hypnopompic hallucinations in the mornings, especially if we’re fond of the snooze button.

The downside for creative folks is that we can only use hypnapompia once a day, after a long sleep. Nevertheless, we might as well indulge when we can, right?

Experiment with setting your alarm thirty minutes earlier than usual in the morning and try to balance between sleep and wakefulness until it’s time for you to get up. Use the snooze button to make sure you don’t go into deeper sleep.

I don’t use an alarm, so after waking I usually go to the toilet before hitting the hay again for half an hour of creative dreams.

Hold on: how come hypnagogia is so creative?

Good question. As well as Dalí, many other artists, writers, mystics, philosophers and scientists have used napping to break through creative brick walls, including Aristotle, Robert Desnos, Edgar Allan Poe, Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison and Beethoven.

But how do they work?

  • Dreams are extremely productive, packing a high density of images and ideas into a short time. Indeed, time itself seems to become meaningless: we can feel like we’ve experienced a lifetime in an instant. Productivity is important because, when it comes to creativity, quantity is quality.
  • They are extremely novel, mooshing together not only past, present and future, but also people, places, ideas and concepts that might never have met otherwise. Humdrum objects take on a magical quality and might be used in dreams for purposes quite different to their intended design.
  • Dreams can express ideas that are more complex than you can grasp in a wakeful state. For some, those complex concepts will remain ineffable, but sometimes, in a flash of insight, we can bring a genuine breakthrough back from the doze.

If you’re not convinced and you want some more science, then check out the work of Sara Mednick, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Irvine.

Mednick and her team at the Sleep and Cognition Lab have shown that catching some zzz during the day can be as restorative as a full night’s sleep.

In her 2006 ‘nap manifesto’, Mednick counts out no less than twenty scientifically evidenced ways napping improves our lives, from boosting our alertness, memory and decision-making, to reducing our vulnerability to heart attack, stroke and diabetes.

Best of all, for our purposes, Mednick and her team found that an afternoon nap increased creativity scores by no less than 40 percent.

REM sleep facilitates the use of prior information for creative problem solving. Subjects who had REM sleep displayed a significant improvement above NREM and quiet rest groups. (Cai et al., 2009)

It’s worth saying right now that this research focussed on the traditional long siesta of 60–90 minutes — and only found these results with nappers who experienced REM sleep.

But who are we to gainsay Salvador Dalí? If he says that micro naps work too, then surely it’s worth a try, isn’t it?

As Mednick writes in her book Take A Nap, Change Your Life:

It’s free, it’s nontoxic and it has no dangerous side effects. Hard to believe, with these powerful selling points, that people have to be convinced to nap.

None of us need be a sleep scientist or a Dalían genius to enjoy the fruits of napping. We all have access to this state and we can do it as much as we like without doing harm to ourselves.

In fact, as Dalí says, napping is a skill that we can improve —or, if sleep is the ‘principal part’ of the work, perhaps rather we must. Our experience deepens the more we practice and explore sleep’s mysterious boundaries.

Inspiration from hypnagogic states also eases the pressure to Be Creative, unlocks writer’s or artist’s block, and pricks inflated egos. Because they’re ideas that have arrived from an unconscious state, it’s hard to take full credit for them. With dreaming, your creative process becomes more of a partnership between you and your ‘muse’.

So was Dalí particularly creative? Or was he just some guy who napped a lot?

Both. The two go hand in hand. Naps are our safe space, where we walk hand in hand with our unconscious, to play and work together.

Advanced techniques of the creative dreamer

Record your experience

Of course, the hypnagogic experience isn’t very creative unless you can capture its ideas and images somehow.

On waking from your dream, immediately rehearse your visions and write them down while you are still in the afterglow of the experience. Otherwise they will fade and soon vanish.

Besides pen and paper, another way to record your experience is to report the images as they are happening into a dictaphone. The great advantage of this is that there is no delay between the hallucination and the recording.

The down side is that speaking while dreaming isn’t easy for beginners —I’ve never even tried — because language uses the analytical part of the brain, which is inherently wakeful.

However, dream expert Jennifer Dumpert says that verbal reporting is possible so long as you don’t search for words, cling to grammar or intellectually interrogate the nonsense of abstract ideas.

Control your experience

As you develop your ability to enter a hypnagogic state, you can start to try and do more with these experiences. You might not be able to control the hallucinations, but you can try to suggest things to the mind.

Dalí boasts about being able to manipulate his hypnopompic dreams using perfumes, music and light or pressure on the pupils, but his methods require the assistance of a valet. If you don’t have a valet, you could set your phone to play soft music an hour before you normally wake up.

Whatever control techniques you try, it’s important that you stay relaxed. Just let it happen, whatever it is. Anxiety will provoke your alarm systems and you’ll wake up. Remember that the hallucination is in control as much as you are.

Alternatives to hypnagogia

Hypnagogia is not the only way to get the creative benefits of dreamlike consciousness. The following are other alternatives — I’ve linked to reports of my own experiments in brackets:

  • Sleep-dreaming (Sleep, Meditation and Dreaming)
  • Meditation (Vipassana Retreat)
  • Psi or psychic control, extra sensory perception, etc.
  • Schizophrenia
  • Simple creativity: painting, playing a musical instrument, etc.
  • Hypnosis
  • Epilepsy
  • Hallucinogenic drugs (Psychedelics and Microdosing) — but bear in mind that one of Dalí’s ‘Ten rules for him who wishes to be a painter’ is:

Painter, don’t drink alcohol, and chew hashish only five times in your life.

  • Sleep deprivation (Polyphasing Experiment).
  • Isolation (of the solitary hermitage variety, not the Covid-19 variety)

I wholeheartedly encourage healthy, catholic experimentation, but hypnagogia and Dalí’s ‘slumber with a key’ is a wonderful option that’s relatively easy, creative and completely safe.

One final note: creativity, sleep and dreaming, especially hypnagogia, is not well understood by anyone — and I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. All I hope is that I have given you something to ponder, investigate and experiment with in your own life.

Now go, dream.

Further reading

Primary sources:

  • Hypnagogia by Andreas Mavromatis, 1987
  • 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship by Salvador Dalí, 1948

Other sources:

  • Hypnagogia and Hypnopompia on Wikipedia. Great for an introduction and chasing down the primary sources.
  • Enter the Twilight Zone: the Hypnagogic State by Vaughan Bell from Mind Hacks by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb, 2004. A short piece that gives some interesting scientific detail and good tips for inducing the hypnagogic state.
  • Hypnagogia by Gary Lachman, from Fortean Times, October 2002. Now behind a paywall, this is an excellent article that covers the history of hypnagogic investigation.
  • Sara Mednick’s Sleep and Cognition Lab. For dozens of studies on the psychology and neuroscience of sleep. You can watch her present some of the findings in this 2013 TEDx talk.
  • Jennifer Dumpert’s Liminal Dreaming site. I was also lucky enough to attend Dumpert’s 2017 presentation at Breaking Convention, which you can watch online.

Parts of this article were originally published at https://davidcharles.info on November 21, 2010. I have changed the focus from Thomas Edison to Salvador Dalí because I can’t actually find any solid evidence that Edison took hypnagogic micro naps of the type discussed.



David Charles

Helping you make a little more sense of the world. Co-writer of BBC Radio Comedy Foiled. Environment writer for Landscape News. Outdoor leader.