How to Dream Like Salvador Dali
How the surrealist master harnessed waking dreams for creativity.
Posted February 20, 2015 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
“The most characteristic slumber, the one most appropriate to the exercise of the art of painting…is the slumber which I call ‘the slumber with a key,’ … you must resolve the problem of ‘sleeping without sleeping,’ which is the essence of the dialectics of the dream, since it is a repose which walks in equilibrium on the taut and invisible wire which separates sleeping from waking.” — Salvador Dali, 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship
Salvador Dali was a master of surrealist art whose paintings, lifted from the swirlings of his subconscious, were a manifest homage to the intra-stellar universe of dreams. Far beyond simply using dreams as a source of inspiration, Dali, in fact, proactively harnessed the power of dreams, incorporating several systems of dream control into his artistic methods.
Of his many techniques, perhaps his most famous is the “slumber with a key”; this is a very brief nap "less than a quarter of a second long" used to channel the fluid space between wake and sleep, where sensations and perceptions of the day resurface as hypnagogic images (hypnagogic: from the Greek hupnos "sleep" + agōgos "leading," or, leading to sleep). Dali prescribes this afternoon slumber to fellow painters, as it provides both visual inspiration and the necessary rest for the mind, and hand, to stay sharp and steady for the labors of painting. His instructions for the “slumber with a key” are as follows:
“You must seat 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…. 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.”
This procedure utilizes the muscle paralysis that naturally occurs upon falling asleep, causing the spoon to drop and startle you awake. Just before awakening you momentarily enter the hypnagogic sleep state, a state similar to REM sleep where the mind is fluid and hyperassociative, allowing creative connections to form, connections between seemingly remote concepts that you may not realize in the structure of waking thought. In other words, in this state, your mind is able to bring together distant ideas in a new way.
But what drives these connections? Intuition may provide the undercurrent to creative associations, drawing together memories and concepts through feelings of familiarity and sensed associations. This idea has been explored also in the waking mind. Often we are able to “sense” a connection prior to perceiving it, for example, subjects given a task where they are required to find the link between two seemingly unrelated words often report a “feeling of knowing” the solution prior to actually solving the problem (Dorfman, Shames, & Kihlstrom, 1996). However, in the waking state, subjects usually attempt to systemically search known associations in order to discover a solution, whereas, in the hypnagogic state, intuitive hunches may naturally draw together new and unusual, distant associations.
In this sense, the hypnagogic process mirrors the methods of creative types; a musician is moved intuitively to play original combinations of chords and riffs, creating melodies both imaginative and inspiring. Visually, hypnagogic images express layers of memories and sensations…the type of rich metaphoric image fitting to the art of the surrealist. For example, the melting clocks in Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” give the sense that time is distorted, drudging, slowing down, and dragging on.
Beyond the arts, the hypnagogic state can also be used for other facets of creative problem-solving. Especially, as mentioned earlier, in those moments where you feel a solution is just out of reach, a momentary descent into hypnagogia may be just what you need for those creative solutions to bubble to the surface.
For those of you who aren’t keen on clattering spoons in the office, an even simpler (quieter) procedure is perfect for spontaneous naps at work. If sitting perfectly upright with your neck unsupported, the muscle paralysis that occurs at sleep onset causes your head to “nod off”. Ever tried to sleep on a bus? You repeatedly awaken as your head falls onto a stranger’s shoulder. This is the “Upright Napping Procedure” (Nielsen, 1992); follow these steps for a hypnagogic siesta adapted to the office:
- Perform normal work sitting upright in a chair.
- When drowsy, close your eyes and await a nap.
- Observe all imagery during the transition to sleep.
- [Head nod or other muscle jerk stimulates awakening]
- On awakening, review preceding imagery.
- Record details immediately.
- Repeat from step 2.
To maximize the procedure, try to focus on a specific problem or intention while awaiting sleep, and immediately afterward record any observations with text or drawing. You can repeat these steps multiple times and then analyze the recordings, looking for any insight or new memory associations.
So, the next time you are waiting on artistic inspiration or need a spark in creative problem solving, try a hypnagogic nap, and let your subconscious work for you!
Dali, S. (1992). 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship. Courier Corporation.
Dorfman, J., Shames, V. A., & Kihlstrom, J. F. (1996). Intuition, incubation, and insight: Implicit cognition in problem solving. Implicit cognition, 257-296.
Nielsen, T. A. (1991). A self-observational study of spontaneous hypnagogic imagery using the upright napping procedure. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 11(4), 353-366.