A lot of people are under the impression that sleep is sleep is sleep is sleep. If you catch my drift… They think that when you sleep your body is in a basic state of rest and that’s that. But according to the neurosciences this is not the case. It seems that there are different states of sleep that we cycle through as the night progresses. We go through five stages of sleep – 1, 2, 3, 4 and REM sleep. It is not just a matter of closing your eyes and when you open them up again you feel refreshed. The various different stages of sleep have different affects on your body, and not getting enough of one of these stages can have a negative impact on your quality of living.

In today’s blog post we are going o take an almost scientific look at REM sleep. Join us as we embark on a journey into the inner workings of the brain and the fascinating world of sleep.

Rapid Eye Movement Sleep or REM Sleep

So now that we know that we do not sleep in one continuous state throughout the night, let’s explore this exciting part of sleep! Why is it exciting? Well REM sleep is the stage of sleep where we dream the most. Some scientists call it the dream-sleep. This is usually the only part of sleep that we can remember, if we remember anything at all. Sometimes we remember our dreams, but for the most part we forget them very soon after we wake up. It is the belief of some sleep experts that what we remember (if we remember anything at all) is actually not one chronological dream, but little tiny bits of all of the various dreams we had that night. But this is pure speculation, so don’t quote me on it!

University of California Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, Matthew Walker, says that people in the dream-sleep act like psychotics. This sounds a bit wild, doesn’t it? But when he breaks it down, it makes sense. Check this out: Patients suffering from psychosis hallucinate, their emotions vary greatly, they believe the impossible, they are disoriented and they suffer from amnesia.  And that is exactly the symptoms that we go though in the REM sleep stage. Our brains conjure up fantastic scenarios in which we can do all sorts of things that defy the laws of physics. We believe a lot of strange things in our dreams, our range of emotions can range from excited to sad in heartbeats and then, when we wake up, we forget everything. Kinda scary, if you ask me. Thank goodness for atonia!

What on earth is atonia!?

This is a state of near paralysis that our bodies enter upon going into the dream-sleep stage. Scientists believe that we enter atonia to protect ourselves and our partners. It enables our brains to act out all of these strange fantasies, without endangering our bodies. Imagine that your body responded to all of the impulses that are firing through your brain when you dream! It can easily lead to disaster and tragedy.

How does it work?

Apart from being partially paralyzed, there are various other interesting facts about REM sleep! But how do we know all of these things? Do scientists just suck the ideas out of their thumbs and publish it? Not really, no. To monitor the effects of REM sleep on the brain, neuroscientists use an electroencephalogram (EEG) to see what the brain does. Basically they use this tool to monitor the amount of electrical activity in the brain. From that they can infer all sorts of things about how active the brain was, which parts of the brain were more active and so forth. But we are not here to discuss how scientists know what they know, but rather to discuss their findings. So let’s move right along.

Interpreting these EEG’s, researchers have shown that some parts of the brain are up to 30% more active while in dream-sleep than they are while we are awake. How cool is that? I bet you never knew that your brain could be more active while you sleep than while being awake! So it seems that the traditional view of sleep, where we were perceived as being in stasis, is not quite accurate. It turns out that our brains can burn more calories and use more oxygen during REM sleep than while we work! The question is why?

Which parts of our brains are active during REM sleep, and which aren’t?

When you go into REM sleep, the visual parts of the brain become more active. The motor movement centers of the brain become more active and our memories and emotional centers show increased brain activity. Now you can see why atonia is such an important part of REM sleep. If it wasn’t for that, the fact that our motor system is revved up in dream-sleep would definitely have caused a lot of late night visits to the emergency room…

But while all of the above mentioned brain functions increase, some other, critical brain functions cut out. The cerebral cortex is basically the part of the brain we use to make rational decisions. It helps us to reason logically and to process language. This part of the brain gets shut off during REM sleep. Yup, that’s right. No wonder Prof Walker says our brains are psychotic while we are in dream-sleep! There is nothing to keep our minds from straying into wonderful fantasies and experiencing them as if they are real.

Some interesting facts about REM sleep

What’s very interesting about dream-sleep is that the body remembers when you miss out on it and will try to catch up on REM sleep when it gets the chance. When do you miss out on REM sleep? Well obviously when you don’t sleep enough. But here’s the bad kicker. Alcohol intake before bed can have a very negative impact on your dreams. Alcohol suppresses dream-sleep, which means that you won’t dream properly after drinking too much. A lot of you might argue this point, because you might have experienced vivid dreams after having a couple of drinks too many…

I hear you, but here’s the thing. Remember how we said that the body remembers when it missed out on dreaming? Well it really does! And then, about six hours after you’ve had your last drink and the alcohol has left your bloodstream (meaning it can’t suppress your dreams anymore) the floodgates open! At this point your brain will have missed at least two cycles of REM sleep, meaning it has a lot of catching up to do. So you start having very vivid dreams to make up for lost time. Fascinating, isn’t it?

It can build up for more than one night, though.

When deprived of sleep for a very long time, the mind starts craving REM sleep so much that it basically starts conjuring up strange images while you are still awake. Recovering alcoholics sometimes experience hallucinations. Because they have suppressed dream-sleep for so long, it just can’t wait for night time anymore!

Why do we need our dreams?

It would appear that our brains consolidate what we’ve learnt throughout the day during REM sleep. When conducting a study on sports injuries, medical researchers found a direct correlation between sustaining injuries and neglecting sleep. In other words, the less the athletes slept, the more likely that they get an injury. The study proved that getting enough sleep after a proper training improved overall performance on the following day. So obviously sleeping helps.

But what’s more is the fact that another study showed evidence that the brain takes the stuff we learnt during the day and replays it back to you while you sleep, only in fast forward. In this study, workers monitored brain activity of the study subjects while they were busy learning something new. They also monitored brain activity in the same individuals as they slept. The scientists observed certain brain wave patterns while the subjects was busy learning. And then during REM sleep, scientists observed the exact same pattern being repeated over and over again, only about twenty times faster. Furthermore, those individuals who’s dream time patterns were closest to their brain patterns while they were actually learning whatever it was that they were supposed to learn, showed the best results upon being tested about what they learnt. Cool, huh!?

If dreaming is such an integral part of sleep, why do I often forget my dreams?

While our brains are usually geared to receive and store information, quite the opposite seems to be true when it comes to dream-sleep. Thus the increased REM sleep activity in the visual centers of the brain can be attributed to the fact that the brain creates stories and ideas of its ow. These images form through the visual center in the brain. So in essence, what you dream comes from your own brain, and that is not important enough to be remembered. But what you learn during the day gets replayed in your mind to fill up the space that was left in your memory centers after you created all of those weird and wonderful dreams. Or that is one of the theories, at least.

Sweet dreams!

Hopefully this article helped you to better understand dreams and how they occur. The science is far from perfect, but at least we are starting to realize why we dream. Sweet dreams, sleep tight.