REM Sleep and Dreaming Empirical Study

REM Sleep and Dreaming

Last night while we slept, most of us did not know that we went into the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) mode when we slept and dreamed. More than likely, we will not remember any of dreams for a very good reason: we evolved not to. However, all normal, healthy humans go into the REM state and dream every night — and most mammals show evidence of this brain pattern too. The function and meaning of dreams have always been a source of mystery and fascination. Some ancient civilizations saw dreams as a way to divine the future or visit with long-departed ancestors. At the beginning of the last century they were viewed as mechanisms for the fulfillment of wishes or as expressions of archetypes and symbols. Many used the dream quest as a right of passage and way to divine the will of the gods. The problem with researching dreams seriously has been to get past the mysticism and the magic and to a serious and quantifiable way to analyze dreams. While psychologists took a stab at this in the late 19th century, not until 1950 did electronic lab equipment give scientists an access point from which they could quantify dreams. Researchers still do not fully understand REM sleep and dreaming. However, they know it is important in the creation of long-term memories in humans. It therefore has a critical role to play in the evolution and development of intelligence.

There is still as yet of course no biological definition of dreaming that is universally agreed upon. The link between REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and dreaming was discovered in 1952 by Eugene Aserinsky who discovered REM sleep and discovered that the dreams of the patients that he was observing were synchronized with the brain waves that he was recording on a polygraph machine. In 1953, he went public with the findings in a groundbreaking article that was published in Science (Aserinsky & Kleitman, 1953, 273-274).

The importance of the link between REM sleep and dreaming is significant because dream research stalled and was abandoned due to a lack of quantifiable information. REM sleep is measurable and by linking it with detailed observations of subjects in sleep studies, the two phenomenon have been linked together in studies successfully and has produced accurate, testable data.

Observations over time have shown that dreams are associated with REM sleep when an electroencephalogram is hooked up will show brain wave activity to almost like during wakefulness. Study participant non-remembered dreams that occur during non-REM sleep are usually much more mundane. For this reason, it is certain that there is a definitive link. As with many phenomena associated with the human brain, it not known exactly how things happen physiologically and how many sections of the brain are involved in the activity of dreaming and REM sleep. We do know that the phenomenon of REM sleep is widespread, including in newborn humans. We also know that depriving rats of REM sleep greatly shortens their lives. Other mammals and birds have REM sleep stages as well, but cold-blooded animals such as lizards and fish do not exhibit this behavior.

The discovery of the link between REM sleep led to a renewed interest in the study of dreams and brain activity that occurred during the duration of the sleep cycle.

It has been amazing that the research was so well received, considering the drop off in interest in the subject early on in the 20th century.

The discovery that dreams take primarily during a distinctive electrophysiological state of sleep, REM sleep now can be identified by objective criteria now. REM sleep was timed for its duration and subjects were woken to make reports before major editing/forgetting took place. There is a close correlation of REM sleep and this dream experience was the basis of the first series of reports that described the nature dreaming. Under close correlation of REM sleep/dream experience was the basis of a first series of reports describing the nature of dreaming (Gokce, 1999).

Undoubtedly, a lot of this has to do with the subject matter itself. Almost all of us are interested in dreams, even those who can not actively remember dreams. Dreams after all have been the province of mystics and religious philosophers and holy men for untold ages. Then, finally in 1953 it became possible to begin to study the phenomena in a quantifiable, objective way detached from myth and superstition.

Even though the study of dreams has now acquired a bit of objective respectability, the subject of research still retains a patina of the mystical. After all, the way we define and look at dreams defines much about the way we see reality. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung saw dreams as an interaction between the unconscious and the conscious minds. They asserted that the unconscious is the dominant force behind the dream and that it conveys its own mental activity to those with perception. Though Freud felt that the unconscious was censored even during the act of sleep, Jung had argued that the dream is an efficient language for the subject due to its bizarreness. Dreams therefore can be compared to poetry and are capable of revealing the underlying meanings of reality (“Rem sleep and,” 2009).

The idea has been put forward linking dreams with psychosis. The thinkers advocating this link have noted features that are common to the two states including thought disorder, flattened of inappropriate affect/emotions and hallucinations. Freud wrote: “A dream then, psychosis.” Phenomenological features common to both dreams and psychosis include autism, loss of autonomy with relation to mental content, flattened or inappropriate affect, disorders of meaning (excess of meaning, paranoia, or other delusions), delusional beliefs, disorders of thought and language and lack of insight (McCreery, 2008, 3).

Central to this approach to the issue is the prevalence of delusion. The advantage of having REM sleep related to dreaming is that now the psychosis and dream relationship itself is now also quantifiable. This can be especially useful in the case of the treatment of someone with a psychosis such as post-traumatic disorder.

Another way in which REM sleep is important is that it can help increase memory. This may also help in strengthening certain memories while weakening others. It is necessary in the processing of new information, which is probably why REM sleep has a higher occurrence in children. Therefore, it contributes to the development of intelligence as we grow older.

What has been found is that in general, a person needs their REM sleep so that the brain can work as it needs to. The brain is an amazing instrument that is always active and processing information and while the full importance of REM is not yet fully appreciated, enough quantifiable data is now available to document that it is a very important factor in mental wellness. REM sleep makes up 20% of the night’s sleep time. During this time, we experience vivid dreams. We repeat this cycle 5-6 times during 8 hours of sleep (Gokce, 1999).

It is after all important to understand the dreaming activity due to the amount of it we do. The typical person dreams a total of six years dreaming in the average lifespan, or nearly two hours every night (“Animals have complex,” 2001). A person who is sleep deprived sleeps more efficiently and will enter REM sleep faster when this is the case. Sleep studies in addition show that patients who sleep less enter REM sleep faster that patients who are not sleep deprived.

In conclusion, it seems like sleep is a basic process that is necessary for the healthy functioning of the body. The 1952 studies prove to be as true with today as they were then. However, things have advanced. With better technology, we can monitor the brain’s activity while in REM. Certainly, one thing is certain: with out sleep there is no life. Without sleep, body temperature, eating, infection prevention, and basic brain functioning suffer.

In terms of survival, where do dreams fit in? Researchers argue that the continuation of a complex brain process such as REM sleep indicates serves an important function for the survival of mammalian and avian species. Certainly, it was a very valuable step along the evolutionary ladder and led to survival. As the brain grew more complex, it needed downtime to process new information. Like any computer, especially a complex one, the human brain requires maintenance. Besides simple “down time,” it also requires reprogramming every 24 hours. Just like our network computers take necessary updates and downloads, the brain needs a reprogramming session every 24 hours to recharge itself and to refresh the hard drive so to speak.

Works Cited

Animals have complex dreams, mit researcher proves. (2001, January 21). Retrieved


Aserinsky, E; Kleitman, N. (September 1953). “Regularly occurring periods of eye motility and concomitant phenomena, during sleep.” Science 118 (3062): 273 — 274.

Gokce, Gokalp. (1999). Sleep and dreams. Retrieved from

McCreery, Charles. (2008). Dreams and psychosis. Oxford, England: Oxford

Forum, Psychological Paper.

Rem sleep and dreaming . (2009). Retrieved from

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