Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep (Part 2)

We started this two-part blog entry last week when we discussed how REM sleep occurs in you nightly sleep routine. This time we will be going into why the brain requires  REM sleep and what makes it so important to our health. The true function of REM sleep is not fully understood as of yet but there are some well supported theories of its benefits.

One of the most favored theories of REM sleep is titled the Ontogenetic Hypothesis of REM sleep. This hypothesis proposes that the purpose of REM, or active, sleep is vitally important for the development of the brain. This is thought to be true since the stimulation provided during the REM of newborn infants is responsible for forming the appropriate neural connections and nervous system development that they require to properly function and develop. This is shown further by studies in sleep deprivation in children showing that without the proper sleep they can serious behavioral and brain problems later on in life. Also, as you get older the amount of REM sleep you require sharply decreases. This of course implies that REM sleep becomes less important as we get older which may be the case but it certainly doesn’t mean we can do without it.

Another theory is that REM sleep directly benefits the retention of memories. Studies show that REM benefits procedural (memory associated with performance of particular actions) and spatial (memory of one’s environment) memories. Some theories propose that REM acts as a sifter for useless that helps you forget the things that aren’t important and reinforce the things that are. There is some serious opposition to these claims such as a particular case study where a man had little to no REM sleep due to a piece of shrapnel in his brain stem and yet it had no impact on his memory.

There is a theory that we move our eyes during REM sleep because it corresponds to the direction we are looking during our dreams. This is supported by studies that have shown that in dreams where a there is a defined goal, the dreamers eyes point in the directions of what he later described was happening in the dream. This theory is often seen as flimsy since those born without vision as well as unborn children both experience the REM phenomenon.

There are several other more narrowly accepted theories as to why we require REM sleep but scientists continue to remain indecisive on the topic. Regardless of the reason the fact remains that REM sleep is vital to the survival of all mammals and birds. The best way to get the necessary amount of REM sleep is to sleep on a comfortable mattress, preferably one from Mattresses for Less! Check out their massive inventory and get yourself into a ridiculously comfortable mattress tonight!

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep

We have mentioned in the past certain aspects regarding Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep but we have yet to properly explain what REM sleep really is and why it is truly important. Out of the stages of sleep, doctors and scientists agree that REM sleep is the most important. The questions we look to answer are “What is REM sleep”, and “How does it occur?”

Every night when you go to sleep you experience anywhere from 1-2 hours of REM sleep. REM sleep is typically spread out over the night but the majority happens in the early morning hours. The amount you get a night also varies with age. Infants spend a considerably greater amount of time in REM sleep than adults do. This is because REM stimulates the areas of the brain associated with learning so it is a vital part of an infants development.

REM is also the period of sleep in which the vast majority of your dreaming takes place. When you begin to REM sleep the area of the brain called the pons begins to send signals to the thalamus which relays the signals to the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the area of the brain that is associated with organizing information, thinking, and learning new things. The pons also sends signals to the spinal chord temporarily paralyzing the limbs so you don’t actually move with your dreams. A condition exists called REM sleep behavior disorder where the pons fails to send these paralyzing signals and a person will literally act out their dreams which can have disasterous results. Comedian Mike Birbiglia is one such person with REM sleep behavior disorder and he documents the time he jumped out of a second story window of a hotel in Walla Walla, Washington when he was dreaming a missile was headed for his hotel room. Such is the power of REM sleep. When a person is experiencing REM sleep they demonstrate similar brain patterns to a waking person. This is why REM sleep is often called paradoxical sleep and is the phase of sleep in which you sleep lightest.

REM occurs in mammals and birds but curiously not in cold blooded animals like reptiles. This is why you can see your dog running or whining in his/her sleep. The process of REM sleep is a complex physiological process that interacts with several locations in the brain, but scientists still disagree as to exactly why this happens. Now that we have talked about what REM sleep is, all thats left is why  it happens. Come back next week to find out the interesting theories on why it is the body requires REM sleep and the terrible consequences of neglecting those requirements.