Some dreams are more vivid and then fade away over time. Some people have recurring dreams that come back to them time and again. Certain people look to find meaning in dreams while others insist that there is no meaning at all to dreams. No matter what you think about the meaning of dreams—did you know that they are important for your health and well-being?
Rapid Eye Movement (REM) is one of the four stages that your brain and body go through during a cycle of sleep. Stages One, Two, and Three of sleep happen first, and then you slip into REM sleep usually about 90 minutes after you have fallen asleep. Most people experience about 4-5 full cycles of sleep each night, fading gently in and out of the stages of sleep naturally.
Many people have heard about REM sleep and often associate this sleep stage with dreams. And even though we know a lot more about dreams and sleep than we did 100 years ago, a great deal of mystery still surrounds the inner workings of the brain during wakefulness and sleep. But scientists are learning more and more as time goes on.
Let’s take a look at the connection between REM sleep and dreams.
Do You Dream in REM Sleep?
Although it is possible to experience small, fragmented dreams during the other three, non-REM stages of sleep, this is less common and the dreams are less vivid. Most dreaming happens during the REM stage of sleep.
REM sleep is a time of heightened brain activity during the night when your body is very still (almost paralyzed) but your brain is very active and dreaming. The fact that your body is almost completely mobile is beneficial as it keeps you from physically acting out your dreams, which could be very dangerous.
During REM sleep, more activity is happening behind the scenes in the motor, visual, emotional, and autobiographical memory parts of the brain. In fact, it is called the Rapid Eye Movement stage sleep because the eyes tend to dart back and forth sporadically throughout this phase. At the same time, the decreased activity in the regions of the brain involving rational thought may explain why dreams are often nonsensical.
Some scientists think that REM sleep and dreams are randomly firing neurons during sleep, while others are convinced that the time is used as something like a data dump for the brain. Those experts who believe in the data dump theory believe that REM sleep is a period when the brain is processing information from the day, separating important memories for unimportant ones, and also preparing for challenging scenarios as they play out in their heads.
Does Everyone Dream During REM Sleep?
Certain people seem to have more of a tendency to remember their dreams after they have woken up. Other people might swear that they “never” dream, but that’s not actually true either. It may be true that people who don’t get enough sleep at night are not getting enough REM sleep, which means they aren’t dreaming as much. But pretty much everyone dreams at some point or another during sleep. It’s just that some people don’t remember their dreams.
Even if you aren’t conscious of your dreams, your body and brain are still receiving the benefits of REM sleep, as long as you are getting enough of it at night.
Why REM Sleep and Dreams Are Good for the Health
Researchers are continually trying to determine what happens in the brain during REM sleep and why it seems that people who do not get as much REM sleep are not as healthy. The learning and memory parts of the brain seem to be most “on” during REM sleep. This makes a lot of sense as infants spend about 50% of their sleep time in REM, because they have a significant amount of learning to do!
REM sleep is also related to the amygdala, the portion of the brain that senses and processes fear. One study published in the Journal of Neuroscience discovered that people who spent more time in REM sleep were less likely to have fear-related brain activity the next day when given mild electric shocks. This suggests that people who get enough REM sleep before a difficult experience are less likely to encounter symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or other mental health problems.
Other studies have shown that REM sleep affects how accurately people are able to process external stimuli and read the emotions of others. Even just experiencing REM sleep during a nap may allow a person to better judge the facial expressions of other people afterwards.
Some doctors even consider REM sleep to be “overnight therapy” meaning that REM sleep can act as a soother to take the edges off of emotional experiences, allowing us to feel better the next day.
Although they aren’t exactly sure why REM sleep helps reduce fear and emotional stress, some researchers suggest it’s because the brain takes a break from producing norepinephrine during REM sleep. Since norepinephrine is a stress-related substance that connects with the fear center of the brain, this makes a lot of sense.
While there’s no evidence to prove cause and effect, many associations have been made between the benefits of REM sleep and mental conditions. Depression and Alzheimer’s disease have both been linked to poor-quality REM sleep.
What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough REM Sleep
As people are often massively sleep deprived in today’s world, some experts suggest that it is the lack of REM sleep and the related dreaming that is the cause of many of the current health problems of today.
Rapid Eye Movement sleep stages are typically short during the first two-thirds of the night, as the body seems to be working hard to get the deep, slow-wave sleep that it needs. As REM sleep comes in larger chunks later in the night, this is typically the time when you are dreaming more. And therefore, you’re also more likely to remember your dreams when you are awoken during this last third of the night—which is in the early hours of the morning for most people.
If you don’t get a full seven or eight hours of sleep per night, then the amount of REM sleep you are getting is severely cut off. Though you might be able to function somewhat physically, over the long haul you are probably cheating your brain of the REM, dreaming stages of sleep that you really need.
Substances such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can all inhibit the amount of REM sleep you get. As can an excessive amount of artificial light in the evening, dependency on alarm clocks, and sleeping disorders such as sleep apnea.
To get the most benefit out of your sleep, give yourself the opportunity to sleep at least 7-8 hours each night, practice healthy sleep hygiene, and wake up on your own without an alarm clock whenever possible. You’ll make sure that you get the REM sleep and dreams that you need in order to function better throughout the next day.
Sleep well to live well. Your brain and body will thank you!