Have you ever woken upright in the middle of a peaceful or exciting dream? Maybe you were floating in the ocean in a state of utter bliss or perhaps you were being chased by outlaws in the Wild West. After you woke up, you might have even found yourself feeling disappointed that you were not able to finish your dream. If this has happened to you, chances are you were woken up during a period of REM sleep. So, what is REM sleep, and how is it linked to dreaming? Can REM sleep actually refresh your mind? Read on to learn about your REM sleep, how it interacts with your dream world at night, and how it keeps your mind sharp during the day.
What is REM Sleep?
Rapid eye movement sleep, also known as REM sleep, is distinct from other sleep stages and is sometimes referred to as paradoxical sleep because it has similarities to being awake. REM sleep is different from the Non-REM (NREM) stages of light sleep and deep sleep. During REM sleep, your eyes move back and forth underneath your closed eyelids. Your heart rate increases and becomes more variable in REM compared to other stages of sleep. Also, in REM sleep, your brain remains highly active and functions at levels that are more similar to when you are awake. At times, your brain can actually be more active during REM sleep compared to when you are awake! In contrast, in NREM sleep your brain activity slows and changes considerably compared to when you are awake.
What Happens During REM Sleep?
During REM sleep, your brain is extremely active. Your brain is processing, organizing, and storing all kinds of information from your day. Neural connections are being formed that strengthen your memory, and mood-boosting chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine are also being replenished. All of this is crucial for learning and memory. In short, REM sleep enables you to think more clearly, as well as boosting your creativity and mood during the day.
One of the defining traits of REM sleep is that this is typically when you have vivid dreams. To prevent your body from acting out these dreams, your body creates chemicals that render you temporarily paralyzed. This is known as REM atonia. If awakened during this time, you can usually remember some of your dreams. If getting better at remembering your dreams is something that interests you, try keeping a dream journal. Making a habit of writing down what you remember from your dreams might enhance your ability to recall your dreams.
What Stage of Sleep Do You Dream?
Dreams are most often described as an array of images, feelings, and emotions, and they occur primarily during the REM stage of sleep. The content of your dreams can have a noticeable impact on your day. And, in turn, how your day goes can have an impact on your dreams at night. On average, you may spend approximately two hours per night dreaming. That is a considerable amount of time in your life! Often your dreams are not remembered; however, if you wake from REM sleep, you are more likely to recall what you have been dreaming about.
Dreaming is one of the great mysteries of the human experience, and of sleep itself. Humans have long wondered about the meaning and purpose of dreams, and cultures have connected dreams to their deepest hopes and fears. Many ancient cultures saw dreams as messages or warnings from the gods. Throughout history, dreams have been regarded as out-of-body explorations for the soul, as a means to communicate with the dead, and as harbingers of evil spirits. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, theorized dreams as a landscape in which to explore the repressed emotions and desires of the unconscious mind. But contemporary psychologists and neurologists do not all agree about what it means to dream.
Why Do We Dream?
Many of us wonder exactly why we dream. There are no definitive answers, but experts have some theories. Research on dreaming includes exploration of both psychological and neurological functions. Theories about the purpose of dreaming cover a wide terrain and often overlap with one another. Some theories posit that dreams are a means to integrate new experiences into your memory and to process emotional events (including traumatic experiences and other challenges) as a way of regulating mood. Related to this, our brains may use the process of dreaming for managing and organizing data – through memory consolidation and learning – helping clear the brain to take on a new day. In other words, dreaming may be the brain’s way of de-cluttering itself after a long, active day of acquiring new information. These would mean that dreams are a response to stimuli gathered throughout the day, but dreams could also be a response to external stimuli that occur during sleep itself. Another theory is that dreaming functions as a sort of rehearsal space where the brain readies itself for future real-life experiences and events. Finally, some argue that dreaming is nothing more than electrical impulses and brain chemicals.
REM as Part of Your Sleep Cycle
It’s clear that the exact purpose of dreaming is still under debate. What we do know is that dreaming is a unique way to experience memories and thoughts during REM sleep. Experts also agree that all of the sleep stages are important for maintaining healthy sleep. REM and the other sleep stages do not occur all at once. Instead, periods of REM are interspersed among other stages of sleep as you move through a series of sleep cycles. Over the course of a night, the NREM stages account for about 75% of your sleeping time, with the remaining 25% percent spent in REM sleep. You will typically go through the entire cycle of sleep stages multiple times each night, needing about 90 minutes to complete the process each time.
If you ever feel like you might be spending a lot more time dreaming than what is usual for you, it could be that you are experiencing a phenomenon called REM Rebound. This tends to occur most often to people who are sleep deprived and therefore not getting enough REM sleep. REM, like the other stages of sleep, is a biological necessity. If you do not get enough, you can accumulate a debt and your brain compensates by promoting REM the next nights. This REM rebound can happen among people whose sleep is disrupted due to their work, travel, medications, or for other reasons. The majority of REM occurs later in the night, so if you only sleep for a short time then you might miss out on the periods when your body typically gets the most REM.
To make sure you get sufficient REM sleep and are able to experience its many benefits, make sleep a priority in your life. Schedule enough time for a full night of sleep. For most people, this means 7 or 8 hours. This will allow you to increase the likelihood of getting plenty of REM in the 2nd half of your night. Here’s another tip! Higher bedroom temperatures can lead to lower amounts of REM. So, for optimal sleep, your bedroom temperature should fall between 64 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, as long as that temperature is still comfortable for you. This should help keep you from waking up.
Understanding the stages of sleep can be a first step in improving your sleep health. Learn more in our Library of Sleep. Want to see how much REM sleep you’re getting each night? Download the free SleepScore app and track your sleep tonight using only your smartphone! In the morning, explore your sleep details to see what your night of sleep looked like, including how much REM sleep you got and when you got it.