An Introduction to REM Sleep and the Other 4 Stages of Sleep

Published: 04th January 2012
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Throughout the night while we're sleeping, our bodies go through 5 stages of sleep - stages one through four, called non-REM sleep and the last stage called REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement and it refers to the rapid action of our eyes during this particular stage of sleep. Some sleep specialists believe that if we were starved of REM sleep we would die. This is thought to be the case because our brain has a sort of self-preservation system (the same type of system that prevents you from holding your head underwater until your drown). This self-preservation system will force our bodies into REM sleep immediately upon falling into sleep if we are starved of it.

It is during REM that dreams happen most frequently and vividly. A healthy sleeper typically spends around 120 minutes of their total time sleeping dreaming - not that anybody really knows the reason behind our dreaming. Freud thought that our dreams were some type of safety device - the minds way to release our unconscious wants. It was only as far back as 1953 that sleep researchers began to take a more interested look at dreams and REM sleep. It was around this year when they found out that most people's dreams happen in this sleep stage. It's interesting to note that cold-blooded animals, such as reptiles don't experience REM sleep but most mammals and birds do.

When our body first gets into REM sleep, our brain sends messages to the cerebral cortex - the part of your brain that's in control of information organization and overall thinking and learning.. Cues are delivered which turn off neurons along the spinal cord. This shutting down of the neurons is what causes our immobility during REM sleep. It's because your limbs are paralyzed that most people are unable to act out the dreams they have - although it does happen.

In these isolated times when a person does act out a dream they are experiencing, it is what's referred to as REM sleep behavior disorder or RSBD. RSBD can be dangerous for the person suffering from this disorder as well as for whoever else shares a bed with them. Let's say, for example, that someone who was suffering from RSBD was having a dream about a football game; they could jump out of bed, run around and go through the actions of passing a football or running a touchdown.

Studies suggest that REM sleep aids in the development of the part of the brain utilized in learning - which could go towards explaining why children spend a lot more time in this stage than do adults. It's also believed that our cognitive skills are affected by REM. One study that backs this theory up is one where participants were asked to learn a certain skill. Once they mastered the skill, they were then deprived of sleep - the first group of non-REM sleep and the second group of REM. Upon awakening, the non-REM starved group could remember their newly learned skill while the REM starved group could not. Some sleep experts hypothesize that the brain takes the random signals it receives throughout the stages of REM sleep and attempts to find meaning in them. The result of the interpretation of this fragmented brain activity are what we know as dreams.


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