Understanding rapid eye movement
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is a phase in the sleep cycle in which your eyes flutter vigorously beneath your eyelids. REM sleep is associated with dreaming, memory consolidation and problem-solving and is essential in helping your body restore itself and build up your energy reserves so that when you wake up, you feel energised and ready to take on your day.
Learn more about REM sleep – and why sweet dreams are good for you.
What is rapid eye movement?
When we sleep, we experience 5 stages of sleep cycles, with non-REM sleep occurring in the first 4 stages and rapid eye movement in the final sleep cycle.
- The first stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep lasts only a few minutes (while you drift off to dreamland).
- Stage 2, light sleep, lasts around 25 minutes.
- Stages 3 and 4 of non-REM are the deepest sleep stages and are called slow-wave sleep.
In stage 5, rapid eye movement sets in, (approximately 90 minutes after we have fallen asleep). This is considered the most important part of our sleep cycle because our bodies are hard at work restoring cells, tissues, muscles and organs.
Each REM cycle lasts between ten minutes to an hour, and we experience five to six cycles a night.
Why do our eyes move during REM?
In the REM stage of sleep, the brain works through the events and experiences of your day, creates new memories and pools images which we see as dreams when we sleep. These images trigger electrical activity in the brain as the neurons work to accept and make sense of the images.
Why is REM sleep important?
REM sleep affects brain development, memory consolidation, dreaming, learning and mood.
Studies show that the brain develops during REM sleep. When you dream, your brain uses that time to organise the day’s events, storing and processing this information and sometimes connecting it to older memories.
Researchers believe that pattern recognition, which happens in rapid eye movement sleep, can help you become more creative.
Pattern recognition allows your mind to creatively draw connections between experiences and memories without having to do so in a structured way, which develops your problem-solving abilities.
REM sleep is almost entirely made up of vivid dreams. When you dream, the cerebral cortex processes and creates new memories, producing dreams which stem from what you see and experience during the day. It’s safe to say that dreaming is good for you, as it shows that your brain is actively working and this is vital to learning and creativity.
Remember the cerebral cortex? When it comes to memories, it plays an essential role in processing your memories and storing them. During REM sleep, the cerebral cortex is active, enabling you to organise your memories while asleep.
What happens if you don’t get rapid eye movement sleep?
When you miss out on rapid eye movement sleep, it can affect learning and your memory. Studies have found that people who were taught new skills and spent less time in rapid eye movement sleep struggled to recall the skills the next day.
Not getting enough REM can also lead to health issues such as increased weight (caused by a change in leptin, a hormone which regulates the body’s weight). Your immune system may also be weaker than usual, because of fewer T-cells.
Creativity, problem-solving and emotional stability are also dependent on how much rapid eye movement sleep we get. As we get older, we spend less time in this stage of sleep, so try to get as much good quality sleep you can to reap the benefits of rapid eye movement. Sweet dreams!