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REM Sleep: Where Dreams Are Made
How much sleep you get is important, but so is what kind of sleep you're getting. Read on to learn about what makes us dream—and why it may be happening.
Literature is filled with fanciful explanations for dreams. In European folklore, the Sandman sprinkles sand into the eyes of sleeping children, and Shakespeare invented Queen Mab as the muse for Romeo's lovesick dreams. For all we've written about dreams, however, we know surprisingly little about how or why we dream. Scientists have yet to uncover what, if any, cognitive purpose dreaming serves—but they do know when it occurs: during a specific stage of sleep called rapid eye movement, or REM. During this time, an area of the brain called the pons sends neural signals that stimulate the cerebral cortex, initiating a massive amount of brainwave activity, particularly in the areas responsible for memory, learning, and processing information. For this reason, some believe that dreaming could be anything from the brain processing the day's information to an attempt to make sense of the random stimuli it receives in this subconscious state. The latter explanation has garnered some support in other studies, which suggest that deprivation of REM sleep can be more detrimental to learning than the deprivation of other sleep stages.
For all the mysteries of dreams, it's at least easy to tell when the brain is in REM sleep. As the name suggests, REM causes the slumbering eyes to move rapidly in random directions, and there are other physical cues as well—specifically, the lack of any physical movement. While the pons signals the cerebral cortex to fire on all cylinders during REM sleep, it also causes the muscles to enter a temporary state of paralysis—a stillness that may seem at odds with the accelerated breathing and heart rate. This paralysis, however, serves a crucial purpose: it prevents people dreaming about boxing, for example, from accidentally massaging their pillows' shoulders mid-sleep.