Lesson 19 (The stuff of dreams)

What is going on when a person experiences rapid eye-movements during sleep?

It is fairly clear that sleeping period must have some function, and because there is so much of it the function would seem to e important. Speculations about is nature have been going on for literally thousands of years, and one odd finding that makes the problem puzzling is that it looks very much as if sleeping is not simply a matter of giving the body a rest. ‘Rest’, in terms of muscle relaxation and so on, can be achieved by a brief period lying, or even sitting down. The body’s tissues are self-repairing and self-restoring to a degree, and function best when more or less continuously active. In fact a basic amount of movement occurs during sleep which is specifically concerned with preventing muscle inactivity.

If it is not a question of resting the body, then perhaps it is the brain that needs resting? This might be a plausible hypothesis were it not for two factors. First the electroencephalograph (which is simply a device for recording the electrical activity of the brain by attaching electrodes to the scalp) shows that while there is a change in the pattern of activity during sleep, there is no evidence that the total amount of activity is any less. The second factor is more interesting and more fundamental. Some years ago an American psychiatrist named William Dement published experiments dealing with the recording of eye-movements during sleep. He showed that the average individual’s sleep cycle is punctuated with peculiar bursts of eye-movements, some drifting and slow, others jerky and rapid. People woken during these periods of eye-movements generally reported that they had been dreaming. When woken at other times they reported no dreams. If one group of people were disturbed from their eye-movement sleep for several nights on end, and another group were disturbed for an equal period of time but when they were no exhibiting eye-movements, the first group began to show some personality disorders while the others seemed more or less unaffected. The implications of all this were that it was not the disturbance of sleep that mattered, but the disturbance of dreaming.


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