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REM Sleep: Our Greatest Purpose

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The Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle is the last of the five stages of sleep, during which dreaming occurs, heart and breathing rates increase, and muscles either twitch or are paralyzed.

It is followed by wakefulness or light sleep. Usually, five sleep cycles occur each night, the REM portion lengthening in duration with each.

Our longest REM stage occurs just before we wake, lasting close to an hour, while the first REM stage begins 70-90 minutes after dropping off and lasts only 5-10 minutes. Subsequent REMs typically last longer. Interrupting the REM sleep cycle is known to increase grouchiness. The Hebrews, after all, were awoken (from REM sleep) and presented with Moses's Bible early in the morning.

Aside from causing some to complain, sleep deprivation produces all kinds of physiological and psychological problems. People enter REM sleep faster and stay there longer as they age, which is why you may see grandpa drift off to sleep during a movie (and, perhaps why old folks are happier, too). REM is also called paradoxical or desynchronized sleep because of its physiological similarities to waking brain states, including rapid, low-voltage desynchronized brain waves.

REM sleep is a distinct "third state" of consciousness: brain activity is similar to wakefulness, but conscious awareness is radically transformed. REM directly enhances creative processing more than any other sleep or waking state.

REM sleep stimulates associative networks, allowing the brain to make new and useful links between unrelated ideas. Most likely, the functional integrity of the default mode network (DMN) reflects "level of consciousness." There is functional uncoupling of the DMN during deep sleep (when glia contract and neural cleansing mostly occurs) and recoupling during REM sleep (similar to wakefulness).

However, unlike either deep sleep or wakefulness, REM has a widespread, temporally dynamic interaction between unimodal sensorimotor areas and the higher-order linking cortices (including the DMN), which regulate their activity. During REM, these two systems become anticorrelated and fluctuate rhythmically, in reciprocally alternating multisecond epochs with a frequency of 0.1-0.01 Hz. This pattern suggests that REM sleep is important in both dreams and memory. REM sleep's stimulation of brain regions used in learning also supports this suggestion.

Furthermore, because infants spend more time in REM sleep, we can conclude that REM is also essential to brain development. Just as it does during deep sleep, the body produces more proteins during REM sleep, but different ones. REM sleep also affects the learning of mental skills. In a study, people taught a skill and then deprived of non-REM sleep could recall what they had learned after sleeping, while people deprived of REM sleep could not.

Napping participants grouped by REM sleep, non-REM sleep, and quiet rest had similar memory capabilities. The quiet rest and non-REM sleep groups displayed no improvement on an association test. However, the REM sleep group improved by almost 40%.

When one is asleep (in a trance), the brain is free to create. Imagination is our greatest purpose (after survival). It is the cutting edge of consciousness where we invent new realities and release buried energy, individually and universally speaking.

How did we manage to climb the evolutionary ladder to become the most successful species on this planet? How do we participate in this complex society or build such complicated machines? Creativity drives human progress. Some say it was because of our opposable thumbs and the use of tools; or human language; or the transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian society; or the discovery of fire, which enabled cooking, in turn gifting us large brains.

All of these uniquely human developments have one thing in common. They’re all produced by creativity.


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