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The REM state

The fact that the brain produces rapid eye movements in certain phases of sleep was discovered in 1953 by two researchers, Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman. They noticed that, while sleeping, people exhibit periods of “rapid, jerky, and binocularly symmetrical eye movements”, rapid eye movements (REM). Using quite primitive (by today’s standards) brain monitoring devices to generate electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings of the brain’s electrical activity they found that the REM state EEG graphs were almost identical to recordings taken when subjects were awake. Similar PGO spikes (termed ‘spikes’ because of how they appear on EEG recordings) were occurring during the REM state as when the brain is active during the daytime.

PGO spikes are bursts of electric energy fired by neurons from the pons (P) in the brainstem, through the geniculate (G) body and to the occipital cortex (O). In waking life, these PGO spikes make up the orientation response that focuses our attention, including attending to any change or threat in the environment that might trigger for flight or fight response before the animal has time to ‘think’.

This was a revelation at the time because the belief then was that the brain just shut down to rest whilst asleep. To discover that it went into different phases and was highly active at certain times surprised and exited the scientific community. Furthermore, when subjects were woken from sleep during REM they were woken out of vivid and elaborate dreams. But when subjects were awoken from non REM sleep, significantly fewer dreams were reported and the reports were less intense, more like memories of recent dreams. The REM state has been associated with dreaming ever since.

What happens in the REM state?

The REM state is the mechanism that connects us with reality; it is constantly running in the background, searching out at lightning speed the codes needed to match metaphorically to whatever is meaningful in the environment, and thus creating our perception of reality. It is a reality generator, accessing the templates that are the basis of meaning. (This is easily seen when people access memories that evoke strong emotions: rapid eye movements occur even when their eyes are open. We have much evidence of this on film.) It is active when we dream but also when we daydream. It is seen when people go into focussed states of attention (trance) and when strong instincts are aroused.

During dreaming, outside information about the world is cut off, muscles are paralysed and our brain is taken over by our innate reality generator, which searches memories to metaphorically complete templates of arousals that were not dearoused by taking action before we fell asleep. This metaphorical pattern matching process is what is happening when REM activity is observed. The dream contains these memory images and, while we are in the dream, they become the only reality we are conscious of, hence the vividness of dreams.

The expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming (a fundamental part of the human givens approach to emotional health) explains the function of the REM state, why we dream, and why depressed people dream more than people who are not depressed.

Here is a short summary of the expectation fulfilment theory, you can read about the theory in detail at this website:


The expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming summarised:

Dreaming is the deepest trance state we go into and there are three essential principles to understand:

  • Dreams are metaphorical translations of waking expectations.
  • But only expectations that cause emotional arousals that are not acted upon during the day become dreams during sleep.
  • Dreaming deactivates that emotional arousal by completing the expectation pattern metaphorically, freeing the brain to respond afresh to each new day.

Read on to find out why depressed people dream more >>