Dream Time: REM Sleep
A Closer Look at Dreaming and REM Sleep
We spend about 15% of each night in REM sleep. REM is the land of dreams and memories. During REM sleep, breathing is irregular, the face is visited by tiny smiles and grimaces, and the muscles are loose and floppy. Amazingly, the brain’s electrical activity is almost as active as when we’re fully awake! Yet, despite all this brain activity, in REM the brain ignores many of its jobs (hearing, vision, and sending movement commands to the muscles below the neck). These changes allow us to focus on what we see and hear in our dreams. And, even though we may be dreaming we can fly, we’re kept safe because the brain’s commands to the muscles—to open the window and start flapping—are blocked. When REM sleep is over and dreaming stops, the brain enters non-REM sleep and the blockade between the brain and body ends. (That’s why sleepwalking can occur in NREM, but couldn’t possibly occur during a dream about walking in REM sleep.) Besides being a Mardi Gras of dream, REM is also when the brain scans the events of the day, compares them with past memories, and re-forms and re-files them as fresh new memories. REM is extraordinary—it creates dreams that evaporate seconds after we wake, yet preserves and protects our memories to last a lifetime! REM lasts five to ten minutes during sleep’s first REM period and can last up to thirty minutes during the final hours of sleep.
Do Little Kids Dream?
Little kids have tons of REM. So it’s logical to assume that they must have all sorts of exciting kiddy-type dreams, like colossal smiling faces, giant-tongued dogs licking their toes, and breasts the size of blimps gushing sweet, warm milk. Of course, babies can’t speak, so it’s impossible to know their dreams (or even if they’re dreaming at all). But what about older kids? Psychologist David Foulkes has worked with children (from tots to teens) to bring the secrets of their dreams to the light of day. In his lab, he allows children to fall asleep and then wakes them three times a night—sometimes in REM and sometimes in NREM—and asks them to describe what they’re thinking. Foulkes’s findings are surprising . . . in how unsurprising they are. Basically, immature kids have immature dreams. For children under five, dreams are usually just static visions of an animal or bland images of people eating and doing other mundane activities. Interestingly preschoolers often think their dreams are magically placed in their heads by someone else, or by God. Most of us remember bits and pieces of our waking activities starting from around three or four years of age, but our earliest dream memories usually start at six or seven years (even though we have tons of REM sleep before that). When roused during REM sleep, 25 percent of kids under nine years of age have no recollection of dreaming. Lastly, kids’ dreams are happier than adults’! In contrast to grown-up dreams (which usually contain aggression and misfortune), Foulkes found that children’s dreams are embroidered with happy emotions.