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Why Do Your Eyes Move During REM Sleep?

Dr. Jing Zhang, Neuroscientist

Dr. Jing Zhang, Neuroscientist

Jing Zhang is a prominent figure in the realm of sleep research, specializing in the intricate connection between sleep and memory. With an extensive research tenure exceeding 7 years, she delves into the neural underpinnings of these processes. Currently, as a postdoctoral researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School, she unravels the enigma of memory […]

Sleep Research
Read Time: 3 minutes
  • Recent research suggests that the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of sleep is associated with the brain forming new mental images each time the eyes move, although the exact purpose of REM sleep remains unknown.
  • Deep sleep, particularly during REM cycles, is crucial for brain health and is linked to long-term cognitive benefits such as potentially preventing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as improving overall sleep quality.
  • Investing in better sleep quality, such as through getting a new mattress, can significantly improve the amount of deep sleep you get, potentially leading to numerous health benefits and better overall well-being.

When we are dreaming in the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle of our sleep, our eyes move around vigorously just like the name suggests. The reason they do this has been elusive, but a recent study has shed some light on a phenomenon that we have been puzzled by for some time.

As we sleep, we cycle between REM sleep and non-REM sleep. Dreaming tends to occur in our deeper, REM sleep. While this rapid eye movement has long been associated with dreaming, the reason for the movement has been unclear. This recent study, published in the journal Nature Communications may have the answer.

Scanning the Unscannable in Deep Sleep

The researchers worked with volunteers who have epilepsy with implants deep in their medial temporal lobes for treatment. This region of the brain deals with mental images instead of actual vision. The electrodes allowed the researchers to record nearly 40 neurons’ activities as the subjects slept. When they did, they noticed that activity increased a quarter of a second after the subject’s eyes flickered.

This discovery led researchers to believe the brain is switching to different mental imagery when the eyes move. Each time we move our eyes the brain forms a new mental image.

Sleep expert Dr. Jing Zhang adds that REM sleep is the sleep stage where dreams are most often reported, so it is possible that the mental imagery associated with eye movement reflects dreams.

The reason for REM sleep is still unknown, but processes that occur during this cycle have been shown to be vital for brain health, creativity, and emotion regulation.

Getting More Deep Sleep and Improving Sleep Quality

new mattress and sleep quality

REM sleep typically occurs cyclically throughout the night, roughly every 90 to 110 minutes, and it becomes more frequent as the night progresses. The first REM cycle usually begins about 90 minutes after falling asleep and lasts for about 10 minutes, with each subsequent REM stage becoming longer.

According to Dr. Jing Zhang, this part of the cycle is associated with many long-term health benefits, including potentially staving off Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease by facilitating certain types of memories and regulating cortisol and growth hormones. In the short term, REM sleep helps you to regulate emotions and boosts your creativity.

Getting more deep sleep is paramount for a health brain and body. There are many things you can do to improve your quality of sleep. An Oklahoma State University study showed that just getting a new mattress is likely improve your sleep quality.

If you decide to invest in your sleep with a new mattress, we recently reviewed mattresses on their effectiveness at improving back pain and sleep quality. We found that memory foam beds like those from Amerisleep have solid ratings from customers and independent reviewers.

We are learning more and more about sleep every year. One thing that will never change is that we need good, deep sleep for many reasons. Become proactive in your sleep health and you will be rewarded greatly with better health.

David Klose is a Certified Sleep Science Coach who is a full-time writer focused on sleep health and the mattress industry. David has personally tested hundreds of mattresses and is obsessed with helping others find their perfect sleep solution.

Through his research, David has learned about other contributing factors to getting a good night’s sleep – such as diet and exercise. He now focuses on writing articles to help improve the reader’s quality of life.

A non-exhaustive list of some of the topics he has written on: the causes of sleepwalking, the sleep habits of high school students, and the relationship between a good night’s sleep and living a successful life.

David Klose has his undergraduate degree from Arizona State University where he studied English Literature and interned as the Student Editor-in-Chief of the university’s online literary magazine. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in writing from Lesley University.

Comments (5) Leave a reply

  • For the second time last night, I broke through my dream during REM sleep. I would liken it to sleep paralysis. When you wake but your brain is still doing sleep things. And actually, I had awoken shortly before this “break” to a sleep paralysis “demon” that I managed to shut down immediately and return to sleep. I was dreaming vividly and a short notification sound on my phone brought me to consciousness while I was still dreaming. The dream pulled away and what I saw was like some sort of psychedelic visuals. It felt like pulling back a curtain and seeing the inner workings of a machine. It went back and forth from these large, rising, overlapping circles -almost like bubbles- to snaking lines that were moving quickly, with almost a boiling appearance to them, glowing on a dark background. With both of these boiling patterns, there would be sort of holes in the pattern that would open and close on one side and the other, revealing a sort of image (of a woman, but i don’t think it matters) made up of a glowing, shimmering pattern. As the holes opened and closed my eyes would follow the movement back and forth. My previous experience with a dream break was almost exactly the same. My eyes just seemed to be responding to mental imagery, and felt almost like pistons in an engine that makes dreams…. At one point the visual resembled what I see in a migraine aura. That got me wondering whether there is any correlation between migraine aura and REM sleep. (The reason I did a search on this subject) I typically only get aura after a lack of sleep the night before. Do you think there is any connection to aura, and do you think that this is a universal phenomenon that simply hasn’t been noticed because people don’t usually break out of dreams? I can’t be the only one who has experienced this…

    • I have the same question about painless aural migraines and eye movement in REM sleep if they are related and why do lucid dreamers (and everyone else as well but only lucid dreamers can confirm this with communicating with researchers) retain voluntary control of the eyes. Aural migraines when excessively sleep deprived or fluctuation of reproductive hormones (I assume especially stark increase of estrogen in my case) leak from night time to wakefulness but only lower 3rd of my vision is affected during the day and text has either stationary or drifting shadow text while in the night auras in hues of gray and purple with bright light occupy always also the center of ”vision” and radiate either out or inward form periphery and sometimes there is more steady rythmic bright uneven slightly bowed line moving accross the entire vision from SW to NE or N to S or NW to E. Does the migraine pattens by any chance reflect the brain activity in different stages of sleep? Does the intense pain some people with migraine experience to auditory or light stimuli help explain why normal sleeping brain in some stages of sleep will cut all input from senses?

  • I always feel as if I am waking up out of dreams, which I guess according to sleep Drs you don’t or aren’t meant to do. I have been using EMDR to try and help anxiety and trauma, where you move your eyes while awake to mimic REM, and think abt something that hurt you same time. They say you will process it better and differently. It seems to work some too. I do not get why, as I am awake during. But also noticed I am remembering far more dreams suddenly after waking, now that I began this treatment while awake. Maybe eye movements back and forth help process ideas no matter if asleep or not? I have always had an issue of never feeling rested at all from any amt of sleep. I also seem to wake out of the wrong part of sleep more than not where I can barely even move. The Dr has said sleep cycles for a lot of us are 90 min each. Maybe the soldiers sleep cycle is 30 min. And he awoke right as one ended, which is ideal? My sleep study showed no issues, yet here I still am not rested. And tired always. And I cannot afford a new bed.

  • I recently switched back and forth between shifts 4 times in 6 weeks. From nights to days to two nights and two days. To afternoons and back again. I was trying to sleep last night and couldn’t. I held my eyes closed and they moved rapidly exactly like I was in a R.E.M. sleep cycle. I could actually reach up and touch my eyelids and feel it. My body is obviously all messed up but does this have anything to do with REM sleep? I have been awake for 36 hours now and I don’t even feel a bit tired. What’s going on?

    • I am in the military and therefore am also not afforded a regular sleep schedule. In my experience (which is backed by little to no actual science that I’ve found, so take it with a grain of salt), when you have an abnormal sleep schedule your body adapts and learns to enter REM sleep much more quickly. Some of the most restful sleep I’ve ever had was curled up on the ground with a helmet or rock as a pillow or leaned against a rucksack for only as little as 30 minutes to just a few hours. You should research Uberman Sleep and compare what you learn to your own experiences. However, obviously, as science makes more and more discoveries about sleep based on fact, you should almost always take its side over your own thoughts and feelings.

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