Mechanics of Dreaming
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Mechanics of Dreaming

Your adrenaline is racing. Your blood pressure increases as your heart beats faster and faster. Your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. The final leg of a challenging foot race? Far from it. Would you believe this is the description of your sleeping body during the dreaming stage? It's true. A 1993 study at the University of Iowa found that the human body's dreaming condition is much like the fight-or-flight response in waking life, which gears the body up to confront a threatening situation. Yet your brain simultaneously signals your spinal cord to hold your body completely still. Science is still trying to determine exactly what physical function dreaming has for us, but since the 1950s, researchers have made remarkable advances in the study of sleep. In centuries past, most people saw sleep as a kind of unconscious state or temporary death. But today we know that sleep is not merely a seven- or eight-hour period of total unconsciousness. You may be "dead to the world," but your mind is very much alive, cycling through periods of intense activity and periods of rest. The cycles of sleep are a fairly new discovery, but in the years since researchers finally cracked the code of sleep we have learned a great deal about what our bodies do when we dream. We now know that sleep is made up of a pattern that alternates between a stage in which brain activity heightens and dreaming takes place and a stage of "quiet sleep,'' so called because you are generally sleeping without much disturbance, still and relaxed, without the rapid eye movement and accompanying brain waves that indicate dreaming. You've probably heard of REM sleep, which is the particular stage of sleep we're in when we dream. The term REM stands for rapid eye movement, and this stage is so called because the eyes move back and forth beneath the eyelids, as though they are watching an action-packed movie. Observe someone sleeping sometime and you'll see how the eyelids seem to flutter as the eyes roll beneath them; if you are able to wake the person up during REM, chances are that he or she will be able to recall a dream, even if usually unable to do so after waking up in the morning. Awaken that person during non-REM, or quiet sleep, and he or she will be hard-pressed to recount any dream activity at all. The discovery of rapid eye movement is legendary. In the early 1950s, in the University of Chicago laboratory of sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, a graduate student named Eugene Asirinsky sat monitoring the staggering pen marks of an electroencephalograph (EEG) machine. The EEG machine's wires led to electrodes attached to an infant, whose brain waves were Asirinsky's focus of interest. The story goes that Asirinsky thought the machine was broken when the graph in front of him suddenly began to stagger wildly. After all, sleep was a period of rest. Only after checking the connecting wires did he discover the baby's rolling eyes. What could it mean? Kleitman and Asirinsky, working together with medical student William C. Dement, began to research whether adults had these same eye movements during sleep. Awakening their research subjects during REM sleep led them to conclude in 1953 that REM sleep takes place only during the dream stage; subjects roused during REM sleep were far better able to describe their dreams in vivid detail than those who slept through the night or were awakened during what came to be known as non-REM sleep. The discovery of REM sleep led to other related conclusions about sleep and dreams. Whereas previous researchers had taken random EEG readings, Dement studied the entire night's sleep in several subjects over several days. This research allowed him to document regular periods of dreaming and sleeping. In this way, he was able to put to rest the notion that dreams occurred randomly as a result of indigestion, environmental noise, and other circumstances. Although scientists still couldn't say for sure why dreams occurred or where they came from, they were at least able to determine when they occurred and what things did not cause them.

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