Why do our eyes move when we sleep? Because they’re ‘looking’ at things in our dreams, of course

“We are much more clever while dreaming than while awake.” -Anne Cutler, Psychoanalyst

You and I may be having the same recurring dream. You have an important test to take. You’re well prepared – there’s just a few details left to study, and you need to get to the testing location. The study materials are in your locker. Why isn’t the lock opening with the combination you’ve used for years? No problem. You can get the material from your peers. They just turned the corner to a different hallway. Obstacle after obstacle gets between you and your goal.* 

That dream is recurring in 34 percent of us, according to previous research. More than half of us have recurring dreams of falling. Being back in school, being chased, and flying, round out the top five recurring dreams.

In a new study at the University of California – San Francisco (UCSF), researchers discovered using a mouse model that when our eyes move during REM sleep, we are looking at things in the dream. The discovery, published in the journal Science, also lends insight into about how our imaginations work

Dreams occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The purpose of the eye movements, however, has been a mystery. 

“This work gives us a glimpse into the ongoing cognitive processes in the sleeping brain and at the same time solves a puzzle that’s triggered the curiosity of scientists for decades,” says study co-author Dr. Massimo Scanziani in a statement.

Scientists have speculated that in REM sleep the eye movements follow scenes in the dreams, but lacked a way to test their hypothesis. Many scientists dismissed the movements as random.

Now, with advanced technology, Scanziani and UCSF postdoctoral researcher Dr. Yuta Senzai, can observe “head direction” cells in the brains of mice, which also experience REM sleep. The cell activity showed which direction the mouse perceives itself as heading. The team determined that these cells, and the direction of the eye movements, were precisely aligned during REM sleep.

“We showed that these eye movements aren’t random. They’re coordinated with what’s happening in the virtual dream world of the mouse,” says Scanziani.

Scanziani is also interested in the “generative brain,” which makes up objects and scenarios. “One of our strengths as humans is this capacity to combine our real-world experiences with other things that don’t exist at the present moment and may never exist,” he says. “This generative ability of our brain is the basis of our creativity.”

In a dream, the familiar is mixed with the impossible. Scanziani described a recurrent dream in which he could breathe under water. “In the dream, you believe it’s real because there aren’t sensory inputs to bring you back to reality,” said Scanziani. “It’s a perfectly harmonious fake world.” 

Scanziani’s team found that many parts of the brain are similar in function during both dreaming and when awake, supporting the belief that dreams are a way of integrating information gathered throughout the day. 

“It’s important to understand how the brain updates itself based on accumulated experiences,” Scanziani adds. “Understanding the mechanisms that allow us to coordinate so many distinct parts of the brain during sleep will give us insight into how those experiences become part of our individual models of what the world is and how it works.”

*I’m happy to report that I found the right locations and passed the required tests.

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About the Author

Dr. Faith Coleman

Faith A. Coleman MD
Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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