Flickering Eyes in Dreams Signal "Scene Changes"

By James O Malley on at

When our eyes flicker during sleep, it could signal a change of scene in our dreams. That's at least the claim being made by scientists following new research.

According to the BBC when we're in REM sleep (which literally stands for "Rapid Eye Movement"), with each movement new bursts of brain activity occur, which is similar to the brain activity seen when we look at something, or imagine, something news.

Apparently the part of the brain being activated isn't the image processing part of the brain, which is elsewhere, but is the part of the brain that deals with different concepts and ideas. The scientists were able to compare the dream data to the parts of the brain that lit up when they were shown pictures.

"About a 0.3 seconds after the picture appears, these neurons burst - they become vigorously active," Dr Yuval Nir told the BBC. "This also happens when people just close their eyes and imagine these pictures, or these concepts."

Dr Nir, from Tel Aviv University carried out the study, working with colleagues in France and the US. The study has involved working with epilepsy patients to monitor seizures. It is apparently the first time that that individual brain cells have been monitored during the dream phase of sleep.

The conclusions have been reached after studying 19 patients who have electrodes in different places - but most have theirs within the medial temporal lobe.

Interestingly, the research also seemingly explains why unborn babies and blind people also flicker their eyes when in REM sleep... because it isn't about vision at all, but concepts. Prof Jim Horne from Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre told the BBC:

"I see REM sleep as rather like the screensaver on your computer; all you need is the touch of a button and your computer leaps to life. It's very close to wakefulness. Non-REM sleep is more like when you switch your computer off, and waking up requires a process of rebooting."

Sadly we were unable to reach Michael Stipe for comment on these latest REM developments. [BBC]