girl sleeping girl sleeping Researchers studying eye movement during sleep have made an impressive discovery. (Photo: Ollyy / Shutterstock)

What's really happening during REM sleep?

New eye-opening research says we're processing information we 'see' in our dreams, just like when we're awake.

Turns out that when you lay your head down to sleep, your body may be at rest – but your eyes are gearing up for a long night of work.

A new study of epilepsy patients published in the journal Nature Communications explored what really happens during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage – commonly referred to as the "dream" stage – of sleep. The biggest discovery of this research – conducted by doctors and scientists from the United States, Israel and France – is that your eyes are moving in much the same way in response to brain stimuli as they do when you're awake.

"It's a unique opportunity to look at what's happening inside the human brain," study co-author Dr. Yuval Nir, of Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine in Israel, told the BBC. "We're very thankful to the epilepsy patients who volunteered to take part."

Nir suggested that the sudden back-and-forth movement of the eyes during REM reflects a "change of scenery" when your dreams suddenly jump from one image to another. "And when the dream changes from meeting [your] aunt to, say, taking your dog for a stroll in the park, then the brain activity changes and this happens in sync with eye movements," Nir said.

It's long been believed that this rapid eye movement was somehow connected to dreams, but scientists never knew how. "We discovered that the electrical brain activity during REM sleep is very similar to what occurs when the viewer sees new images for the first time," Nir said.

Beyond this study, Nir and his team at Tel Aviv University are continuing to explore the link between sleep and cognition, including an even more eye-opening question: Why do we dream?

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