FMBR Editorial: March, 2010
William C. Gough
Have you ever wondered what is sleep and why do we need it? One third of our life is spent sleeping! Twenty five percent of that time our eyes are moving as we experience vivid, emotional dreams.
These periods of rapid eye movement are commonly known as REM sleep. All terrestrial mammals appear to exhibit REM sleep, which alternates with non-REM sleep (quiet sleep) in a regular cycle. Brain activity during REM resembles that of the waking brain, it is buzzing. Yet, in a human, the body is essentially paralyzed. However, dolphins and other marine mammals swim while sleeping and some birds may sleep while flying during long migrations. In humans, seven hours of sleep a night correlates with the longest life spans. Yet there is a huge variation in the amount of sleep that different species of animals need. For example, an elephant needs only three or four hours of sleep per day, a cat about 13 to 16 hours, while an opossum sleeps for 20 hours a day. Size appears to be the major determinant: the bigger the animal the less sleep they need. Smaller animals have higher metabolic rates and higher brain and body temperatures than large animals.
Purposes of REM and non-REM sleep
What is non-REM sleep for? There exists a very small group of brain cells, about 100,000, at the base of the forebrain that are maximally active during non-REM sleep and appear to be responsible for inducing sleep. The rest of the brain is like an idling automobile using little energy. Vivid dreams are rare in non-REM sleep. Non-REM dreams consist of brief, fragmentary impressions, that are less emotional than REM sleep. In the body, metabolism generates free radicals that are known to damage and even kill cells. Thus, the hypothesis is that reduced activity during non-REM sleep may give many brain cells a chance to repair themselves.
REM sleep appears to serve multiple purposes. Since brain activity during REM sleep resembles that which occurs during waking, energy consumption is just as high. However, the brain stops releasing the neurotransmitters that activate the brain cells controlling muscles, except for those that move the eyes. Scientists are now able to watch the sleeping brain at work. The areas of the brain that generate internal imagery are active even though the regions that receive signals from the eyes are shut down. Regions responsible for short-term memory become inactive and areas involved in judgment wind down. Hence we tend to forget our dreams and accept the rapid illogical shifts of scenes. Using PET and fMRI technology scientists have found that during dreaming one of the most active brain areas is the limbic system. The limbic system is found deep in the middle of the brain and functions as an emotional-processing network.
Limbic system interweaves conscious and unconscious
The primary structures of the limbic system are all primitive organs that have been conserved throughout mammalian evolution. The human cognitive processes appear to involve circuits that are independent of these emotional circuits. The limbic system interweaves these unconscious primal emotions with our conscious cognitive thoughts and perceptions. This produces our complex repertoire of human emotions -- envy, delight, surprise, etc. In fact, dreams may reflect a fundamental aspect of the mammalian memory processing. Memory is part of the brain's attempt to impose order on the environment. Information acquired during waking states is reprocessed and consolidated during sleep. Hence, one function of the limbic system, particularly during REM sleep, is to tie together emotions and memory.
REM dreaming - processing the Absolute
Another extremely important function of REM dreaming is to serve as the processing channel for input from the unlimited potentials of the spaceless-timeless Absolute. For thousands of years dreams have been considered by many cultures as messages from the gods. Scientific studies have indicated that the limbic system is integral to religious and spiritual experiences. Because of its involvement in such experiences, the limbic system has sometimes been referred to as the "transmitter to God." At 26 weeks, a human fetus is in REM sleep 24 hours a day. By the time a baby is born, it still spends 16 hours a day asleep, half of those in REM sleep. As we get older, we sleep less and spend less time dreaming. However, dolphins experience little or no REM sleep and humans do not have particularly long REM sleep times compared with other mammals. The best predictor of the amount of REM sleep time for an adult in a given species is how immature the offspring of that species are at birth. What is it about immaturity at birth that causes REM sleep duration to be high? It has been suggested that REM sleep has a role early in life in establishing the genetically programmed connections of neurons that make instinctive behavior possible.
I suggest that the ancient limbic system obtains its informational input from our cells that act as both receivers and transmitters to the Absolute. Cleve Backster has named this process "primary perception." This ancient feedback circuit between living organisms and the Absolute deals primarily with survival and procreation. One has only to study the behavior of single cell amoeba like the Dictyostelium, and jelly fish which lack a brain and heart to observe the functioning of primary perception in living systems. My hypothesis is that this prehistoric cellular input from the Absolute is the source of our instincts, powers our emotions, and serves as the genesis of our physical and spiritual evolution. This cellular link to the spaceless/timeless Absolute bypasses the filter of our intellect, and is why dreams can help guide our lives, provide precognitive insights, and help us find solutions to elusive problems.
William C. Gough, FMBR Co-Founder and CEO Emeritus