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Eye movement in REM sleep: Rapid, but perhaps not random

A new study published in the journal Brain suggests our eyes may shift their gaze to focus on the people and places present in our dreams during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Scientific American reports:

For more than 50 years neuroscientists have debated the reasons for REM during sleep, proposing all kinds of ideas: the eyes roll around to lubricate the inside of the eyelids; jiggling eyes warm the brain; eyes twitch randomly in response to stimulation from the brain stem. According to a study in the June issue of Brain, the most likely explanation is the "scanning hypothesis," which says that throughout REM sleep our eyes orient their gaze to scan the imagery of our dreams-just as eyes change their gaze in response to our environment when we're awake and moving around.

In the study, neuroscientists looked at 56 subjects with sleep behavior disorder, who don’t enter the state of temporary paralysis that most of us do in our down hours. They matched movement of the body with movement of the eyes and found that 90 percent of the time action and gaze were synchronized.

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