This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 03 table of contents.

Eye and Body Movements Related to Dreams

In one famous case from Dement's sleep laboratory, sleep researchers noticed a series of large, up and down eye movements in a person during REM sleep. They immediately awakened the sleeper, who reported that he had just dreamed he was walking up some stairs. In a similar case report, a sleeper awakened after left-to-right eye movements said he was watching a table tennis match in a dream. In these cases, there was a clear relationship of dream content to eye movements. However, these eye movements were not the bursts or vibrations of the eyes that define REM sleep; they were slower, like normal eye movements. As it turned out, these findings were unusual. Normally eye movements cannot be related to dream content in any simple way.

What are famous examples of eye movements related to dream content? What did later studies show? What are myoclonic contractions?

Muscles often twitch or jerk during the falling-asleep process, especially after a day of heavy exercise. These twitches are called myoclonic contractions or sleep myoclonus. Myoclonus is a medical term referring to shock-like contractions of a portion of a muscle. Indeed, many people use the word "shock" or "jolt" to describe these sudden movements. Some scientists say myoclonic contractions while a person is falling asleep are the result of metabolic activity in recently exercised muscles.

In some cases there is no denying a tie between dream content and muscle activity. The relationship is especially obvious when strong imagined activity breaks through the relaxation of sleep and also awakens the dreamer. For example, a student reports:

Recently while surfing in Florida, I would have myoclonic contractions. My friend noticed that every night after a full day of surfing, I would kick my legs straight out and my arms would twitch. While these contractions were going on I was dreaming about surfing and would actually go through the motions. Whenever I would fall off my surfboard I would have one quick, violent muscle contraction and wake up. [Author's files]

What did Goleman and Engel suggest?

Goleman and Engel (1976) offered a simple explanation of myoclonic contractions. They said the strong motor responses probably occurred when a sleeper interpreted the onset of profound muscle relaxation as loss of control (like falling off a surfboard) so the dreamer responded with sudden movement.

What is the author's slightly different theory?

I suspect that Goleman and Engel reversed cause and effect. In other words, the story in the dream comes first, complete with an emergency that requires movement. If making a movement is important in the context of the dream (for example, while falling off a surfboard, when it is a matter of life or death) the great urgency of the movement overrides the suppression of muscle movement during REM sleep. Such an event is so alarming that it is likely to awaken the dreamer as well.

This second theory would also explain the origins of the myth that "you cannot let yourself die during a dream, or you will really die." Students say that is untrue. A show of hands in any introductory classroom will show that many students have died in dreams (but lived to tell about it). What is true, however, is that a life-or-death situation such as falling out of a window will often result in a defensive or anticipatory movement so urgent that it breaks through the muscle suppression of REM sleep and awakens the dreamer.

Animals also respond to a busy day with muscular activity during sleep. A student reported that after a day of hunting, her dogs had unusually active sleep.

After a day's hunt, I have often seen my dogs in the rapid eye movement state while sleeping. They will fall asleep, and I can observe every movement of their eyes. Since they are deerhounds, they often bark and act as though they are chasing a deer. Their legs make quick jerking motions as though they are trying to run. They will start breathing very hard during this period. These dreams are sometimes very short, sometimes quite long. This is good evidence that animals do dream and have rapid eye movement periods. These types of dreams probably result from their having been hunting. [Author's files]


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