Behavioral and Brain Sciences

A review of mentation in REM and NREM sleep: “Covert” REM sleep as a possible reconciliation of two opposing models

Tore A. Nielsen a1
a1 Sleep Research Center, Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada and Psychiatry Department, Université de Montréal, Québec H4J 1C5, Canada


Numerous studies have replicated the finding of mentation in both rapid eye movement (REM) and nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. However, two different theoretical models have been proposed to account for this finding: (1) a one-generator model, in which mentation is generated by a single set of processes regardless of physiological differences between REM and NREM sleep; and (2) a two-generator model, in which qualitatively different generators produce cognitive activity in the two states. First, research is reviewed demonstrating conclusively that mentation can occur in NREM sleep; global estimates show an average mentation recall rate of about 50% from NREM sleep – a value that has increased substantially over the years. Second, nine different types of research on REM and NREM cognitive activity are examined for evidence supporting or refuting the two models. The evidence largely, but not completely, favors the two-generator model. Finally, in a preliminary attempt to reconcile the two models, an alternative model is proposed that assumes the existence of covert REM sleep processes during NREM sleep. Such covert activity may be responsible for much of the dreamlike cognitive activity occurring in NREM sleep.

Key Words: cognition in sleep; dreaming; NREM sleep; REM sleep; sleep mentation.