Sleep has been a puzzling thing for researchers to fully understand. While it is obvious that sleep is necessary for everyone to survive and that it plays key roles in body and brain function, its exact effects are not totally understood. Sleep is important in mood, emotional response, and cognitive function.

Sleep is broken into stages, 1, 2, 3 and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The first stage, stage 1, acts as a transition period between wakefulness and sleep. It only occurs for short periods of time (usually 5-10 minutes). It is characterized by slow brain waves called theta waves. In stage 2 the brain begins rhythmic wave patterns called sleep spindles. In this stage the body also begins to react and lower metabolisms such as body temperature and heart rate. Stage 3 (used to be broken into two separate stages) is characterized by delta waves, which are slow waves. This is the stage of deep sleep or slow wave sleep (SWS) as it is called. The last stage is REM sleep in which the brain increases significantly in activity and is characterized by eye movement. This is the stage where dreams generally occur due to the increased brain activity. While the brain activity has a sharp increase, other voluntary muscles relax and essentially become paralyzed which is thought to keep people from acting out their dreams.

Sleep stages generally tend to occur in cycles and will go down from 1 to 3 and then back up before REM sleep, which occurs on the edge of sleep and wakefulness. A full cycle usually occurs about every 90 minutes and repeats throughout the night.


links to pictures of sleep stage cycle and brain wave activity


Sleep patterns also occur on a larger level such as biological clocks. An individual’s biological clock is factored by rhythms that fall into two main categories, exogenous or endogenous. Exogenous rhythms come from external stimuli such as environmental cues (sunlight). Endogenous rhythms come from internal sources in an organism. Things such as body temperature oscillations are endogenous. Other factors that influence the circadian sleep rhythms are hormone release. Melatonin is the post prevalent. Its release triggers sleep and can shift circadian rhythms when administered. It is controlled by the SCN and acts on a feedback loop back to the SCN to regulate its release.

While the exact function for sleep is not known there are several hypothesis that could explain the reason for sleep. These include energy conservation since metabolism lowers during sleep, memory consolidation, protection from predators due to inactivity during certain hours of the day, recovery of body systems, and emotional discharge to allow lower activity in emotional pathways to restore them.

Whatever the case it can be seen that sleep is needed from sleep deprivation studies in which subjects show irritability, paranoia, decreased cognitive function, and even hallucinations.

3 thoughts on “Sleep

  1. I did a research project on sleep for my jan plan course. I thought it would be interesting to look at the effects of sleep deprivation on specifically college students. I first researched the basic effects of sleep deprivation and i was shocked at how it really has detrimental consequences in almost every system/part of the body. There is a general assumption that college students divide their time between academics, social life and sleep, but there is really only enough time for two. The consequence is that sleep usually is the first to go. I looked at studies that assessed cognitive performance after a single night of sleep deprivation, and it was impressive how much the students were affected not only cognitively, but also emotionally. What surprised me most, however, was that the students who were sleep deprived believed that they did significantly better on the test than they actually did. They were justifying staying up all night. Ultimately, the students tried to make up the sleep they lost by taking naps and sleep most of the weekend days, but the researchers aren’t sure that trying to catch up on sleep that you have already lost helps brain function recovery and such.


  2. Sleep is both fascinating and really pleasant (can sleeping be a hobby?). One thing that I find really interesting and strange is the way that we go through different levels of sleep in such a cyclical way. From my perspective, it seems very odd to go from stage 1 » stage 4 » REM » all the other stages and then back again… I wonder what the value is of going through sleep in successive cycles and stages rather than one cycle that lingers in each of the stages (assuming that they’re all necessary) for however long is important for each stage. I think there’s a lot of research still to be done on sleep and what exactly its function is (though I can say anecdotally that it must have something to do with brain/body restoration and rejuvenation). Side note: is it true that rats deprived specifically of REM sleep eventually starve to death?


  3. Interesting to see the change in metabolism as you enter different stages of sleep. It almost seems there is a negative correlation between the rest of the body’s metabolism and the brains metabolism. Another study could compare the changes of body metabolism as sleep stages progress. It is understandable why short naps would be beneficial or at least refreshing during the day as you enter that first stage of sleep. I would agree that it is confusing to go from Stage 4 and then back up REM is a slightly confusing organization. Why not move from Stage 1 up to Stage 4 and then to REM?


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