Sleep and Sleep Stages

What you’ll learn to do: describe what happens to the brain and body during sleep

A college students falls asleep on her books while studying.

We devote a very large portion of time to sleep, and our brains have complex systems that control various aspects of sleep. Several hormones important for physical growth and maturation are secreted during sleep. While the reason we sleep remains something of a mystery, there is some evidence to suggest that sleep is very important to learning and memory.

You may not feel particularly busy while you sleep, but you’ll learn in this section that your brain and body are quite active. You pass through four different stages of sleep. In this section, you’ll learn more about these sleep stages, dreaming, and sleep disorders.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe areas of the brain and hormone secretions involved in sleep
  • Describe several theories (adaptive and cognitive) aimed at explaining the function of sleep
  • Differentiate between REM and non-REM sleep
  • Describe the stages of sleep

We spend approximately one-third of our lives sleeping. Given the average life expectancy for U.S. citizens falls between 73 and 79 years old (Singh & Siahpush, 2006), we can expect to spend approximately 25 years of our lives sleeping. Some animals never sleep (e.g., several fish and amphibian species); other animals can go extended periods of time without sleep and without apparent negative consequences (e.g., dolphins); yet some animals (e.g., rats) die after two weeks of sleep deprivation (Siegel, 2008). Why do we devote so much time to sleeping? Is it absolutely essential that we sleep? This section will consider these questions and explore various explanations for why we sleep.

What is Sleep?

You have read that sleep is distinguished by low levels of physical activity and reduced sensory awareness. As discussed by Siegel (2008), a definition of sleep must also include mention of the interplay of the circadian and homeostatic mechanisms that regulate sleep. Homeostatic regulation of sleep is evidenced by sleep rebound following sleep deprivation. Sleep rebound refers to the fact that a sleep-deprived individual will tend to take longer falling asleep during subsequent opportunities for sleep. Sleep is characterized by certain patterns of activity of the brain that can be visualized using electroencephalography (EEG), and different phases of sleep can be differentiated using EEG as well (Figure 1).

A polysonograph shows 14 rows of waves with some rows appearing visually similar. Rows 1–2, rows 4–7, and rows 9–11 show similar patterns. Rows 4–7 are outlined in read to emphasize the similarity in wave patterns.

Figure 1. This is a segment of a polysonograph (PSG), a recording of several physical variables during sleep. The x-axis shows passage of time in seconds; this record includes 30 seconds of data. The location of the sets of electrode that produced each signal is labeled on the y-axis. The red box encompasses EEG output, and the waveforms are characteristic of a specific stage of sleep. Other curves show other sleep-related data, such as body temperature, muscle activity, and heartbeat.

Sleep-wake cycles seem to be controlled by multiple brain areas acting in conjunction with one another. Some of these areas include the thalamus, the hypothalamus, and the pons. As already mentioned, the hypothalamus contains the SCN—the biological clock of the body—in addition to other nuclei that, in conjunction with the thalamus, regulate slow-wave sleep. The pons is important for regulating rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (National Institutes of Health, n.d.).

Sleep is also associated with the secretion and regulation of a number of hormones from several endocrine glands including: melatonin, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), and growth hormone (National Institutes of Health, n.d.). You have read that the pineal gland releases melatonin during sleep (Figure 2). Melatonin is thought to be involved in the regulation of various biological rhythms and the immune system (Hardeland et al., 2006). During sleep, the pituitary gland secretes both FSH and LH which are important in regulating the reproductive system (Christensen et al., 2012; Sofikitis et al., 2008). The pituitary gland also secretes growth hormone, during sleep, which plays a role in physical growth and maturation as well as other metabolic processes (Bartke, Sun, & Longo, 2013).

An illustration of a brain shows the locations of the hypothalamus, thalamus, pons, suprachiasmatic nucleus, pituitary gland, and pineal gland.

Figure 2. The pineal and pituitary glands secrete a number of hormones during sleep.

Why Do We Sleep?

Given the central role that sleep plays in our lives and the number of adverse consequences that have been associated with sleep deprivation, one would think that we would have a clear understanding of why it is that we sleep. Unfortunately, this is not the case; however, several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the function of sleep.

Adaptive Function of Sleep

One popular hypothesis of sleep incorporates the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is a discipline that studies how universal patterns of behavior and cognitive processes have evolved over time as a result of natural selection. Variations and adaptations in cognition and behavior make individuals more or less successful in reproducing and passing their genes to their offspring. One hypothesis from this perspective might argue that sleep is essential to restore resources that are expended during the day. Just as bears hibernate in the winter when resources are scarce, perhaps people sleep at night to reduce their energy expenditures. While this is an intuitive explanation of sleep, there is little research that supports this explanation. In fact, it has been suggested that there is no reason to think that energetic demands could not be addressed with periods of rest and inactivity (Frank, 2006; Rial et al., 2007), and some research has actually found a negative correlation between energetic demands and the amount of time spent sleeping (Capellini, Barton, McNamara, Preston, & Nunn, 2008).

Another evolutionary hypothesis of sleep holds that our sleep patterns evolved as an adaptive response to predatory risks, which increase in darkness. Thus we sleep in safe areas to reduce the chance of harm. Again, this is an intuitive and appealing explanation for why we sleep. Perhaps our ancestors spent extended periods of time asleep to reduce attention to themselves from potential predators. Comparative research indicates, however, that the relationship that exists between predatory risk and sleep is very complex and equivocal. Some research suggests that species that face higher predatory risks sleep fewer hours than other species (Capellini et al., 2008), while other researchers suggest there is no relationship between the amount of time a given species spends in deep sleep and its predation risk (Lesku, Roth, Amlaner, & Lima, 2006).

It is quite possible that sleep serves no single universally adaptive function, and different species have evolved different patterns of sleep in response to their unique evolutionary pressures. While we have discussed the negative outcomes associated with sleep deprivation, it should be pointed out that there are many benefits that are associated with adequate amounts of sleep. A few such benefits listed by the National Sleep Foundation (n.d.) include maintaining healthy weight, lowering stress levels, improving mood, and increasing motor coordination, as well as a number of benefits related to cognition and memory formation.

Cognitive Function of Sleep

Another theory regarding why we sleep involves sleep’s importance for cognitive function and memory formation (Rattenborg, Lesku, Martinez-Gonzalez, & Lima, 2007). Indeed, we know sleep deprivation results in disruptions in cognition and memory deficits (Brown, 2012), leading to impairments in our abilities to maintain attention, make decisions, and recall long-term memories. Moreover, these impairments become more severe as the amount of sleep deprivation increases (Alhola & Polo-Kantola, 2007). Furthermore, slow-wave sleep after learning a new task can improve resultant performance on that task (Huber, Ghilardi, Massimini, & Tononi, 2004) and seems essential for effective memory formation (Stickgold, 2005). Understanding the impact of sleep on cognitive function should help you understand that cramming all night for a test may be not effective and can even prove counterproductive.

Watch It

Watch this video to learn more about the function of sleep and the harmful effects of sleep deprivation.

Sleep has also been associated with other cognitive benefits. Research indicates that included among these possible benefits are increased capacities for creative thinking (Cai, Mednick, Harrison, Kanady, & Mednick, 2009; Wagner, Gais, Haider, Verleger, & Born, 2004), language learning (Fenn, Nusbaum, & Margoliash, 2003; Gómez, Bootzin, & Nadel, 2006), and inferential judgments (Ellenbogen, Hu, Payne, Titone, & Walker, 2007). It is possible that even the processing of emotional information is influenced by certain aspects of sleep (Walker, 2009).

Watch It

Learn about the connection between memory and sleep in the following clip.

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Think It Over

Have you (or someone you know) ever experienced significant periods of sleep deprivation because of simple insomnia, high levels of stress, or as a side effect from a medication? What were the consequences of missing out on sleep?

Stages of Sleep

Sleep is not a uniform state of being. Instead, sleep is composed of several different stages that can be differentiated from one another by the patterns of brain wave activity that occur during each stage. These changes in brain wave activity can be visualized using EEG and are distinguished from one another by both the frequency and amplitude of brain waves. Sleep can be divided into two different general phases: REM sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is characterized by darting movements of the eyes under closed eyelids. Brain waves during REM sleep appear very similar to brain waves during wakefulness. In contrast, non-REM (NREM) sleep is subdivided into three stages distinguished from each other and from wakefulness by characteristic patterns of brain waves. The first three stages of sleep are NREM sleep, while the fourth and final stage of sleep is REM sleep. In this section, we will discuss each of these stages of sleep and their associated patterns of brain wave activity. [Note that psychologists originally identified four stages of non-REM sleep, but these were revised in 2008, resulting in just three distinct phases of NREM sleep. You will see that stage 3 of NREM sleep is sometimes presented as both stage 3 and stage 4 in various texts.]

NREM Stages of Sleep

The first stage of NREM sleep is known as stage 1 sleep. Stage 1 sleep is a transitional phase that occurs between wakefulness and sleep, the period during which we drift off to sleep. During this time, there is a slowdown in both the rates of respiration and heartbeat. In addition, stage 1 sleep involves a marked decrease in both overall muscle tension and core body temperature.

In terms of brain wave activity, stage 1 sleep is associated with both alpha and theta waves. The early portion of stage 1 sleep produces alpha waves, which are relatively low frequency (8–13Hz), high amplitude patterns of electrical activity (waves) that become synchronized. This pattern of brain wave activity resembles that of someone who is very relaxed, yet awake. As an individual continues through stage 1 sleep, there is an increase in theta wave activity. Theta waves are even lower frequency (4–7 Hz), higher amplitude brain waves than alpha waves. It is relatively easy to wake someone from stage 1 sleep; in fact, people often report that they have not been asleep if they are awoken during stage 1 sleep.

A graph has a y-axis labeled “EEG” and an x-axis labeled “time (seconds.) Plotted along the y-axis and moving upward are the stages of sleep. First is REM, followed by Stage 3 and 4 NREM Delta, Stage 2 NREM Theta (sleep spindles; K-complexes), Stage 1 NREM Alpha, and Awake. Charted on the x axis is Time in seconds from 2–20 in 2 second intervals. Each sleep stage has associated wavelengths of varying amplitude and frequency. Relative to the others, “awake” has a very close wavelength and a medium amplitude. Stage 1 is characterized by a generally uniform wavelength and a relatively low amplitude which doubles and quickly reverts to normal every 2 seconds. Stage 2 is comprised of a similar wavelength as stage 1. It introduces the K-complex from seconds 10 through 12 which is a short burst of doubled or tripled amplitude and decreased wavelength. Stages 3 shows a more uniform wave with gradually increasing amplitude. Finally, REM sleep looks much like stage 2 without the K-complex.

Figure 3. Brainwave activity changes dramatically across the different stages of sleep.

As we move into stage 2 sleep, the body goes into a state of deep relaxation. Theta waves still dominate the activity of the brain, but they are interrupted by brief bursts of activity known as sleep spindles (Figure 4). A sleep spindle is a rapid burst of higher frequency brain waves that may be important for learning and memory (Fogel & Smith, 2011; Poe, Walsh, & Bjorness, 2010). In addition, the appearance of K-complexes is often associated with stage 2 sleep. A K-complex is a very high amplitude pattern of brain activity that may in some cases occur in response to environmental stimuli. Thus, K-complexes might serve as a bridge to higher levels of arousal in response to what is going on in our environments (Halász, 1993; Steriade & Amzica, 1998).

A graph has an x-axis labeled “time” and a y-axis labeled “voltage. A line illustrates brainwaves, with two areas labeled “sleep spindle” and “k-complex”. The area labeled “sleep spindle” has decreased wavelength and moderately increased amplitude, while the area labeled “k-complex” has significantly high amplitude and longer wavelength.

Figure 4. Stage 2 sleep is characterized by the appearance of both sleep spindles and K-complexes.

Stage 3 of sleep is often referred to as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep because these stages are characterized by low frequency (up to 4 Hz), high amplitude delta waves (Figure 5). During this time, an individual’s heart rate and respiration slow dramatically. It is much more difficult to awaken someone from sleep during stage 3 than during earlier stages. Interestingly, individuals who have increased levels of alpha brain wave activity (more often associated with wakefulness and transition into stage 1 sleep) during stage 3 often report that they do not feel refreshed upon waking, regardless of how long they slept (Stone, Taylor, McCrae, Kalsekar, & Lichstein, 2008).

Polysonograph a shows the pattern of delta waves, which are low frequency and high amplitude. Delta waves are found mostly in stage 4 of sleep.

Figure 5. Delta waves, which are low frequency and high amplitude, characterize slow-wave stage 3 sleep.

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REM Sleep

As mentioned earlier, REM sleep is marked by rapid movements of the eyes. The brain waves associated with this stage of sleep are very similar to those observed when a person is awake, as shown in Figure 6, and this is the period of sleep in which dreaming occurs. It is also associated with paralysis of muscle systems in the body with the exception of those that make circulation and respiration possible. Therefore, no movement of voluntary muscles occurs during REM sleep in a normal individual; REM sleep is often referred to as paradoxical sleep because of this combination of high brain activity and lack of muscle tone. Like NREM sleep, REM has been implicated in various aspects of learning and memory (Wagner, Gais, & Born, 2001), although there is disagreement within the scientific community about how important both NREM and REM sleep are for normal learning and memory (Siegel, 2001).

Chart A is a polysonograph with the period of rapid eye movement (REM) highlighted.

Figure 6. A period of rapid eye movement is marked by the short red line segment. The brain waves associated with REM sleep, outlined in the red box, look very similar to those seen during wakefulness.

If people are deprived of REM sleep and then allowed to sleep without disturbance, they will spend more time in REM sleep in what would appear to be an effort to recoup the lost time in REM. This is known as the REM rebound, and it suggests that REM sleep is also homeostatically regulated. Aside from the role that REM sleep may play in processes related to learning and memory, REM sleep may also be involved in emotional processing and regulation. In such instances, REM rebound may actually represent an adaptive response to stress in nondepressed individuals by suppressing the emotional salience of aversive events that occurred in wakefulness (Suchecki, Tiba, & Machado, 2012).

While sleep deprivation in general is associated with a number of negative consequences (Brown, 2012), the consequences of REM deprivation appear to be less profound (as discussed in Siegel, 2001). In fact, some have suggested that REM deprivation can actually be beneficial in some circumstances. For instance, REM sleep deprivation has been demonstrated to improve symptoms of people suffering from major depression, and many effective antidepressant medications suppress REM sleep (Riemann, Berger, & Volderholzer, 2001; Vogel, 1975).

It should be pointed out that some reviews of the literature challenge this finding, suggesting that sleep deprivation that is not limited to REM sleep is just as effective or more effective at alleviating depressive symptoms among some patients suffering from depression. In either case, why sleep deprivation improves the mood of some patients is not entirely understood (Giedke & Schwärzler, 2002). Recently, however, some have suggested that sleep deprivation might change emotional processing so that various stimuli are more likely to be perceived as positive in nature (Gujar, Yoo, Hu, & Walker, 2011). The hypnogram below (Figure 7) shows a person’s passage through the stages of sleep.

This is a hypnogram showing the transitions of the sleep cycle during a typical seven hour period of sleep. During the first hour, the person goes through stages 1,2, and 3. In the second hour, sleep oscillates between Stages 2 and 3 before attaining a 30-minute period of REM sleep. The third hour follows the same pattern as the second, but ends with a brief awake period. The fourth hour follows a similar pattern as the third, with a slightly longer REM stage. In the fifth hour, stage 3 is no longer reached. The sleep stages are fluctuating from 2, to 1, to REM, to awake, and then they repeat with shortening intervals until the end of the seventh hour when the person awakens.

Figure 7. This hypnogram illustrates how an individual moves through the various stages of sleep. Deeper NREM sleep occurs early on in the night, while the duration of REM sleep increases as the night progresses.

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Think It Over

Researchers believe that one important function of sleep is to facilitate learning and memory. How does knowing this help you in your college studies? What changes could you make to your study and sleep habits to maximize your mastery of the material covered in class?

Glossary

alpha wave: type of relatively low frequency, relatively high amplitude brain wave that becomes synchronized; characteristic of the beginning of stage 1 sleep
delta wave: type of low frequency, high amplitude brain wave characteristic of stage 3 and stage 4 sleep
evolutionary psychology: discipline that studies how universal patterns of behavior and cognitive processes have evolved over time as a result of natural selection
K-complex: very high amplitude pattern of brain activity associated with stage 2 sleep that may occur in response to environmental stimuli
non-REM (NREM): period of sleep outside periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
rapid eye movement (REM) sleep: period of sleep characterized by brain waves very similar to those during wakefulness and by darting movements of the eyes under closed eyelids
sleep rebound: sleep-deprived individuals will experience longer sleep latencies during subsequent opportunities for sleep
sleep spindle: rapid burst of high frequency brain waves during stage 2 sleep that may be important for learning and memory
stage 1 sleep: first stage of sleep; transitional phase that occurs between wakefulness and sleep; the period during which a person drifts off to sleep
stage 2 sleep: second stage of sleep; the body goes into deep relaxation; characterized by the appearance of sleep spindles
stage 3 sleep: third stage of sleep; deep sleep characterized by low frequency, high amplitude delta waves
theta wave: type of low frequency, low amplitude brain wave characteristic of the end of stage 1 sleep