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Lecture 18; November 14, 2013

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Sleep & dreaming

Introducing sleep
After finishing this course, youll have a reasonable understanding
of some of the most famous motivated behaviors, sex and eating
being the two major ones.
As esteemed as these behaviors are, we spend a great deal more
time sleeping than we do engaging in either.
Most people sleep over 175,000 hours in their lifetimes.
This can vary a great deal between people, depending on their sleep
It can be quite depressing to think of how many hours wed save if
only we could sleep less.

The fact that we spend so much time sleeping suggests that it

must be good for something But what is sleep actually good

Introducing sleep
The amount of hours per day an animal
spends sleeping has no clear relationship
with any aspect of its physiology or
Contrast this with things like food intake,
metabolic rate, water intake, etc., that
scale with the size of the animal.

Donkeys may only sleep 2-3 hours per

day. Opossums over 18h. Humans fall
near the lower end of the spectrum,
sleeping an average of 6-9 hours per
Non-terrestrial mammals (whales, seals,
walruses etc.,) have unusual sleep
In certain cases, their version of sleep
happens one hemisphere at a time.


Stages of sleep
Early researchers studying the brain
during sleep made two interesting
1. The brain is quite active during sleep,
at certain times showing levels of
electrical activity that are equivalent to
being awake.

Prior to this discovery, it had been

assumed that the brain went into a state
of dormancy or inactivity during sleep.

2. The brain goes through several discrete

stages while sleeping. Sleep is
heterogeneous with respect to the
Prior to this discovery, sleep was
considered to be a unitary, on/off

A participant in a sleep study pictured wearing

EEG electrodes.

Stages of sleep
Using a machine called an
electroencephalogram (EEG), it is
possible to record the brains
electrical activity using electrodes
placed on the skull.
When a lot of neurons are firing
separately, one sees a low-amplitude,
high-frequency pattern of EEG
When neurons are firing in a
synchronous manner, the frequency
of the EEG wave goes down, but the
amplitude goes up.




Frequency (hz)

Stages of sleep
When the individual is awake and fully
alert, the EEG shows beta waves.
Beta waves are high-frequency, lowamplitude waves.

As the individual begins to get drowsy,

the EEG shows alpha waves.
Alpha waves have a lower frequency
and higher amplitude than beta waves.
Be careful not to mix up the order of
these waves (you might be tempted to
think that alpha waves come before
beta waves, but thats not true).

During deep sleep, the individual

shows delta waves on the EEG.
Delta waves are characteristic of nonREM sleep, and have an extremely low
frequency and high amplitude.

Illustration from Kolb & Wishaw, An Introduction to Brain and Behavior. Sinauer, 2014

Non-REM sleep
Non-REM sleep, also called deep sleep, is a
time during which a large range of activities
take place.
For example: body temperature decreases,
growth hormone secretion increases.

Dreaming does occur during non-REM sleep,

but the dreams are reported to be much less
vivid than those seen in REM sleep.
It is during non-REM sleep that people exhibit
sleep-talking (somniloquy) and sleepwalking (sonambulism).
It is also during non-REM sleep that people
can experience night terrors.
Night terrors are brief, extremely frightening
dreams. They are often experienced by


People are free to move during nonREM sleep. This can lead to much
tossing and turning.

REM sleep

Several times each night, the brain undergoes an

interesting shift from the slow wave sleep (characterized
by delta waves) to a state known as rapid eye
movement sleep (REM sleep)

REM sleep can easily be identified in people by observing

their eyes. During REM sleep, the eyes move rapidly in
every which way.

During REM sleep, the brain shows a pattern of EEG

waves that closely resembles the beta waves of the
awake state.
This suggests that the cortex is somewhat awake during
REM sleep.

Most of our vivid dreams take place during REM sleep.

We do not typically remember our dreams, but people who
are woken up in the middle of REM sleep almost always
report having been in the midst of a dream (appx. 80% of the

The muscles are paralyzed during REM sleep. This is

presumably to stop us from acting out our dreams.

This also means that instances of sleepwalking and sleep

talking cannot take place during REM sleep.


Even animals that mostly stand while they

sleep (horses for example) must lie down
for REM sleep.

The stages of sleep

A nights sleep can be divided into sleep cycles
that last about 90 minutes each.
In every sleep cycle, the individual passes
through each of the stages of sleep, finally
ending in a period of REM sleep.
The cycle continually repeats itself until the
individual wakes up.

Your success in being able to wake up depends

on which stage of the sleep cycle you happen to
awaken during.

Left to your own devices, your brain tends to wake

you up only after youve entered a very light stage
of sleep, and its not so hard to get up.
If your wakeup time is determined by an uncaring
alarm clock, then you could easily get woken up
during slow wave sleep. The resulting grogginess is
called sleep inertia.

The amount of time spent in REM sleep

varies over the course of the night.

As the night progresses, the sleep cycle

becomes increasingly dominated by REM sleep.

Illustration from Kolb & Wishaw, An Introduction to Brain and Behavior. Sinauer, 2014

The stages of sleep

For unknown reasons, the percentage of time people spend in

REM sleep gradually declines into adulthood, as does amount of
sleep overall.

Illustration from Kolb & Wishaw, An Introduction to Brain and Behavior. Sinauer, 2014

Why do we dream?
The fact that we need to sleep is strange
enough, but the fact that we spend a
portion of the time vividly hallucinating,
only to experience amnesia about the
event upon waking up is especially

It is unlikely that dreams are essential to
mental functioning.

Certain antidepressants almost completely

eliminate REM sleep (and presumably
dreams as well), yet people on those
drugs have no obvious deficits.

There is no evidence that the content of

dreams has any particular hidden
Dream interpretation is largely a
pseudoscientific enterprise. See side


Two separate dream interpretation websites give two

entirely different interpretation of pandas! Ambiguous
stimuli apparently dont have any consistent meaning,
and theres no use in reading too far into them.

Dreaming: the activation synthesis theory

During waking life, the brain spends much of its time on
taking in sensory information from the sense organs, and
converting that information to a useful form.
The cortex interprets incoming sensory information. It
organizes it according to previous experiences.

During sleep, the brain does not receive much in the way
of sensory stimulation.

In particular, the brain is not provided with any visual

information during sleep. Auditory and olfactory information
from the outside world can occasionally make it into

Random information is produced by the brainstem and

sensory regions, and according to the activation
synthesis theory, dreams result when the cortex
attempts to interpret this information.
Because the cortex uses past experiences and memories
to make sense of these signals, dreams have a vague
relationship with our waking lives.

Dreaming: an evolutionary theory

Negative imagery is a very common theme
in dreams. Our dreams often center
around dealing with threatening situations.
Antti Revonsuos evolutionary theory
proposes that dreams may serve an
adaptive evolutionary purpose by acting as
training simulators, allowing us to
practice dealing with real-life threats in a
safe environment.
This could explain why the fears expressed
during dreams are often very primitive (the
sensation of being chased, in danger, etc.,)
and why they often incorporate the
dreamers ongoing emotional problems.

How much should we sleep?

Sleep deprivation is not fatal in humans.
People have successfully deprived
themselves of sleep for weeks at a time.

This is not a very pleasant process.

Drowsiness becomes overwhelming, and
people engage in short microsleeps whenever
they get a chance.

Sleep reduction or deprivation most notably

aects executive function in the brain.
Numerous other effects are seen throughout
the body including increases in blood
pressure, decreases in immune function, and
changes in metabolism.

People who slept between 5-7 hours had the

lowest rates of all-cause mortality over a 10
year study period.
This study (Tamakoshi & Ohno 2004)
controlled for almost every possible
confounding variable, but since it is
correlational, it does not prove that reducing
sleep can reduce mortality.


People who slept 7 hours a night have the lowest rates

of mortality (within the period of study we all have a
100% rate of mortality eventually).

Sleep disorders
The disorders of sleep can broadly be
divided into dyssomnias and
Dyssomnias involve diculties getting
enough sleep, problems with sleeping at
appropriate times, and reductions in the
quality of sleep.
E.g. narcolepsy, insomnia, hypersomnia

Parasomnias involve abnormal behavior

or physiological events that occur during
E.g. nightmare disorder, sleepwalking disorder


Dyssomnia: Insomnia
Almost 33% of the population will report some symptoms
of insomnia during a given year.
Women report insomnia twice as often as men.

Insomnia can be associated with disorders such as

depression, anxiety disorders, substance use, and
dementia (though hypersomnia can also be associated
with all of those).
Insomnia is often treated with sedative-hypnotic drugs
such as Ambien and Xanax, both GABA receptor agonists.
These drugs can be quite effective, its not practical to take
them forever, and they tend to cause rebound insomnia when
the individual quits.

Insomnia can also be treated with melatonin, a hormone

involve in regulating circadian rhythms.
Melatonin secretion normally peaks at night, and nighttime
supplementation of melatonin amplifies this effect. However,
there is only mixed evidence that it actually helps with sleep in


Parasomnias can occur during both REM and nonREM sleep, though each stage produces its own
Parasbomnias that occur during non-REM sleep
typically involve odd or unexpected movements.
Sleepwalking (sonambulism) is an example of this.
Nightmares occur during REM sleep.
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon that can occur
during REM sleep.
During an attack of sleep paralysis, the individual partly
awakens, but remains paralyzed due to REM sleeps
suppression of muscle tone.
This is often accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of
dread, and the sense of the monstrous presence in the

Sleep paralysis is often accompanied

by a feeling of pressure on the chest.
Many cultures have ascribed this to
the activity of evil spirits.


Sleep and memory

Early investigations into the issue of
sleep and memory suggested that
memories become stronger following a
nights sleep.
Everyday experience attests to the same

Karni & Sagi (1994) showed that a

normal amount of REM sleep could
improve performance on an object
discrimination task.
When participants were selectively
deprived of REM sleep (by waking them up
whenever their brains entered REM) their
performance on the task was reduced.

Sleep and memory

Given that the individual is not exposed to much
stimulation during sleep, maybe the only reason sleep
helps memories is that it provides a passive, quiet time
free of distracting stimuli.
Alternately, maybe sleep actually helps solidify memories,
protecting them from interference.

To test this, researchers developed a two-stage

In the first stage, participants memorized word pairs (e.g.
In the second stage, participants were made to learn
distracting word pairs (e.g. blanket-sneaker).
Participants who were allowed to sleep between the two
stages remembered more of the first sets of word pairs.
This suggests that sleep protects memories from

Sleep and memory

Emerging evidence suggests that something happens during sleep
to selectively promote certain memories, and dismiss others.
Boring, unemotional memories tend to decay after a night of sleep.
But emotionally charged memories actually become stronger after
a night of sleep.
This suggests that the brain is somehow able to filter through the
days events, and select out the ones that are most important to
Could this be the reason dreams are often emotionally charged, and
concern recent events?

This finding also has implications for dealing with post-traumatic

stress disorder (PTSD).
In fact, it might be worth recommending that people who have just
gone through a traumatic event be subjected to sleep deprivation, to
prevent traumatic memories from being stamped in.

Sleep and memory

The brain may rehearse certain
memories during sleep.
In one study, rats were trained to
search for food in a maze-like
environment. While this was
happening, researchers monitored
the activity of neurons in the
The hippocampus contains
neurons known as place cells that
are involved in spatial navigation.

Sleep and memory

Interestingly, the same pattern of neurons that were activated by the
maze were also active during while the animal was asleep (during nonREM sleep).
This suggests that the animal was practicing the maze while asleep.

Illustration from Kolb & Wishaw, An Introduction to Brain and Behavior. Sinauer, 2014

Nocturnal practice
Musicians have long known that a night of sleep
following a period of hard practice can work like
magic. Passages that the individual once struggled
with become much easier the next day.
The same appears to be true for athletes, and may
generalize to all forms of complicated motor learning.

Researchers explored neuroscience of this

phenomenon by having people learn to type
complicated number sequences on a keyboard.
After a nights sleep, participants improved their
performance on this task.
The degree of improvement was even greater for
number sequences that the individual had diculty
with the day before.

Nocturnal practice
Before sleep!

After sleep!

Functional MRI brain scanning showed that participants recruited

dierent brain regions to complete the task before and after sleep.

So why do we sleep?
Sleep is not a passive process, it is a period of
intense neural activity. The brain clearly invests a
lot of eort into sleeping.
While emerging evidence suggests that sleep is
important in consolidating memories and clearing
the brain of accumulated waste products, some
major questions remain to be answered.
Why do so many animals have such dierent
sleep patterns?

Youd think that if sleep were an essential

homeostatic process, animals would sleep in similar

Why is sleep deprivation not more dangerous?

Also, certain antidepressants specifically block REM
sleep. People can take these for years with
apparently no ill effects.

Do the beneficial eects of sleep have to happen

during sleep, or is it just a coincidence?