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Hibernate: the act of sleeping through the cold winter months, like some animals do to survive the winter... more

Mechanism: the specific process by which something is caused.

NREM sleep: the non-rapid eye movement phase of sleep, during which it can be challenging to wake up.

REM sleep: the rapid eye movement phase of sleep, during which we wake easily....more

Biology of Sleep

Hibernating dormouse

Some mammals, like this common dormouse, hibernate over winter. Image by Zoe Helene Kindermann.

If you poke around on the ground of temperate forests during the winter, you might come across a dormouse burrow. Inside, the critter will be rolled up with its eyes closed and snout firmly tucked under its tail. It looks like it’s sleeping—but it’s not, it’s hibernating.

Hibernation and sleep are two types of rest. Torpor, coma, and dormancy are some other types of rest. In order to discern sleep from other types of rest, scientists have defined some characteristics of sleep.

Cyclic Changes in the Brain

With the help of EEG recordings, we know that activity in the brain changes between being awake and asleep. Sleep can be broken down into two main types: Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, your eyes move rapidly behind your closed eyelids and your brain is very active. In fact, the EEG signals look very much like those when you are awake. However, the brain has a mechanism that stops signals from activating the muscles in your arms and legs. This prevents you from moving during REM sleep and acting out your dreams. During NREM sleep, your brain is still active. However, if you look at EEG recordings during NREM sleep, you will see high-voltage slow-wave activity that look like big waves.

Stages of sleep

Click to view a description of each of the five stages of human sleep.

In a healthy adult, sleep will cycle through five stages. There are four stages of NREM sleep and one stage of REM sleep. The average NREM-REM cycle is 90 minutes long. However, as we age, we tend to have less and less REM sleep.

Changes in Body Temperature

Your body temperature slightly drops when you prepare to sleep. Biologists think that this slight decrease is to help signal the body that it’s time for bed. During REM sleep, your body stops controlling its temperature and can continue to cool if you’re not sleeping under the covers. However, because your body cycles between REM and NREM sleep, it never stops monitoring your body temperature for too long.

Grizzly

Over the winter, bears enter a deep sleep. Click for more detail.

Change in body temperature is one of the characteristics that separates sleep from deeper forms of rest. During hibernation, body temperature can drop to around freezing temperatures! Such low body temperatures halt most internal processes such as digestion and reproduction.

Low Responsiveness

Some people can sleep through anything: crying babies, slamming doors, wailing ambulances. Indeed, during sleep, the body is much less responsive to disturbances than when it is awake. However, when compared to hibernating animals, sleeping animals are more responsive and more easily awakened.


Additional images via Wikimedia Commons. Huddled bats by Craig Stihler, WVDNR.

View Citation

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Biology of Sleep
  • Author(s): Sisi Gao, Patrick McGurrin
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: June 21, 2017
  • Date accessed: March 23, 2019
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/biology-sleep

APA Style

Sisi Gao, Patrick McGurrin. (2017, June 21). Biology of Sleep. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved March 23, 2019 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/biology-sleep

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Sisi Gao, Patrick McGurrin. "Biology of Sleep". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 21 June, 2017. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/biology-sleep

MLA 2017 Style

Sisi Gao, Patrick McGurrin. "Biology of Sleep". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 21 Jun 2017. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 23 Mar 2019. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/biology-sleep

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/

A huddled group of hibernating Virginia big-eared bats. Some animals experience near-freezing body temperatures during hibernation.

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