The Stages of Sleep

The brain is a complex and elusive beast, especially when it comes to sleep. Though we still don’t fully understand exactly why we sleep we have created systems to understand the different ways in which we sleep throughout the night. This is to help us understand some of the important characteristics of sleep and help us to better understand sleep disorders as well as dreaming.

If you don’t want to read the whole article here is the Too Long to Read (TLTR) to help summarize what I am going to be talking about:

  • There are three (used to be 4) stages of sleep
  • Dreaming can occur in different stages of sleep not limited to REM phase
  • There are supplements that can alter how much you stay in one stage of sleep
  • REM rebound can increase the number of dreams you remember in one night

Let’s get into the meat…

The 3 Stages of Sleep

There are three stages of sleep that we as humans process every night. There used to be 4 stages but in 2008 they have changed these to 3. Those stages are determined by how our brain acts throughout the night and are broken down by frequencies that are observed under an Electroencephalography or EEG. An EEG can show us how the brain is reacting due to waves that the brain produces and these waves are produced by a different area of our brains being either activated or deactivated. Every thought process that occurs in our brain produces alterations to these waves and its because of that we can help people move devices with their minds which the help of a computer which interprets EEG waves as movements.

When we are asleep these waves can be seen in four distinct ways, but they are not specifically easy to determine at one stage or another, as they can look like other waves. Think of these four phases as kind of guidelines to help us understand what is going on in the brain. Let’s check these phases out and see what they can tell us about sleep…

Stage 1: (NREM 1) Light Sleep

In stage 1 you are in light sleep and this typically last about 1-10 minutes. You can be easily awakened during this phase. Often when people awaken they experience some type of mild form of partial imagery. Think, have you ever seen peoples faces or start to see images that don’t really make sense to you? That would be because of your in light sleep. Also, the reason that we now call this NREM is that we are not in REM in this phase of sleep. You also may experience jerkiness of movements or the feeling of falling during this stage.

Stage 2: (NREM 2) 

In this stage, the brain starts to produce what are called K-complexes which are spikes on an EEG showing large amounts of activity. This is thought to help with silencing the brain from outside stimulation as well as memory consolidation in the brain. Most people spend the most amount of sleep here.

Stage 3: (NREM 3) Slow Wave Sleep

This is where the brain starts to produce those deltas waves or relaxation deep sleep. This is also where people can experience those bazaar cases of night terrors not always making it the most enjoyable time to sleep. This mostly happens when the brain transitions from REM to Stage 3 NREM sleep. Oddly enough some meditation practices allow for some people to more quickly transition the brain into stage 3 NREM and create more restful sleep and awareness during sleep. This can also be attributed to lucid dreaming. 

REM: Not a sleep stage but kind of is…

Not really sure why REM isn’t considered a sleep stage but anyways, REM is the stage of sleep that isn’t one of the 3 stages but is its own stage. If that’s not confusing, well it gets stranger. During REM our eyes move around as though we are watching things, we are often dreaming, and we are also showing brain function much like a waking state but are hard to awaken. During this stage, acetylcholine is found to be most active in our brain and our serotonin is lowest. This allows for memory to be formed. Also, the amygdala is highly active during REM which creates room for us to remember those nice scary dreams we often have.

Stages of Sleep

The Importance of Knowing

I have been studying sleep and dreams now for a good portion of my life. I have always tried to understand the different stages of sleep and importance of knowing what those stages are but really haven’t found a lot of importance in understanding the very complex differences between the majority of the stages. What I have found is that it’s important to understand NREM and REM and what can be done to extend and shorten those stages. The reason why this is important is that by extending one you can remember more dreams, or get a more restful nights sleep. So let’s focus on NREM and REM at this point.

Non-REM vs REM: The battle

Most people don’t know this but dreams can happen in Non-REM or NREM stages of sleep. As we described in stage 1 of NREM you can be awoken and remember faces of people or odd and bizarre imagery. Interesting enough there have been studies done where scientists have repressed REM with anti-depressants and woke up their subjects while they were in NREM. Those subjects reported having dreams just as if they were in REM.  Interesting right? Well, what even makes this more complex is that the more amount of times that people are awoken during REM that those people often reported having dreams. Those are kind of counter-intuitive to each other. What I am trying to say is that dreaming is not an indicator that you’re in REM, it’s just something that happens in all stages. What is different in REM is that often our bodies are paralyzed and are unable to move at this stage so we are less likely to act our dreams this is thought to be caused by increasing the amount of acetylcholine in the brain which also seems to be linked to causing paralysis throughout the body. Acetylcholine which I talked about in other articles on my blog is also related to the ability to produce memory. An increase in acetylcholine would increase memory recall of the dream, so in NREM dreams we may still dream but have less of a chance to remember those dreams.

Stages of Sleep EEG

As I sit here and write this I come back to the question that I ask myself all the time. What type of dream am I trying to have? Am I trying to have the more bizarre lucid dreaming sleep paralysis type dream that everyone seems to crave but hardly have, or am I trying to have a normal dream which I can remember? Maybe the reason that we don’t have a ton of lucid dreams or out of body experiences is that we just can’t remember them. Or can we?

Increasing Dreams With Supplements

As you guessed it by the title, there are supplements and vitamins that can help you increase the amount of REM you have, or can reduce the amount of REM you have. The reason that anyone would want to do this is that if you can increase the amount of REM that you have you have a better chance to remember your dreams. If you reduce the amount of REM that you have you also have a chance to, later on, increase the amount of REM you have later on in sleep. Your brain has something called REM rebound which means that if you don’t get the amount of REM that your brain wants normally throughout the night, it will gain that REM back later on once it gets the chance. If you are using a supplement to reduce the amount of REM you get early on during your nightly rest, your brain will get that REM back, later on, allowing you to remember your dreams since that’s when you wake up. There, of course, are other ideas.

The question we must ask ourselves is that if we are able to dream just as much during NREM and just are not able to remember them, maybe by pushing REM further back, we are allowing ourselves to wake up during a NREM phase and remember that. If this is the case maybe our brains are not given the chance to forget the dream yet because we woke up and put the idea that remembering our most recent dream is important to us and our brains take notice. It would be great to see if studies could show that this is the case and that the sweet spot for the most amazing dreams is somewhere between REM and NREM and having a sudden awakening. 

Lee is the creator of Taileaters. He writes about sleep and dreams where explores the symbolic and scientific relationship between sleep and consciousness. He is currently is pursuing his Ph.D. in Jungian Depth Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

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