During sleep, the brain cycles through a number of different stages differentiated from each other by the brain activity that occurs during each stage.
During the initial stages of sleep, people are still awake and somewhat alert. At this point, the quick and small beta waves are produced. Eventually, the brain begins to slow down and slower waves known as alpha waves can be observed with an EEG.
Once asleep, the three stages of sleep can begin.
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Stage 1 (N1) is light sleep, typically beginning soon after getting into bed and lasting roughly 7-10 minutes. At this point, the brain creates a slow, high amplitude activity known as theta waves.
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Stage 2 (N2) sleep encompasses about 50% of a night's sleep and is marked not only by sleep spindles but also by K-complexes. This stage lasts slightly longer than the previous stage.
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Stage 3 (N3) is deep sleep and should encompass about 20-25% of a night's sleep. During this stage, the brain begins to produce the slow and deep waves of delta sleep. People are far less responsive and less aware of the external environment at this point. Delta wave sleep is often thought of as a transitional point between light and deep sleep. Previously, researchers distinguished between stage 3 and stage 4 of sleep, but they are now recognized as combined stages.