dolphins sleep with half a brain at a time -- 3/14/18

Today's selection -- from Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD. Dolphins and whales sleep with one half of their brain at a time:

"A ... striking difference in sleep across the animal kingdom is the way in which we all do it. Here, the diversity is remarkable and, in some cases, almost impossible to believe. Take cetaceans, such as dolphins and whales, for example. Their sleep, of which there is only NREM (non-REM), can be unihemispheric, meaning they will sleep with half a brain at a time! One half of the brain must always stay awake to maintain life-necessary movement in the aquatic environment. But the other half of the brain will, at times, fall into the most beautiful NREM sleep. Deep, powerful, rhythmic, and slow brainwaves will drench the entirety of one cerebral hemisphere, yet the other half of the cerebrum will be bristling with fre­netic, fast brainwave activity, fully awake. This despite the fact that both hemispheres are heavily wired together with thick crisscross fibers, and sit mere millimeters apart, as in human brains.

Of course, both halves of the dolphin brain can be, and frequently are, awake at the very same time, operating in unison. But when it is time for sleep, the two sides of the brain can uncouple and operate independently, one side remaining awake while the other side snoozes away. After this one half of the brain has consumed its fill of sleep, they switch, allowing the previously vigilant half of the brain to enjoy a well-earned period of deep NREM slumber. Even with half of the brain asleep, dolphins can achieve an impressive level of movement and even some vocalized communication.

"The neural engineering and tricky architecture required to accom­plish this staggering trick of oppositional 'lights-on, lights-off' brain activity is rare. Surely Mother Nature could have found a way to avoid sleep entirely under the extreme pressure of nonstop, 24/7 aquatic movement. Would that not have been easier than masterminding a convoluted split-shift system between brain halves for sleep, while still allowing for a joint operating system where both sides unite when awake? Apparently not. Sleep is of such vital necessity that no matter what the evolutionary demands of an organism, even the unyielding need to swim in perpetuum from birth to death, Mother Nature had no choice. Sleep with both sides of the brain, or sleep with just one side and then switch. Both are possible, but sleep you must. Sleep is non­negotiable.

"The gift of split-brain deep NREM sleep is not entirely unique to aquatic mammals. Birds can do it, too. However, there is a somewhat different, though equally life-preserving, reason: it allows them to keep an eye on things, quite literally. When birds are alone, one half of the brain and its corresponding (opposite-side) eye must stay awake, main­taining vigilance to environmental threats. As it does so, the other eye closes, allowing its corresponding half of the brain to sleep.

"Things get even more interesting when birds group together. In some species. many of the birds in a flock will sleep with both halves of the brain at the same time. How do they remain safe from threat? The answer is truly ingenious. The flock will first line up in a row. With the exception of the birds at each end of the line, the rest of the group will allow both halves of the brain to indulge in sleep. Those at the far left and right ends of the row aren't so lucky. They will enter deep sleep with just one half of the brain (opposing in each), leaving the cor­responding left and right eye of each bird wide open. In doing so, they provide full panoramic threat detection for the entire group, maximiz­ing the total number of brain halves that can sleep within the flock. At some point, the two end-guards will stand up, rotate 180 degrees, and sit back down, allowing the other side of their respective brains to enter deep sleep.

"We mere humans and a select number of other terrestrial mammals appear to be far less skilled than birds and aquatic mammals, unable as we are to take our medicine of NREM sleep in half-brain measure. Or are we? Two recently published reports suggest humans have a very mild version of unihemispheric sleep -- one that is drawn out for similar reasons. If you compare the electrical depth of the deep NREM slow brainwaves on one half of someone's head relative to the other when they are sleeping at home, they are about the same. But if you bring that person into a sleep laboratory, or take them to a hotel -- both of which are unfamiliar sleep environments -- one half of the brain sleeps a little lighter than the other, as if its standing guard with just a tad more vigi­lance due to the potentially less safe context that the conscious brain has registered while awake. The more nights an individual sleeps in the new location, the more similar the sleep is in each half of the brain. It is perhaps the reason why so many of us sleep so poorly the first night in a hotel room.

"This phenomenon, however, doesn't come close to the complete division between full wakefulness and truly deep NREM sleep achieved by each side of birds' and dolphins' brains."



Matthew Walker, PhD


Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams


Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2017 by Matthew Walker


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