I know that some birds and marine animals can continue complicated activity (swimming, flying?) while one hemisphere of their brain is asleep.

I'm interested if human brain has some parts of it that can be asleep while others are awake? In other words, can a human brain be only partially asleep while experiencing insomnia or similar sleep disturbances?

If human brain can have different parts "sleeping" independently of each other, is it possible that the times to "fall asleep" vary between these different parts of the brain?

I would appreciate research articles on the topic or just the names of brain regions that may exhibit behavior described above.

Update: I've taken a look at R&K "principles and practice of sleep medicine"' and it mentions the following parts as involved in sleep:

Medulla, preoptic area, hypothalamus, thalamus, entire neocortex involved in NREM.

Neurotransmitter systems: histaminergic, orexinergic, serotonergic, noradrinergic

Sleep factors: adenosine, interleukin-1 and other cytokines, prostaglandin D2, growth hormone releasing hormone, nitric oxide, all promote sleep in or around preoptic area.

This makes me hypothesize that drugs that modify the effects of these systems (ex- caffeine affecting adenosine) could result in sleep- related disturbances in these systems, potentially causing them to fall asleep later that usual. But I'm looking for more info to fihre out if this is true


2 Answers 2


Have you ever tried to read a complicated book after several hours of hard work that required a high concentration? Imagine that you have forced a particular area of your brain. After a hard work, the areas of the brain that we used to finish a work seem don't respond to any stimulation and make us feeling tired and as we can't understand what we are doing anymore. This happens because we have forced that particular area of the brain and it needs to reinforce the connections it made and to do this, it has to sleep, such as we do during the conscious (you know you are going to sleep) sleeping. Eventually we can say that some particular areas of our brain must sleep if forced to a hard work and they do it when you feel like you can't get something which you know you can. A recent study has demonstrated this by understanding physiological functions of sleeping.

Nature article of Vyazovsky V. et al. Vol. 472, pages 443-447, April 2011 (I am not copying the link anyway, have to search it by yourself). Or to Science of Bushey D. et al. Vol. 332, pages 1576-1581, June 2011. And on Nature Review Neuroscience of Diekelmann S. And Born J. Vol 11 number 2, pages 114-126, February 2010.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you add some evidence to your answer, backing this assertion up, such as the "recent study" you refer to? $\endgroup$
    – Amory
    Nov 7, 2013 at 17:02

Reading K&R "Principles and practice of sleep medicine" 4th edition, on page 15, under sleep onset I've noticed the following paragraph:

Is "falling asleep" a unitary event? Our observations suggest that it is not. Different functions, such as sensory awareness, memory, self-consciousness, continuity of logical thought, latency of response to a stimulus and alterations in the pattern of brain potentials all go in parallel in a general way, but there are exceptions to every rule.

The book continues to mention that it is possible to drift in and out of sleep for a few seconds.

I've became aware of experiments on split brain patients (severed corpus colossum) which revealed that two brain hemispheres have their own conscious awareness. Some experiments even paralyzed one hemisphere to see how the other one responds. As such, it appears that a human can function with only one hemisphere active at a time.

  • $\begingroup$ I have often been aware that I am falling asleep, such as when I notice that my train of thought is no longer logical. Once, while meditating, I was still self-aware even though my body and the rest of my mind were asleep. Interesting. $\endgroup$
    – user17124
    Oct 24, 2015 at 14:38

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