Study Notes

Biopsychology: Biological Rhythms - Circadian Rhythms

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

One biological rhythm is the 24-hour circadian rhythm (often known as the ‘body clock’), which is reset by levels of light. The word circadian is from the Latin ‘circa’ which means ‘about’, and ‘dian’, which means ‘day’.

The sleep-wake cycle is an example of a circadian rhythm, which dictates when humans and animals should be asleep and awake. Light provides the primary input to this system, acting as the external cue for sleeping or waking. Light is first detected by the eye, which then sends messages concerning the level of brightness to the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). The SCN then uses this information to coordinate the activity of the entire circadian system. Sleeping and wakefulness are not determined by the circadian rhythm alone, but also by homoeostasis. When an individual has been awake for a long time, homeostasis tells the body that there is a need for sleep because of energy consumption. This homeostatic drive for sleep increases throughout the day, reaching its maximum in the late evening, when most people fall asleep.

Body temperature is another circadian rhythm. Human body temperature is at its lowest in the early hours of the morning (36oC at 4:30 am) and at its highest in the early evening (38oC at 6 pm). Sleep typically occurs when the core temperature starts to drop, and the body temperature starts to rise towards the end of a sleep cycle promoting feelings of alertness first thing in the morning. 

Evaluating Circadian Rhythms

Research Support: Research has been conducted to investigate circadian rhythms and the effect of external cues like light on this system. Siffre (1975) found that the absence of external cues significantly altered his circadian rhythm: When he returned from an underground stay with no clocks or light, he believed the date to be a month earlier than it was. This suggests that his 24-hour sleep-wake cycle was increased by the lack of external cues, making him believe one day was longer than it was, and leading to his thinking that fewer days had passed.

Individual Differences: However, it is important to note the differences between individuals when it comes to circadian cycles. Duffy et al. (2001) found that ‘morning people’ prefer to rise and go to bed early (about 6 am and 10 pm) whereas ‘evening people’ prefer to wake and go to bed later (about 10 am and 1 am). This demonstrates that there may be innate individual differences in circadian rhythms, which suggests that researchers should focus on these differences during investigations.

Additionally, it has been suggested that temperature may be more important than light in determining circadian rhythms. Buhr et al. (2010) found that fluctuations in temperature set the timing of cells in the body and caused tissues and organs to become active or inactive. Buhr claimed that information about light levels is transformed into neural messages that set the body’s temperature. Body temperature fluctuates on a 24-hour circadian rhythm and even small changes in it can send a powerful signal to our body clocks. This shows that circadian rhythms are controlled and affected by several different factors, and suggests that a more holistic approach to research might be preferable.

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