To determine whether the spectral characteristics of the sleep electroencephalogram (EEG) of insomniacs differ from that of healthy subjects, we compared in each of the first four non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) episodes: (a) the time courses of absolute power, averaged over the subjects in each group, for the delta, theta, alpha, sigma and beta frequency bands; (b) the relationship between these time courses; and (c) the overnight trend of integrated power in each frequency band. The results show that NREM power, for all frequencies below the beta range, has slower rise rates and reaches lower levels in the insomniac group, whereas beta power is significantly increased. In REM, insomniacs show lower levels in the delta and theta bands, whereas power in the faster frequency bands is significantly increased. Thus, the pathophysiology of insomnia is characterized not only by the generally acknowledged slow wave deficiency, but also by an excessive hyperarousal of the central nervous system throughout the night, affecting both REM and NREM sleep. This hyperarousal is interpreted in terms of the neuronal group theory of sleep which provides a possible explanation for the discrepancies observed between subjective impressions and objective measures of sleep. Also, it is suggested that the progressive hyperpolarization of the thalamocortical neurons as sleep deepens is slower in the patient population and that this may explain the observed slow wave deficiency. The homeostatic control of slow wave activity, on the other hand, would appear to be intact in the patient population.