Many aspects of brain function are influenced by modulatory processes, including arousal. The most abrupt changes in arousal occur at the wake-sleep transition and at the induction of anesthetic conditions. They are accompanied by major electrophysiological changes, including an emergence of low-frequency (sleep-like) activity and a loss of mid-frequency (wake-like) activity that has been linked to feedback processes of the brain. Nevertheless, the causal relationship between these two types of electrophysiological changes, as well as the cortical mechanisms underlying changes in arousal and consciousness, remain poorly understood. To address this, we studied spontaneous electro-cortical activity during arousal changes in macaques. During sleep and at loss of consciousness induced by propofol anesthesia, we identified a prototypical sequence of cortical events in which the loss of mid-frequency activity preceded, by seconds, the increases in low-frequency activity. Furthermore, in visual areas, an influence of mid-frequency change onto high-frequency activity was observed across visual hierarchy. These results are consistent with the notion that drops in arousal and consciousness are facilitated by a release of feedback cortical inhibition.