Brain hacks: My polyphasic sleep experiment

by Stephanie Chasteen on December 14, 2010

So, I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with the familiar rhythms of my body.  I’ve tried different diets (you would be surprised at how vibrant you feel just eating rice and vegetables!), exercise regimes, caffeine intake, etc.  It’s the ultimate inquiry science experiments — when I do this, what happens?  It’s particularly interesting to experiment with your subjective experience.  It’s uncanny how sensitive our moods are to things that I always assumed didn’t have a large effect.  I’ll never forget when I experimented with being off sugar and wheat for several months, and then gave in and ate one of the huge pastries sitting in the office.  Within 30 minutes my heart was racing, I was angry at everyone, and I felt like a loser failure.  Something about that (really big) jolt of stuff in my system actually made me feel critical and bad.  I think many times I’ve been unhappy in my life, I could have made some simple changes and gotten out of my funk.

So, now at the behest of my partner Terry, I’ve been experimenting with polyphasic sleep.  (A great site about this particular brain hack here).  We sleep 4-5 hours a night, and then nap 3 times during the day.  The idea is that if we train ourselves to go more rapidly into REM, then we can get that restful sleep in 3 short naps and waste less time at night doing it.  Terry felt great when he did this a few years back, and instigated our sleepytime adventure.  The results so far?  Well, it’s 2 am and I just cleared out my email inbox.  Terry is passed out in the other room.  (In fairness, he’s having a stressful time at work.  He may try again once things have calmed down.)

I’ll get into the science below, but first, I must say….  I love this sleep schedule.  Ok, yeah, I’m always a little tired.  But I think I’ve always been paranoid about being tired, that I wouldn’t be able to function well or be my very best.  This schedule has forced me to let go of a little bit of the control that I want to have over my consciousness, and you know, it’s just fine.  I’m still doing good work.  I’m analyzing data and writing reports like a little demon.  And the great thing is that, even though I’m super busy at work, I’m still having time for leisure.  Usually when I’m this busy — you know the drill — I finish work, eat a quick meal, go back to work, read a page in a magazine, pass out, and do it all again.  You feel like you’re on the treadmill and can’t get off.  But now, I finish work, take a nap, eat, be social, take a nap, and then work for another 2-3 hours, or catch up on personal stuff.

Another benefit is that I get to take lots of naps.  Since it’s tough to fall asleep in the middle of the day, this essentially gives me 3 meditation sessions each day, focusing on my breath so that I can try to fall asleep.  I feel so much more calm and relaxed now.  Though, it is weird to get in and out of bed 4 times a day.  When Terry and I were both doing it, though, it also meant falling asleep next to your sweetie three times a day, which was pretty nice.

OK, here’s how it works.  Usually you sleep 8 hours a day in one block, like below.

A full polyphasic sleep schedule (called the Uberman) is below.  In this schedule you sleep just 3 hours total, in 6 equal chunks throughout the day.  Do this for your whole life and you effectively add 11 years.  The catch, of course, is that (a) almost nobody can maintain this schedule, and (b) you need to get a lot of solitary hobbies.  (The difficulty of maintaining this schedule is eloquently illustrated by this Uberman sleep blog.  The last post (in 2006) starts, “This is Day 4.”)

But, we’re not crazy, and we have regular lives, so what we’re using is called the Everyman schedule. In this schedule, you sleep a total of 4-5 hours:  One 3-4 hour chunk at night, plus three 20-minute naps at noon, 5pm and 11pm.  (The 11pm nap is the killer; SO hard to get up).  One benefit, other than the reasonable schedule, is that you can play with the time of the naps, up to an hour or so.  With Uberman, they need to be taken every 4 hours on the dot.  The less sleep you’re getting in polyphasic sleep, the more strictly you need to adhere to the schedule.

There’s actually some evidence from a study of long-distance sailing racing that this might be an ideal schedule:  The best results under extreme conditions like this were with naps of 20 minutes – 1 hour, for a total of 4.5-5.5 hours.  Of course, that begs the question of whether such a schedule is good in the long term.  Apparently this guy is the expert, but (according to supermemo), “he is not recommending the polyphasic schedule for normally functioning creative individual who can afford a full night of healthy sleep.” Rather, polyphasic sleep is better than monophasic sleep if you’re going to be sleep deprived.  But, it’s best not to be sleep deprived.

There does seem to be some evidence that the later stages of sleep provide some cognitive benefit, so it’s good to sleep for a longer period of time once in a while.  Some people thus do a “reboot” sleep a few times a month, to get to those deeper stages of sleep.  So far we seem to crash each weekend, getting a full 8 hours or more at least once.  In order to be able to take my naps each day, it seems like I need to be in a constant state of minor sleep deprivation, so making up that deficit so that it doesn’t snowball seems helpful.

So, what’s my future?  I might eventually go to a one-nap system, when I’m needing the time less, hoping that would let me stay  up until 12 or 1, which I enjoy anyway.  For now, when I’ve got a ton to do, I think polyphasic might be a good strategy.  I’ve been doing it for, hmm, 3 weeks now.  I wouldn’t say I’m perfectly adapted to it, but I do now get tired at noon and 5, so my body’s figured out something.

I’ll try to remember to provide periodic updates in the comments.  If anyone has additional information, or has tried polyphasic schedules, please share.  Right now, though, I’m going… to sleep!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Lyons December 14, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Wow, I’ve always been fascinated with this stuff and it’s cool that someone I know is trying it. Curious to see how it goes and if/when you give it up as seems inevitable based on the various blogs and articles I’ve read. Happy snoozing!

Incidentally, Michale and I sometimes practice polyphasic wakefulness on the weekends: Sleep punctuated by occasional brief breaks for eating and watching The Office.

sibylle December 14, 2010 at 9:02 pm

I have a few doubts here –
1. When I was working on my Ph.D at the University of Ca., Irvine, some researchers in the (then) Psychobiology Department (now learning and Memory) studied sleep deprivation ( using the grad students as lab animals). they found that sleep deprivation eventually leads to psychosis (also, the grad students became very irritable).
Also, several studies showed that sleep deprivation increases the rate of mortality. So you sleep less now — and die sooner, it appears.
Have you examined the sleep / life span correlations?

JD February 7, 2011 at 4:45 am

I have been on Polyphasic sleep, the Uberman schedule for 12 days now and it is working out nicely. The first week was tough, but I have developed some tips which has made it much more successful for me. Apparently though many people just don’t keep logs of Uberman, you see lots of Everyman, but Uberman is usually a failed thing. Anyway, this link is to my daily logs while on the Uberman schedule. http://jdsportsonline.com/projects/polyphasic/polyphasic-sleep.html

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