Polyphasic Sleep Patterns
It’s Monday morning, and you and your friends sit around a table at the dining hall. All you can see are coffee cups and another week of despair ahead of you. You only got four hours of sleep last night because of that grueling problem set, but at least you’re better off than your friend. You can tell she was working on her writing seminar paper all night because she’s still wearing the same ghastly sweater as she was yesterday… not to mention the fact that she’s falling asleep into her plate of pancakes.
It’s a struggle common to nearly all college students: sleep deprivation.
Is there a solution? Can we cut down our total time sleeping while retaining our sanity? It seems that the concept of needing eight hours sleep has been deeply ingrained in our culture, but perhaps we need to re-evaluate it. Historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Edison, and Tesla were polyphasic sleepers — that is, they divided up their sleep into multiple blocks of time. Likewise, it is common in Spanish culture to take a siesta in the afternoon. The idea of a monophasic sleep schedule is not common across all cultures, but it is certainly the predominant one. The vast majority of animals do not follow the monophasic sleep schedule, and instead follow various polyphasic patterns: they nap intermittently throughout the day.
“The concept of the eight-hour sleep has been deeply ingrained in our culture, but perhaps we need to re-evaluate it.”
Not every polyphasic sleeper follows the same regimen. Schedules range from those consisting of small naps to others with more varied increments. The biphasic sleep schedule is just as it sounds: two blocks of sleep ranging from three to four hours. The Dymaxion sleep schedule, originally coined by Buckminster Fuller, involves a half-hour nap every six hours. He claimed that the schedule kept him fully alert and, as his doctor reported, “sound as a nut.” Fuller combined the words “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension” to describe many of his inventions, including the Dymaxion sleep schedule.
Internet writer PureDoxyK, author of Ubersleep: Nap-Based Sleep Schedules & the Polyphasic Lifestyle, coins terms for a few more polyphasic sleep schedules. The Uberman, which involves six 20-minute naps at regular intervals throughout the day, is considered the most rigorous polyphasic pattern. The Everyman schedule is more similar to the traditional monophasic model — it calls for a 3-hour block of sleep at night, with three additional 20-minute naps throughout the day. Indeed, such sleep-wake schedules have been shown to improve performance. In a study conducted on ninety-nine sailors, the best performance results were from those who slept in increments between 20 and 60 minutes for a total of 4.5 to 5.5 hours a day. This performance increase, combined with the free time that would otherwise have been spent sleeping, are possible benefits of polyphasic sleeping.
“In a study conducted on ninety-nine sailors, the best performance results were from those who slept in increments between 20 and 60 minutes for a total of 4.5 to 5.5 hours a day.”
How is it that the same level of restfulness can be achieved with less sleep? There are two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). REM sleep generally makes up about 20-25% of total sleep, and each cycle takes around 90 minutes. Studies have linked REM sleep to vital processes such as memory consolidation, brain development, behavioral development, and the formation of associative networks vital to problem solving and creative thinking. The prevailing theory is that the Uberman schedule trains the brain to enter REM sleep quickly. This cuts out the NREM stages of sleep, during which brain waves become slower and more synchronized before the high-frequency and low-amplitude waves that characterize REM sleep.
Personal development blogger Steve Pavlina, who tried out the Uberman sleep schedule for five months, reported having vivid dreams after 20-minute naps even though dreams are characteristic of and exclusive to REM sleep. Ultimately, he switched back to a monophasic schedule because the world simply isn’t structured to accommodate regular napping throughout the day. Social and cultural factors must be considered before adopting these lifestyles.
Between cups of coffee, we ask ourselves which clubs to cut. We make sacrifices. We fall behind on work. Above all, we grapple with balancing our need to sleep with our need to succeed.
While polyphasic sleeping may not be the solution for everyone, it is worth looking at sleep with a new perspective. The eight-hour sleep schedule can give way to alternatives that are more time-efficient and possibly performance-boosting, but there is a ways to go before this can become feasible for the masses. Society simply isn’t ready for the polyphasic lifestyle, both structurally and ideologically.