The history and science behind polyphasic sleep: gearing up for longer days

In the 21st century, most adults sleep at night for an average of six hours. The ideal duration of nightly rest should be around eight hours for a working adult, but we do not have the time to get uninterrupted sleep from 10 pm or 11 pm till about 7 am. We are always tired, irritable, low in energy and struggling with our fatigue levels. An easy solution for this would be a nap during the daytime, but our office or classes keep us from getting a quick shuteye during the weekday. As a result, the stress keeps building, and one fine day we find ourselves too sick and too tired to even leave the bed. That is the onset of chronic fatigue syndrome.

Polyphasic sleep is for the smart sleepers, who do not have enough time to slumber, but they want to get the benefit of complete rest from resting for only a couple of hours per day. Most polyphasic sleepers do not sleep beyond 2 hours at a stretch. Some extreme poly-sleepers can manage with as little as 2 hours’ sleep per day. Some people also refer to it as interrupted sleep, although this nature of interrupted sleep does not promote sleep deprivation. Natural polyphasic sleep occurs in human beings, who suffer from circadian rhythm disorders and advanced or delayed sleep-wake syndrome. It is a circadian rhythm disorder, but practicing fragmented sleep can help you make the most of the couple of hours of rest you have per day.

What is polyphasic sleep

What is polyphasic sleep?

The term polyphasic does not refer to one particular sleeping schedule. Anyone, who sleeps in fragments of 3 or more, is a polyphasic sleeper. J.S. Szymanski coined the term in the early 20th century. He had observed regular fluctuations of activity patterns in human beings. Claudio Stampi further extrapolated the findings are determined effective sleep-wake schedules for those interested in sleeping in fragments.

The form of sleeping in fragments has been around since the dawn of civilization. Anthropologists have found evidence that shows that the cave-dwelling populations of our ancestors had the habit of sleeping in batches throughout the night. When one group was asleep, the others kept a watch. It not only helped them stay safe, but it also allowed them to hunt nocturnal creatures for food. Current studies show that most of the animal population is polyphasic sleepers, although simians are monophasic.

A brief history of segmented sleep

Famous historian A. Ekirch argues that interrupted sleep was the norm of the western civilization before the industrial revolution. Several popular historians including Craig Koslofsky support Ekirch’s theory. The historians have drawn numerous counts of evidence from medieval literature, recent documents, and ancient science logs to show that human beings were indeed polyphasic sleepers in the western civilization before industrialization. According to Ekirch, the adults slept in two distinct phases. The periods of resting spanned between 3 and 4 hours. There was an intermediate period of wakefulness during which they reflected upon their dreams, prayed, studied and wrote journals, and engaged in carnal activities.

Further research shows that the practice was common in most of France as well. Many famous authors, poets, musicians, and painters have stated their personal preference of the nighttime wakefulness for boosting their creativity. Many people still associate a feeling of peace and content with this time. It provides food for thought. There might be a scientific reason for this. When people wake up from incomplete sleep or stay awake late at night, their brains secrete prolactin to combat the stress. This hormone brings the sense of peace and happiness in the people.

Ekirch’s research shows the presence of two terms – first sleep or dead sleep, and second sleep or morning sleep. These terms are common in the literature of medieval England, and France. He found the mention of first and second sleep in romance languages as well. Now, there are people, who still sleep in two distinct phases. You might be one of the few, who wake up in the middle of the night after finishing two REM cycles. Not knowing the history and evolution of polyphasic sleep in the modern human civilization may lead you to believe that you have parasomnia or insomnia.

Thomas Where experimented with polyphasic sleep in 1992. He appointed eight healthy men to live in a dark room for a month. They would stay in darkness for fourteen hours at a stretch. In the beginning, these men slept for about eleven hours at a time. However, after a couple of nights, these men began sleeping in two phases like the men in the pre-Industrialization era. They started sleeping for four hours at a stretch, then remained awake for about two to three hours, and then went back to sleep for another four hours of sleep.

Exaptation vs. adaptation: getting used to the new polyphasic sleeping schedules

Sleeping in short duration to save more time and find more creative spirit is a noble thought. However, it is not at all easy. Most of us have the hardwiring of continuous, monophasic sleepers. We do not know what it is like to remain awake for a productive period between three or four periods of naps. So, if you are thinking of practicing polyphasic sleep, you should know that it is not going to be easy. There is a period of exaptation or pre-adaptation that you must complete to adapt to the new napping schedule.

Additionally, the exaptation period can shorten the adaptation phase for new fragmented sleepers. It will define your ultradian rhythm, and it will give your body the ability to make the most of each nap. The objective of polyphasic sleep is to get the maximum numbers of REM cycles possible within the schedule.

The adaptation period is a dry run for all new to polyphasic sleep. It includes several methods including the thermo method, red and blue light conditioning, and the water drinking method. The last one is the most common and has a historical background as well. When people did not have alarm clocks, they would often drink enough water before bedtime to fill their bladder in an hour or two. When they felt the urge to urinate, they would wake up and begin their phase of wakefulness. Replacing plain water with oral rehydration solution works marvelously as well.

Adapting to the Everyman and Uberman sleep schedules

Adaptation is a lot of hard work. It is easy to miss an alarm or oversleep in the first three or four days, but you need to stay put. Do not punish yourself for oversleeping. We are sure every expert polyphasic sleeper has slipped at least once. You need to keep going with your new schedule. Adaptation can take anything between two weeks to two months. Here’s what you can do if you are one of the many who sleeps for six to eight hours per night –

Day 1-3: religiously cut down your sleeping hours by three hours. Get ready for five hours of sleep per night.

Day 4-7: spread out your five nice hours of rest into at least three chunks. Break it down into one 4-hour block for core sleep and two 30-minute blocks for naps. It is doable for office goers as well. Get a small nap after lunch (during the lunch hour), and one immediately after you return home.
The first week is a dry-run for the Everyman schedule!

Day 8-10: it is time to push yourself a little harder. Begin moving into 20-minute naps instead of 30-minute ones. Add another siesta to your routine. Now, you will get a core nap of 3.5 hours and three 20-minute naps per day.

Day 11-14: finally, it is the time to attempt the Everyman 3 schedule. It should be pretty straightforward right now since you have practiced the one-core nap and three-short nap schedules. You should get up to four extra hours per day with the new Everyman schedule.
Jumping right into the Uberman

Day 15-17: this is one for the curious and the brave. You can cut down the core nap from 3-hours to 2-hours. However, do not add other snoozes in the schedule.

Day 18-20: cut back the core resting time by another hour and add another 20 minutes to your sleep schedule. That should allow you about 2-hours and 20-minutes of sleep in 24 hours.

Day 21: it is finally time to say goodbye to core sleep and embrace the six 20-minute naps. Nap every 4 hours throughout the day. It will need a lot of self-control, patience, and a powerful alarm!

The every man schedules are doable for jobholders, students, and homemakers. However, the Uberman requires the availability of the space and time to nap every 4-hour. If you have a 9-to-5 job, you might find adapting to the Uberman particularly tricky.

What is a refeed?

For some, giving up on their eight-hour sleep schedule is not going to be easy. It is not enough for these sleepers to practice the exaptation period or adaptation exercises. Sometimes, it is alright to extend your core-sleep length to make up for all the lost rest. Sleep refeed consists of several core sleep blocks that can add up to 8-hours of sleep. It is necessary to break up these cores so that they do not merge into one chunk of monophasic sleep once again. It helps keep the sleep pressure under control. When it becomes too much, people tend to fall asleep at any place, any time. The Uberman sleep schedule will go out the window unless you can put a lid on that sleep pressure through regulated core naps.

To sleep or not to: polyphasic sleep

To sleep or not to polyphasic sleep

People have been trying several polyphasic sleeping patterns for months. Every day we wake up and get ready for work or school, we feel the urge to go back to bed and get some more shuteye. That is how we understand how much our body craves sleep every time it feels a little deprived. With the advent of mobile technology, people are more likely to skimp on sleeping hours. We are all guilty of watching “one more episode” or reading “just one more page” each night and depriving ourselves of much-needed rest. Without sleep, it becomes impossible for people to remain productive during the day.

People have the habit of remaining awake before exams or the night before a presentation to cram. We believe that the last minute’s preparation can give us the extra edge we need. However, research shows that the longer we force our brains to stay awake and work, the lesser our chances of intellectual accomplishment become. Superhuman achievements of Randy Gardner and Peter Tripp are exceptions since the human mind can barely make it past the first 48-hours of wakefulness without stimulants.

Several EEG studies and polysomnogram show that human beings are biphasic by nature. While we have adapted to one long monophasic sleep cycle, it is much easier for human beings to go back to their biphasic schedules. We experience the drive to sleep during the night and one dip in alertness during the daytime. These correspond with nighttime wakefulness and daytime sleep respectively.

In human beings, the circadian cycle that controls the day-night activities in the brain is slightly longer than 24-hours. The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the brain dictates the periodicity of a human being. Our circadian clock is running on a classic positive feedback loop. Since it is slightly longer than 24-hours, we always get a backlog on our sleep. However, those who wake up early, get enough exercise, get out in the sun and have good sleep hygiene often do not feel the lag at all. For the rest of us, there are alarm clocks and coffee!

Technically, alarm clocks are not nurturing for our health, but then we need something to wake us up on time. Especially since the advent of TV, laptops, and mobile phones in our bedrooms, getting proper rest has become a rarity. So, we mostly need something stronger than sunlight to wake us up in the mornings. However, every person does not have the same response to the circadian cycles and the external stimuli. People often have multiple genetic mutations of the DEC2 gene that make them early risers, or light sleepers. Some people can do with as less as 4 to 5 hours of sleep per night. They are lesser than 1% of the adult population. They are also the ones, who find adapting to everyman and Uberman schedules super easy.

According to research, it is possible to shift the phase of a sleeper. With the correct knowledge of their phase response curve, one can move their phase by up to a couple of hours. There are no biological mechanisms that can help with this phase shift. So, the change has to be slow and steady. Shifting the phase has little to no effect on the sleep block. However, it defies the belief that human bodies and brains can adapt to any new sleeping schedule. Observation of several shift workers shows that a sudden shift can wreak havoc and cause catastrophic disruption of a person’s sleep schedule. Regularly shifting work can lead to the disruption of multiple physiological variables. The worker ends up sleep deprived of never getting any quality sleep from the continually shifting sleep phases.

The polyphasic sleepers encounter similar problems as shift workers and jetlagged travelers. Human circadian clock finds the polyphasic sleeping patterns strange and sometimes impossible to adopt. A short siesta is more doable than polyphasic sleep for most human beings. We keep hearing that with enough training, polyphasic sleep is possible for everyone. However, the current evidence suggests that body clock training has limitations. It is not possible for everyone to adopt the Uberman or the everyman even with enough practice.

Here are a few reasons you might be struggling :–

  1. Your genes control your body clock, and there are currently no known physiological or pharmacological factors that can influence the body clock timings. At the same time, polyphasic sleep will require the shortening of the body clock by at least six times.
  2. It is possible to use an external stimulus to influence the clock phases. You can use blue light, sunlight, and melatonin to do that, but the duration of melatonin secretion in our body will remain intact. You cannot control the length of activity of the “sleep hormone.”
  3. Some drugs can influence the activity cycle of the “sleepy potion,” but they also affect the stages (Non-REM 1, 2, 3, &4, and REM) of sleep.
  4. Shifting the phase drastically will produce more sleep instead of less. Caffeine does help in promoting wakefulness, but that would increase the sleep pressure and result in more extended periods of core sleep.
  5. There are several self-claimed polyphasic sleepers online, but scientists have not yet studied them thoroughly to note the effects on their physiology and psychology.
  6. In healthy adults, free-running polyphasic sleep is impossible! Alarm clocks are imperative (along with help from friends and family) for completing polyphasic sleep for weeks or months.
  7. There are no studies on the long-term impacts of polyphasic sleep. Although, it is certain that people with heart problems, blood pressure problems, blood sugar issues, and liver or kidney disorders should not attempt it. And it is usually stressful for human physiology.

It is natural for a healthy body clock to stick to a 24-hour cycle. It should make you sleepy during the night and sometimes during the day. Training your body to a segmented or interrupted sleep pattern can be trying. You will go through several cycles of success and failure before you can call yourself a polyphasic sleeper. Nonetheless, there are currently no official records of polyphasic sleepers, who have continued the practice for months or years.

There have been several creative geniuses who were avid polyphasic sleepers. They loved depriving themselves of sleep and get the maximum of REM sleep possible from that. They used the prolactin boost to fuel their imaginative minds. The group does include a couple of American Presidents, well-known painters, literary virtuosos and music maestros. Some of them have kept very in-depth journals about the regular routines. That has made the study of their sleeping schedules quite straightforward. The list includes the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Edison, Tesla, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Churchill, and Bruce Lee. Their accounts are only verifiable through their journals, contemporary literature on their lives, any interviews they might have done and reckonings of their family members. Since these accounts are highly colorful, many are skeptical about their abilities to sleep only for a couple of hours per day.

Very recently, Buckminster Fuller has confirmed his rather unusual sleeping habits in his biography. He has also given several interviews that recount his ability to function for the better part of the day with about 2 hours of sleep. He even set up a new polyphasic sleeping schedule now famous as the Dymaxion sleep plan. It is a portmanteau of dynamic, maximum and tension. He experimented with segmented sleep and its effects on the human mind in the mid-90s. According to his account, it is possible to sleep for about two hours in 24-hours and remain highly alert and productive. He did that for two years and managed to launch some of the best creations of his career.

During this time, he traveled around the world, gave some memorable lectures at prestigious institutions and made some fantastic business deals. He has often referred to his sleeping habit has “dog sleep.” It does not follow any alarm clock or a fixed schedule. While he did not start out with the objective of setting up a timetable for frugal sleepers, he managed to achieve just that with his circadian rhythm-governed and hectic lifestyle. His sleeping style is very similar to that Claudio Stampi describes in his book. According to Stampi, Leonardo Da Vinci used to resort to fragmented sleeping patterns during his height of popularity.

Why should you give polyphasic sleep a try?

Why should you give polyphasic sleep a try

Segmented sleep is not for the faint of heart. You should take this statement quite literally since people with heart problems should not attempt interrupted sleeping patterns. Some of the trending polyphasic sleeping routines like Dymaxion, Uberman, and Everyman aim at maximizing the productivity of the sleeper without extending the core sleep time. According to the proponents of these schedules, the need for sleep is human, and it is within our control. A person should train his or her internal biological clock to the external stimuli (an alarm clock, in most cases) to be a successful polyphasic sleeper. It is tough, but you should try it at least once for the following reasons–

  1. It will reduce the time you spend in bed.
  2. You will never again feel guilty about sleeping for over one-third of your life. You will get at least 4 hours extra per day with any one of the polyphasic schedules.
  3. It will give you more time to think and create.
  4. Sleeping in fragments will boost your creative juices.
  5. Some interrupted sleeping schedules can help you listen to your circadian demands.
  6. It will enhance the quality of slow wave sleep through the build-up of sleep deprivation.
  7. The Adenosine triphosphate (our primary energy currency) levels will increase multiple times during a day. It enhances mental capabilities.
  8. You will find it easier to wake up at the end of a regular sleeping cycle that ends with REM sleep. And, you can break your rest into blocks to attain the REM stage each time.
  9. You can be a night owl and an early riser for the first time in your life. Imagine all the extra hours and everything you can do with them. You will finally have time for your hobbies!
  10. There can be nothing wrong with napping four to five times a day. As a productive adult, who is cutting down on sleeping hours, you have earned the right to get some shuteye without others hating on you.

These are the ten compelling reasons you should try interrupted sleep at least once. You can make it your new year’s resolution to cut back 2 hours of sleep per day and attempt the exaptation phase.

Which schedule is perfect for you?

With so many bloggers promoting polyphasic sleeping styles and very few proven records of long-term practitioners, choosing a schedule can be tricky. You need to consider the duration of the core sleep, the length of the naps and the gap between each resting phase before you can choose one. According to leading biologists, rest is an intrinsic need. Therefore, every person’s circadian rhythm and clock are a little different from the other. There is a specific time during which your productivity levels and alertness peak during the day, and there is a time during which they hit rock bottom. The same is true for the nighttime. It is the sleeper’s responsibility to listen to his or her circadian clock and find out when their bodies want them to be productive.

That is the most challenging part of adapting to any new sleeping schedule. Create a timetable of your preferable sleep-wake times. Then, compare it to the existing polyphasic sleeping schedules. It is not necessary that you need to follow one plan steadfastly throughout life. You can also adapt your program that shifts the core nap 30 minutes beyond the recommended Dymaxion sleep. Most of these schedules are guidelines for finding the best sleeping hours for maximum productivity. You should remember that the Uberman allows only 2 hours of sleep per day and the Dymaxion allows the same. Everyman allows the sleeper 4 hours of core sleep, and it is also the easiest to attempt. The gateway to Uberman and Dymaxion is Everyman sleeping schedule.

What else should you know about polyphasic sleep?

Claudio Stampi started his research on sleep and interrupted sleeping patterns by observing solo sailors. He is a pioneer in the field of polyphasic and biphasic sleep. Moreover, he is a biphasic sleeper and an ardent lover of afternoon siestas. His research reflects the sleeping habits of sailors in long-distance boat races. You can easily see the similarity of sleeping patterns between these sailors, and the US military. These are both extraordinary cases, during which people have to cut their sleeping hours back for survival. According to an Air Force report, each nap should be of 45-minutes each. Longer naps of about 2 hours are better for the restoration of memories and thoughts, but the aim is to cover 8 hours of rest with as little sleep as possible.

The Canadian Marine Pilots go through something similar. Due to extreme conditions, they get to sleep for only about 10 minutes to 20 minutes at a stretch. They nap at regular intervals, but they do not get core sleep. It is the closest real-life example of Dymaxion sleep one can find in real life. The regular interval of the 20-minute naps make up for the extreme sleep deprivation, but the effectiveness is not the same for every person. The Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare Italiana) adopted schedules similar to Everyman. The recruits would work for two hours and take four-hour rests. They could sleep during these four hours, although they could sleep for the final three periods. They repeated the cycle four times per day (or 24 hours). The observers of the experiment noted that there were no noticeable changes in their EEG and during their daytime productivity.

At the same time, the research says that people with parasomnia and insomnia will face severe sleep backlogs if they try to adopt similar schedules. It can limit attention and focus. Only attempt segmented sleep if you have enough time to spare and the courage to go through with it. Failure is a norm of polyphasic sleep unless you have the blessing of the rare genetic mutation that allows people to work for superhuman hours without continuous 6 to 8 hours of rest.