Twenty-six years. That’s how much time the average person spends sleeping. One quarter of a lifetime, sliced off and set aside. Simply imagine what artistic achievements, scientific innovations and other such accomplishments could be achieved were we not bound by our bedroom routine.
That’s the rather tragic truth about sleep: No matter how vital, the seven or eight hours we spend with our heads on the pillow can never be regained.
But why do we sleep for such a continuous chunk? Is it evolutionary or simply an assumed practice? What if there was a way to unshackle ourselves from the constraints of the normal sleep cycle and nod off as many as six hours less per night without feeling dazed, sleep deprived or anything but well-rested? Think of how different life would be. Think of what you could do with all that time.
This is the principal thought of polyphasic sleepers, those who choose to cast aside the traditional eight-hour sleep schedule for a more economical system of precisely timed naps throughout the day. It’s not a modern development. This manual overriding of our internal clocks has been practiced for centuries.
But is polyphasic sleep the most efficient way for humans to sleep, or is it biological heresy? Critics in the latter camp say it’s simply unwise to tinker with our evolved sleep schedule. Still, proponents are pushing forward with their experimental programs, with mixed results. Is there actual worth in rewiring our natural schedules?
As the name implies, a polyphasic sleep schedule splits one night’s rest into three or more separate phases spread throughout the 24-hour day. It’s a direct counterpoint to the societally established eight-hour, or monophasic, sleep schedule as well as a more drastic version of the biphasic one (a six hour chunk of shut-eye supplemented by a midday nap) common to siesta-loving countries.
There is real science behind the polyphasic philosophy. Our typical, monophasic rest cycle consists of five stages: two transitionary periods, followed by two nREM deep sleep periods, capped off by a final stage of REM sleep. On a good night, we put our heads down, experience these five stages in subconscious bliss and wake up refreshed and restored.
This refreshing restoration — both mental and physical — is believed to occur only during nREM and REM deep sleep periods. By condensing the standard cycle, polyphasic sleepers say they’re skipping the “padding.” In other words, those transitionary periods are worthless, at least in terms of health benefits. Why waste precious time floating in and out of inefficient stages, when you can trim the fat and dig to the meaty stuff?
Polyphasic sleepers claim to do exactly this. They’ve conditioned themselves to fall directly into the useful restorative stages, several times each day. It’s more than just napping on steroids. Polyphasic is napping taken to the nth degree.
Like moving to a higher altitude, shifting to new sleep schedule requires a good deal of acclimatization. Typically, the process begins by forcing oneself to stay awake for a 24-hour period. This induces the body into a fatigued state, and a fatigued body falls asleep more readily — and more quickly into those restorative sleep stages. True acclimatization, say longtime practitioners, can take anywhere from weeks to years.
While the process begins the same for just about everyone, not all polyphasic sleep schedules are created equal. There are three main variants: Everyman, Uberman and Dymaxion. Within each, daily naps are carefully calibrated and tailored to hours that correlate with natural dips and crests in alertness. Strict adherence is required.
Everyman is the most forgiving. It’s also the most similar to the biphasic schedule one finds in siesta-loving cultures (i.e., sleep for six hours overnight and supplement with a midday nap). It consists of a three-hour core period of uninterrupted sleep, usually from 1 a.m to 4 a.m.; this is supplemented by three 20-minute naps, at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 9 p.m.
The next is Uberman, which consists of six 20-minute naps, which typically start at 2 p.m. in four-hour increments. That’s a grand total of just two hours of sleep. Uberman was dreamed up in the early '00s by influential sleep hacker and blogger Puredoxyk, who also goes by the pseudonym Marie.
The final, and most extreme, is Dymaxion. This sleep-destroying scheme calls for one thirty-minute nap every six hours. Buckminster Fuller — the noted 20th-century scientist and thinker who counts the geodesic dome among his many patents and inventions — coined and invented the cycle. Fuller famously deemed sleep “a bad habit” and is the first known practitioner to record his experiments.
Despite its extreme nature, Fuller found his Dymaxion cycle extremely functional, claiming it was “the most vigorous and alert condition” he had ever enjoyed. Doctors evaluated him before and during his devised schedule and concluded that he was in peak health throughout
In his book At Day’s Close, Night in Times Past, historian A. Roger Erkich rounds up more than 500 pieces of historical evidence of our polyphasic past. He cites sources as varied as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Homer’s The Odyssey to prayer manuals and anthropological studies; all make reference to sleep being a fragmented activity for our ancestors.
Until the 20th century, Erkich says, when electricity and the demands of industrialized society forced us to condense our rest into a single chunk, humans engaged in at least two distinct periods of sleep, with sometimes as much as an hour and a half waking break in between.
They’d used that time to eat, drink, socialize and carry on with normal life. According to Erkich, the emergence and dominance of monophasic sleep can be traced to the invention of artificial light. Studies show that, in the absence of artificial light, we naturally settle back into this a biphasic system.
Quite a few successful historical figures were purportedly polyphasic sleepers. Such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tesla, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson and Leonardo DaVinci reportedly followed the fragmented schedule. Their achievements perpetuate the notion that there is a link between genius and efficient sleep.
By sleeping monophasically, we may even be fighting nature itself. Some studies indicate that sleeping in multiple blocks may be imprinted in our genetic code after millennia of evolution.
“We presumably evolved to sleep at night and then take a relatively short nap at some point during the day if possible,” says Dr. James Gangwisch, assistant professor of Psychology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Gangwisch’s research focuses on the relationship between sleep duration, psychiatric disorders and metabolic syndrome-associated diseases.
Those monophasic sleepers who stayed still for eight hours straight risked being devoured by some roaming predator. Reports of polyphasic sleep schedules in hunter-gatherer tribes in South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa indicate that in less technologized societies, this reality is still the case. Furthermore, many believe there is no ideal sleep cycle and that mechanisms in our brain lead to arrhythmic internal clocks “It varies from by person,” says Dr. Gangwisch.
“It varies from person to person,” says Gangwisch.
Dr. Walter A. Brown, a Brown University psychiatrist and clinical drug trial researcher, feels that strict adherence to the monophasic schedule is, in fact, archaic. Further, he believes that not following the evolutionary imprint of previous sleep patterns leads to much undue stress.
“People have this idea that normal sleep is seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, when actually lots of people retained the old biphasic sleep pattern,” he says. “Then people worry about themselves and take drugs.” These sleepers are made to believe their body’s instincts are a disorder or a pathology when, in fact, “it’s normal,” according to Brown.
The Pros and Cons of the Polyphasic Lifestyle
Marie, the creator of the Uberman cycle, first experimented with alternative sleep schedules in college. With a friend, she first tried Fuller’s Dymaxion schedule — and was blown away by what a full 22 hours awake allowed them to accomplish.
“We were full-time college students with jobs,” she says, “we both volunteered in the Shakespeare theater, we played D&D and went to parties and kept our rooms spotless and our grades up, and still seemed to have lots of time to relax.”
Eric Watson, founder and manager of the blog Polyphasic Sleep Hacking and a polyphasic practitioner for several years, shares Marie’s experiences and enthusiasm.
“I was mainly attracted to the systems by the large increase in awake time,” he says. “It's pretty easy to shave off three-plus hours from your daily sleep time, which amounts to an extra one and a half months of time awake per year.”
Snatching back hours from Father Time is certainly the most enticing aspect of the schedule. But serious polyphasiacs report other benefits. Both Marie and Eric, for example, were able to defeat their insomnia and other sleep-related disorders without resorting to pharmaceuticals.
“I always had a really hard time falling asleep,” Marie says. “When I was in college, it got to the point where people were recommending that I take drugs in order to be able to sleep well, and I went looking for any other solution.”
Watson struggled with insomnia for years. Once he locked down his polyphasic schedule, he “could now fall asleep almost immediately when my head hits the pillow.” Having practiced for years, he describes himself as the “king of power naps.”
There are downsides, of course. Our bodies aren’t made to undergo such drastic changes without hitting some strict learning curves. Watson, for one, almost nodded off while jumping rope before a 7 a.m. martial arts class. But maintaining the cycle, he swears, is easier after just a month or two of acclimatization.
Then there are the social implications. How do you work a normal job, have significant others, or see friends?
“It's often hard to find things to do when you're awake and no one else is,” Watson admits. “Imagine this conversation: ‘Hey, want to go wine tasting tomorrow?’ ‘No thanks, I have to take my 2 p.m. nap’.”
Both Marie and Watson agree, however, that they’d never go back to a standard schedule.
Most modern polyphasic practitioners, like Marie and Watson, exist in the fringe worlds of Reddit other online forums. As far as the academic world is concerned, the schedule is neither a widely used nor all that respected practice. It has therefore warranted a relatively small body of research.
The foremost authority on polyphasic sleep is an Italian chronobiologist named Dr. Claudio Stampi, who founded the Chronobiology Research Institute in Newton, Mass. A maritime enthusiast, Stampi studied 99 sailors participating in trans-ocean competitions and races. These are athletes whose sport requires them to be awake for significant, non-traditional blocks of time.
Stampi found that the polyphasic schedule was “disproportionately effective in recovering functioning during continuous work.” In lieu of 7 ½ hours of sleep, he found, the sailors maintained peak performance by adhering to 20-minute to one-hour naps, totaling between 4 ½ and 5 ½ each day. Stampi also studied a Swiss painter named Francesco Jost, who spent 49 days following a polyphasic schedule. The research showed that Jost’s concentration and mood remained at full strength for the duration of his test.
NASA was intrigued by the promise of economical naps and, in 2005, looked to them as a potential solution to astronaut fatigue. Their researchers studied 91 volunteers who paired four to eight hours of “anchor sleep” with up to two and a half hour-long naps. They concluded that while longer naps were generally more fruitful, any positive effects varied. Alertness and vigilance, for instance, did not significantly improve, but working memory did.
A similar study on military pilots showed that longer naps (those greater than 10 minutes) increased alertness and performance in cases of pilot fatigue.
Dr. Matthew P. Butler studies circadian rhythms as a research fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Medical Chronobiology program. For one, he’s skeptical about polyphasic sleepers’ reports of feeling superhuman. In his own studies, Butler has found that subjects rate their need for sleep differently.
“What is striking is that when patients come to the laboratory and have an extended time in bed,” Butler says, “those who report needing the least sleep (and getting the least sleep), actually sleep the most. This suggests that they have again subjectively gotten used to it, but that they are really carrying a large sleep debt.”
Of course, there are the vocal detractors. Dr. Piotr Wozniak, a scientist and algorithm developer, finds Stampi’s sailing study, in particular, simplistic.
“He used some simple performance tests that would be highly dependent on the homeostatic component of sleep,” Wozniak says. “As such, these would not fully emphasize the damage done by the disruption to the circadian aspect of sleep.”
Any positive effects of polyphasic sleep, Wozniak cautions, are incomplete and shouldn’t be extrapolated to apply beyond the highly specific circumstances in which they were conducted. Furthermore, he has serious doubts about the long-term benefits of these cycles.
“If you wake somebody from a nap in a polyphasic system, chances are he might do okay in a memory test,” he says. “However, this person is not likely to build a space shuttle.” Sleeping less than seven to nine hours per day reduces alertness. And reduced alertness affects our entire conscious state.
“Performance is usually measured with reaction time tests since these are the most sensitive to sleep loss and have implications in safe driving,” adds Butler. He cites reports that show that after a few days of short sleep, reaction time plummets.
“You think you are ‘getting used to’ short sleep,” Butler says. “But the rest of your brain is getting slower and slower.”
Dr. Gangwisch is also skeptical about the potential to just flip a switch to adjust to such a sporadic and segmented sleep schedule.
“Our circadian rhythms evolved over millions of years to sleep at night when it is dark and to get most all of the sleep during that time,” he says. “Doing otherwise would disturb these rhythms, leading to myriad untoward outcomes.”
We should be wary of getting too cocky when it comes to biology, especially since much about the functions and processes of the different stages of our sleep cycle still remain a mystery.
Should You Try It?
“Personally,” says Dr. Butler, “I would be skeptical of strategies to target particular stages of sleep at the expense of others only because we know so little about their functions.”
Dr. Brown agrees that there simply isn’t enough data. But he keeps an open mind: “I think that’s an empirical question; it needs to be studied. Lots of things don’t make intuitive sense, but can be true.”
Polyphasic sleepers are the first to admit that the grueling schedule, with its numerous potential setbacks and murky rational, isn’t for everyone. But they like having the option. They like having broken free from a schedule they consider an illogical imperative.
“Having the freedom to choose which sleep pattern are the healthiest and best for us as individuals is only a positive thing in my mind,” says Marie. “A world with more diverse sleep schedules can only mean more options for the pursuit of happiness for everyone.”
It’s entirely possible that there’s no single, universal sleep schedule that’s right for everyone. Besides differing cultural needs, there may be biological bases for individual preferences for one schedule over another.
But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a healthy, open-minded individual experimenting with polyphasic sleep.
“If you are someone who questions norms, has strong will power and has a desire or need for more time in your days – I'd absolutely recommend going for it,” says Watson.
Then again, these schedules are still on the fringe for a reason — they come with potential risks to physical, mental and even social wellbeing. For the average work-a-day layperson, who needs to punch the clock and live in-sync with everyone else, polyphasic may not be the best course of action.
But if you’re willing to make the effort, and you can survive the initiation, polyphasic superhumanism may be waiting just on the other side of midnight.