Need More Time To Work? Consider Polyphasic Sleep
Polyphasic sleep devotees claim that they can sleep fewer hours overall. Instead of sleeping for several hours overnight, practitioners divide their sleep into a series of naps. The result, they say, is more time for work, hobbies, and other pursuits.
What Is Polyphasic Sleep?
Polyphasic sleep is a method that involves sleeping for multiple short periods throughout the day and night. This method is an alternative to monophasic sleep, which is how most people rest: all at once, usually overnight.
Proponents of polyphasic sleep believe that it results in more REM (rapid eye movement) and slow-wave sleep. By spending more time in these shorter periods of sleep, the theory goes, you can get by on less sleep overall.
There are five stages of sleep. Stage one is very light and occurs during the first few minutes after you fall asleep. Stage two is also relatively light and involves an increase in brain wave frequency. During stage one and two, you can wake up easily.
Stages three and four are deep sleep, and it’s difficult to wake up from these stages. During this time, the brain begins producing slow delta waves. In phase four, your body performs vital restorative tasks. It repairs muscle tissue, boosts your immune system, and stimulates growth.
REM sleep usually begins 90 minutes after you fall asleep. During this phase, your brain is more active, and your eyes move around. The REM stage is crucial for forming memories and processing information.
Polyphasic sleep may allow practitioners to skip the light stages and enter directly into slow-wave and REM sleep. The goal is to spend less time sleeping while still reaping the benefits of the restorative sleep phases.
Studies show that sleep-deprived people enter REM sleep sooner. They also spend a higher percentage of their sleep in the REM stage. This phenomenon is known as REM rebound.
Some studies suggest that success with nontraditional sleep cycles relates to a mutation in a gene called DEC2. People who have this rare mutation need less sleep than others.
Dissecting Polyphasic Sleep’s Popularity
Polyphasic sleep might seem like a new phenomenon, but it’s been around since at least Leonardo da Vinci’s time. Some anthropologists believe that sleeping in two phases, also known as biphasic sleep, was the norm for our ancestors.
The main draw of polyphasic sleep cycles is having more productive hours in the day. But, fans also say they feel more alert and creative when they’re awake. These benefits may be due to the increased time spent in REM sleep.
The idea of “hacking” our sleep to make it more efficient is a source of ongoing fascination. There are dozens of online forums for sharing tips, tricks, and success stories.
Famous Hard-Working Polyphasic Sleepers
One reason for polyphasic slumber’s popularity is its link to prolific artists, inventors, and politicians.
Leonardo da Vinci may be the most famous polyphasic sleeper. The painter and inventor reportedly slept for 20 minutes at a time throughout each day. Some sources say his naps added up to a total of five hours of sleep. Others state he didn’t sleep more than two hours total.
The famed architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller was a vocal proponent of polyphasic sleeping. He developed the Dymaxion sleep cycle, which involves just two hours of sleep spread out over each 24-hour period. Fuller followed Dymaxion for two years. During that time, he reported feeling more “vigorous and alert” than he had before.
Fuller gave up polyphasic sleep for just one reason. His business partners (and his wife) insisted on following traditional sleep schedules.
Winston Churchill was both a night owl and a devoted napper. He typically slept from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., followed by a two-hour nap each afternoon. Churchill believed that this schedule allowed him to complete one and a half day’s worth of work every day.
Other famous figures who may have dabbled in polyphasic sleep include Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Edison.
The Types of Polyphasic Sleep Schedules
There’s a range of different polyphasic sleep cycle options. Biphasic sleep is the most common and the easiest for most people to adjust to. The Everyman schedule is also somewhat flexible. Dymaxion and Uberman schedules, on the other hand, are strict and involve a very small amount of sleep.
With any of these sleep styles, there will be a transition period from monophasic sleep. If you decide to try polyphasic sleep, be sure to give yourself time to adjust.
Biphasic sleep involves sleeping twice each day. Typically, biphasic sleepers sleep for five or six hours overnight and take a nap in the afternoon. The afternoon nap could be a short, 20-minute power nap, or a longer rest of up to two hours.
This sleep style isn’t as common as monophasic sleep, but it’s widespread in certain cultures. People in Spain and Latin America, who often take a siesta each afternoon, practice biphasic sleep.
Winston Churchill, with his daily afternoon nap, is one famous example of a biphasic sleeper.
Dymaxion might be the toughest sleep pattern to adhere to. It consists of four 30-minute naps throughout the day, resulting in a total of two hours of sleep.
The name Dymaxion was coined and trademarked by R. Buckminster Fuller. It combines the words “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension.” He applied the term to several of his inventions, including a house, a car, and a style of world map.
There are different variations of the Everyman cycle. Each one includes a longer “core” sleep combined with naps. For example, you could sleep for three hours each night and take three twenty-minute naps. A more severe version involves sleeping for an hour and a half at night and taking four 20-minute naps.
The theory behind Everyman is based on humans’ circadian rhythm. The longer core sleep should occur at night when people naturally feel more tired.
Everyman is considered easier to adjust to than Dymaxion or Uberman. Some people follow it before transitioning to one of those styles.
The Uberman sleep schedule consists of six 20-minutes naps throughout each 24 hour period. The short naps are spread out so that one occurs every four hours.
There are other variations of Uberman that result in slightly more sleep. Some followers sleep for 20 minutes every three hours, rather than every four.
While many famous polyphasic sleepers have been men, two women pioneered the Uberman cycle. In 1998, Marie Staver was a college student who suffered from insomnia. She enlisted the help of a friend, Psuke Briah, to give this radical sleep strategy a try.
Staver says that during that time, she felt the best she’s ever felt in her life. Both she and Briah were incredibly productive on the Uberman cycle.
Staver and Briah chose the name Uberman as a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch concept. Nietzsche described the Übermensch as an advanced or superior human. This name relates to the increased productivity described by those who practice the Uberman schedule.
Today, Staver has switched to the Everyman cycle, mainly because it’s more compatible with her nine-to-five job.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Polyphasic Sleep
With any of the different varieties of polyphasic sleep, there are advantages and disadvantages.
These pros and cons vary based on each person’s schedule, health, and sleep requirements. Some people are more susceptible to sleep deprivation than others, for example. People who have insomnia or other sleep disorders might be more likely to benefit from trying polyphasic cycles.
There are several reasons polyphasic sleep is so popular. These advantages are tempting at a time when most people feel that there aren’t enough hours in each day.
- More free time: The primary goal of most polyphasic sleepers is to be awake for more hours each day. This time can be spent working, exercising, spending time with family, and more. Having a few extra hours can make it easier to create a healthy work-life balance.
- Increased sleep quality: This type of sleep focuses on quality over quantity. By skipping the first stages of sleep, you may be able to spend more time in the REM and slow-wave phases. Spending more time in these stages can lead to improved creativity and memory.
- Useful for nontraditional schedules: Polyphasic sleep might be an effective option for people who can’t sleep for eight hours each night. For example, people who work overnight shifts or are in the military use it to avoid sleep disorders.
- Increased creativity: Many adherents to this practice believe that it leads to a higher degree of creativity. REM sleep is linked to creativity, and polyphasic sleepers enter the REM stage faster. They may also spend more time in REM sleep since they skip the lighter stages.
Most people are intrigued by the idea of sleeping more efficiently and having more time during the day. Unfortunately, there are some significant disadvantages to polyphasic sleep. If you plan to try it, be aware of the possibility of these negative results.
- Risk of chronic sleep deprivation: Particularly with Dymaxion, Uberman, and the stricter forms of Everyman, there is a significant risk of sleep deprivation. Insufficient sleep can lead to several health issues. People who drive while deprived of sleep are much more likely to be involved in accidents.
- Effects on hormones: Studies show that reduced sleep can affect the release of hormones such as leptin and ghrelin. These hormones regulate functions like heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. As a result, interrupted slumber is linked to health risks, from diabetes to heart disease.
- Social impacts: Since most people only sleep at night, other sleep schedules can interfere with social obligations. Sleep cycles that require naps throughout the day are difficult to maintain when working a nine-to-five job.
- Difficult transition: Even for people who experience success with polyphasic sleep, the adjustment period can be tough.
Our Final Thoughts On Polyphasic Sleep
For most people who want to try implementing a polyphasic sleep schedule, a biphasic cycle is the safest bet. Remember that each person’s sleep requirements are different, and what works for you might not work for someone else.
If you decide to try Everyman, Dymaxion, or Uberman, keep an eye out for the effects of sleep deprivation. These schedules are likely to work only for people who naturally need less sleep than others. Even then, the risks may outweigh the possible benefits.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Is polyphasic sleep safe?
This sleeping habit seems to work for some. However, the people who see the most success might be those who already need less sleep.
There aren’t enough studies on this type of sleep to show that it can be practiced safely in the long term. We do know that getting enough sleep is a crucial aspect of health. For this reason, many medical professionals recommend monophasic sleep.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.