Polyphasic Sleep


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During highschool, there was a period of time when adopting a polyphasic sleep schedule was of extreme interest to me. Polyphasic sleep is when a person's sleep periods are divided over the day, into anywhere from 2 sessions to 6. At the extreme end of things, a person could take six 20 minute naps a day for a total of 2 hours' sleep time per day (this is called the Uberman schedule).

Most of us are monophasic sleepers, with a large 7-9 hour block of sleep each night, but many cultures around the world can be biphasic sleepers, including a "siesta" or nap around mid-day. 

sleepy puppy.jpg

Now that I'm in college with an extremely flexible schedule and a never-ending need for time, polyphasic sleeping is looking even more appealing. 

According to livescience.com, we are biologically biphasic sleepers. The mid-day slump most of us go through each day (mine is always around 2 or 3pm), with its dip in alertness, is what brought about the creation of siestas in the first place. Research from the University of California, Berkeley, supports this. In their study, a group of nappers who took a 90 minute nap at 2pm were compared to a non-nap group in two rigorous learning tasks. Before the nap, both groups performed comparably equally. After the nap however, there was a 40% difference in performance between nappers and non-nappers. Berkeley's researchers contribute this difference to long waking periods inhibiting learning capacity and our ability to store memories. In essence, around 2pm most of us need to "reboot." Sleep "rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness" says Matthew Walker, assistant professor of psychology at Berkeley and lead investigator of these studies.

Even historic sources point to a natural tendency human beings have to non-monophasic sleeping. In the same article, sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs says "Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology." In this case, he's speaking of 2 hours of wakefulness sandwiched between two 4 hour blocks of sleep.

Apart from evidence supporting biphasic sleep in many forms, polyphasic sleep, specifically the Uberman and Everyman schedules, have yet to be investigated thoroughly by science. They have, however, been thoroughly tested and reported upon by throngs of bloggers and forum-goers. Specifically, a blogger named Steve Pavlina did 5.5 months of the Uberman schedule and recorded personal data which he reported in his blog. At the end of the 5 months, the return to monophasic sleeping was not due to health concerns, but due to the social pressures of living on a seperate rhythm from the rest of the world. A google search of other bloggers easily turns up more people who have successfully, though temporarily, changed their sleep schedules to those of the lesser-researched polyphasic sleep schedules.



Dr. Stampi, above, is one of the only researchers researching the polyphasic sleep schedules of many internet "n=1 experiments." Dr. Stampi has also researched sailors and soldiers, who have adopted these sleep schedules out of necessity. He has found that while these schedules can temporarily work, long-term sleep deprivation is definitely an issue. Biphasic sleep, he agrees, is most natural for human beings.

All in all, there's still very little scientific research and empirical evidence to examine and assess potential risks of polyphasic sleeping and negative outcomes. Polyphasic sleep has a wealth of anecdotal evidence, but whatever inferences we can make about the success of a polyphasic sleep schedule from them would remain weak. The conclusion I've reached is that polyphasic sleep may be a tool to save for a very busy semester, and that taking naps should maybe be more of a priority for me than worrying about getting my 8 hours each night.


2 Comments

This is a really interesting topic! And for some reason led me to think about it in the same way as breaks within the school year. It's kind of comparable though isn't it? We go from having a large 3 to 4 month break between May and August when we do absolutely no school work and have no academic obligations to cramming 8-9 months of work 5 days and week with loads of homework on the weekends. It's kind of like our sleeping schedule, we relax and sleep for 7-9 hours at night and the other 15-17 hours of the day we're on the go. The ratios just don't make sense. Perhaps we would all be extremely more efficient if we had designated nap times to recharge. And then, we wouldn't sleep for such long durations at night and we could be productive not only during the day but at night too. Hypothetically it makes sense, and would probably make a world of difference in the productivity and overall happiness of most people, but like most things is improbable. Adopting a new, universal sleep schedule would disrupt working hours, meal planning, and overall lifestyles.

I found this article really interesting because it was so applicable to me as a college student. I know that my schedule allows for the perfect 2 hour nap every afternoon (assuming I don't have anything to study for). Though following a polyphasic sleep schedule may not be sensible for the average person, I think the benefits of napping are important to note. I always wonder if it's better to stay up later studying and supplement a not-so-good night's sleep with a nap or to just get 8 hours and skip the nap all together. Your blog definitely provides answers to that question.
On a side note, I found it interesting how many people wrote blogs about getting enough sleep. Alexandra wrote about getting too much sleep. I wonder if napping can lead to too much sleeping or if the Uberman schedule avoids these issues.

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