Disrupted Slumber: Can We Really Hack Sleep?
“A well spent day brings happy sleep” — Leonardo da Vinci
Everybody I know is trying to hack or disrupt something. My friend who interns in the fashion closet at a magazine is trying to green-juice her way to health. My roommate, a software developer, tracks every step he takes with a smartwatch. I co-founded Casper, a sleep startup that launched with a universally comfortable mattress this spring. So I thought: Why not hack sleep?
Actually, my team dared me to try it. Our CTO sent everyone a link to a Wikipedia article about polyphasic sleep, dared someone to take one for the team, and no one else was brave enough to accept the challenge.
Polyphasic sleep isn’t new. Some say that Leonardo da Vinci, the ultimate hacker, invented it. Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon and Thomas Edison were all said to be polyphasic sleepers. Buckminster Fuller wished that national leaders would embrace it; he was certain it would have shortened World War II.
I planned to follow the Uberman Sleep Schedule. I would sleep for only 20 minutes every four hours, for a grand total of two hours of sleep daily. Supposedly, that’s all the sleep you need. Supposedly, your body adjusts. You can have 22 productive hours a day … supposedly. As someone obsessed with efficiency, I thought, why not try to hack it?
Kramer tried it on “Seinfeld,” but even he wasn’t nuts enough to make it work.
When you sleep, your body passes through four stages in every 90-minute sleep cycle. Stage one is a light sleep, bridging the gap from wakefulness to sleep. In stage two, your breathing and heart rate are regular, but your body temperature drops. Stage three is Slow Wave sleep, when your body repairs and regenerates tissue and bone, and strengthens your immune system. Finally, you enter the fourth stage of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when you convert short-term memory to long-term, and of course, dream.
The basic idea behind the Uberman Sleep Schedule is that you can train yourself to skip the early stages of sleep and head straight into REM. Uberman practitioners think that REM is the only important sleep stage, and that 65 percent of sleep is a waste of time. All you need is a quick dream, and you wake up feeling refreshed. I didn’t need much convincing — and to be honest, I’ve tried things based on less research.
Dr. Claudio Stampi of the Chronobiology Research Institute in Massachusetts has studied polyphasic sleep for years. His research pointed him to an interesting conclusion: “Sleep-deprived humans are better off snoozing like most animals — in brief, precisely timed naps.” Because sleep charges your batteries more at the beginning of the sleep cycle than at the end, frequent naps can effectively hack sleep.
Researchers like Stampi theorize that until about 10,000 years ago, humans were mostly polyphasic sleepers. We were too worried that we would be attacked by large prehistoric animals to sleep through the night. Then we created spears, found shelter in caves and started sleeping for longer stretches of time.
Up until the Industrial Revolution, we were biphasic sleepers, falling asleep early, waking around midnight for an hour or two, then going back to bed until morning. Robert Louis Stevenson, in “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes,” writes about the “one stirring hour unknown to those who dwell in houses, when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet.”
With the advent of artificial light and comfortable beds, we transitioned to our monophasic, eight-hour norm. Now, at the flip of a switch, we can stay up late for hours, permanently altering our circadian rhythms — perhaps even our genes.
There are people trying to disrupt their circadian rhythms even further. These are the modern polyphasic sleepers — crazy enough to think they only need two hours of sleep. I was one of them last night.
The Uberman Sleep Schedule is not new, but its name may be. A user on Everything2.com is credited with coining the term in December 2000. “I was a philosophy major at the time,” she wrote, under the name PureDoxyK. “And the friend I did this with had just finished forcing me to read a bunch of Nietzsche. So we called it the Uberman’s Sleep Schedule as a hat-tip.”
PureDoxyK and a blogger named Steve Pavlina are probably the two most successful polyphasic sleepers in recent history, each maintaining the Uberman schedule for about six months. Both of them are, for lack of a better word, nuts.
Pavlina carefully tracked his sleep for months. On day one, he experienced “some fatigue, lower concentration and occasional sleepiness,” but was relatively fine. By day eight, he said his naps felt like “taking care of a recurring biological need,” like “the urge to go to the bathroom.” Three months later, his brain sort of felt like it was “soaking in a warm jacuzzi.” Sometimes, he felt “so terrific” that he thought he “might explode from holding too much energy inside.”
PureDoxyK wrote that she “felt like a million bucks,” and continued to feel that way for six more months.
Polyphasic sleepers train their brains to skip directly to REM. Instead of the normal sleep cycle, their brains head straight to stage four, skipping the regenerative Slow Wave. According to some who have tried it, you only have to suffer through about a week of sleep deprivation until your brain catches up, adjusting to your new schedule and jumping to REM when your head hits the pillow.
This isn’t as insane as it sounds. In 1991, Stampi tracked one man as he slept for 30 minutes every four hours for 49 days. After 12 days, the man’s REM sleep was normal, but his brain got there far quicker than it had previously. It only took a few minutes from sleep onset, instead of the typical 90 minutes. Stampi proclaimed, “the whole architecture of sleep is changed.”
Our sleep architecture — the repeating sleep cycles — may be physiologically intended to take longer than necessary. If the night was dangerous for early humans, we may have adapted to stay asleep longer than we needed for memory consolidation, in order to stay out of harm’s way.
And while the night isn’t quite so dangerous anymore, polyphasic sleepers may be doing themselves a physical disservice by staying awake for 22 hours a day. According to a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, disrupting the circadian rhythm can be “carcinogenic to humans.” It can also hurt the immune system and lead to high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity.
Miraculously, health problems don’t seem to be the reason why people stop sleeping polyphasically. PureDoxyK stopped because she got a full-time job that wouldn’t let her take naps every four hours. Steve Pavlina wrote that the “#1 reason I decided to call it quits” was simply because the rest of the world is monophasic. They both make it very clear that they never got sick during their sleep experiments. Pavlina never even had a cold.
Dr. Piotr Wozniak puts it best:”Whoever claims to be on a perpetual polyphasic schedule must be either suffering from a sleep disorder, or be a liar, or a mutant.” PureDoxyK and Pavlina say they don’t suffer from sleep disorders, and while they might be liars, the most likely explanation for their success is a genetic mutation. In other words, they’re sleep freaks.
As for my own experiment with polyphasic sleep, it’s clear that I’m not a mutant. I only lasted one day — and felt like a zombie. I even tried sleeping with my brand-new sleep-induction mat, which claims to relax and help you sleep deeper.
It turns out that I love sleep. I love lying in bed after a long day at the office. I love the way I feel after completing at least five full 90-minute sleep cycles. Sleep is one of the great pleasures of life, one that polyphasics forgo in favor of 22 hours of productive wakefulness. As for me, I relish that pleasure. I would rather have 16 hours with my eyes open and use them well, so I can get back to that “happy sleep” that da Vinci talked about.