my foray into polyphasic sleeping

I was initially hoping to post a much longer entry much later, but unfortunately my self-experiment was very short-lived and so this is all there is to say.

How I discovered it

I heard about polyphasic sleeping the same way that I hear about most things – a Buzzfeed video. I then went down a dark tunnel of internet research.

What it is

For those of you who don’t know what polyphasic sleeping is, here is a quick run-down:

Most Western people are fixated on the adage that it is optimal to get 8 hours of sleep a day in one block of time. Polyphasic sleeping is spreading out your sleep into several smaller chunks of time, and ultimately decreasing your total sleep time by making yourself sleep more efficiently. Here are a few of the most common types of polyphasic sleeping:

chaseSleep
Source

The cons of polyphasic sleeping overwhelmed the pros. I’ve heard stories of a classmate’s brother who tried the Uberman schedule. He ended up getting constant nosebleeds and eventually had to go to the hospital. I wasn’t willing to mess myself up this much to satisfy a little curiosity. In addition, through my masterful internet research process, I wasn’t able to unearth many people who were able to 1) sustain polyphasic sleeping for more than a few months and 2) do so without side effects, such as abnormal weight gain. All the hype about polyphasic sleeping was mostly from people who were just starting it. There seemed to be no scientific evidence supporting it at all. Most website claimed that there were famous people who slept polyphasically like Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison and Nikolas Tesla, but the thing was that none of these famous people were still alive for me to judge whether they were living a happy and healthy lifestyle or not.

In the end, I decided I didn’t want to risk messing my body up just to satisfy a little curiosity.

Biphasic sleeping

In the Buzzfeed video, the doctor mentioned how many cultures do biphasic sleeping and how our bodies are actually wired to do so. Their definition of biphasic sleeping was going for 6 hours and then taking a 20 minute nap sometime throughout the day. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to make this habit conducive to my lifestyle, as I would most likely be having a 9-5 day and then be doing something afterwards. It would be too difficult to set aside a time every day to have that 20-minute nap.

Our natural sleep cycle

While doing research on biphasic sleeping, I noticed another sleep cycle that was less talked about but had more scientific backing. It was another form of biphasic sleeping, but involved sleeping for four hours at a time, waking up for one to two hours, and then sleeping again for another four hours. So you were essentially still getting that required 8 hours of sleep, just in two blocks instead of one. There were two main reasons behind this way of sleeping:

  • This is our natural sleep cycle. According to many articles, this specific type of biphasic sleeping was what all humans did before the invention of the lightbulb. When there wasn’t any artificial light, the days were shorter, and so people went to sleep earlier. There were historical references to “two sleeps” in old literature, which is how we discovered this historical phenomenon. In addition, when psychiatrist Thomas Wehr did an experiment where he shut people in darkness for 14 hours a day (how long natural darkness is). After people had paid off their sleep debt (the combined hours of missed sleep we have wracked up over the years), they started to go back to this historical sleep pattern.
  • Better sleep quality. Throughout the night, we’ll go through several cycles of sleep. At around four hours, this is when we enter into one of the lightest sleeps, which makes it very easy to wake up. I have actually noticed that I will wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, something which through my internet research I’ve realized is quite common. Instead of sitting in the darkness waiting to fall back asleep, it seems more sensible to get up and do something with this twilight time.
  • Boosts creativity. People who do sleep in four-hour blocks like this have commented that they are able to be the most creative in the middle of the night during those few hours. Whether this is because there are no distractions from the outside world (duh, everyone else is sleeping) or just because of the mental state our brain is in after having a few full cycles of sleep is unknown, but who doesn’t want to be more creative?

My experience with biphasic sleeping

After reading so much about it, I was really excited to try biphasic sleeping myself. I always want to be more creative and efficient when doing my work, and I really dug the whole “our natural rhythm” aspect. Also, I had found myself waking up in the middle of the night a lot lately, so I figured it would not be too much of a stretch to actually get up and do something with my time.

Before biphasic sleeping, my bedtime ritual was this. I always tried to get 8 hours of sleep, and I liked to give myself half an hour to fall asleep, so I would budget 8.5 hours in bed. I liked to turn off all electronics about an hour before I got into bed in order to prepare myself for sleep, and take the hour to wash my face, brush my teeth, settle into PJs, and read a book. Sometimes if there were menial tasks around the house that didn’t require electronics like ironing clothes, I would fit that into the hour too. So my schedule looked something like this:

10:00 pm all electronics off, prep for bed

11:00 pm sleep

7:30 am wake up

For my experiment, I decided that I would do four hours (or 4.5 including getting-to-sleep time) with a one-hour gap and then another four hours. The reason I decided against anything more than an hour was because I had to wake up at the same time the next day, and adding more hours meant that I would have to sleep even earlier. I figured that I could start out with one hour, and if necessary slowly increase it.

My modified schedule looked like this:

9:30 pm all electronics off, prep for bed

10:00 pm sleep

2:30 am wake up

3:30 am back to sleep

7:30 am wake up for real

For the hour gap I was awake I also steered away from electronics in order to make sure that I would be able to fall asleep immediately afterwards.

In conjunction with this biphasic sleeping experiment, I also decided to employ the help of an app I had discovered and thought was helpful: Sleep Cycle. It tracks your sleeping throughout the night in order to wake you up at the optimal time (when you are in a light sleep stage) so you can wake up feeling restful instead of cranky.

The effects

It was surprisingly easy to get up in the middle of the night – I wasn’t fighting to open my eyes. In fact, it was easier waking up the first time than the second time, which might have been an issue since the second time waking up was when I had to actually pull myself out of bed for work.

The first night, I wasn’t sure how my brain would be feeling, so I just scheduled reading. The next night I tried some light physical activity like folding laundry, and the night after I tried to do some creative writing. My brain felt really clear during that hour, but it was almost like that clearness you get when you’ve had to get up at 3am to go to the airport. I can’t say that I feel any enhanced creativity. I was a lot more calm than I usually am, but I also felt as if I was working more slowly. There was definitely no bursts of divine inspiration that I’d read about, which is a little disappointing.

During the day, I was fine. I never experienced that “jetlag” feeling that polyphasic sleepers they say they have to go through. I’d attribute that to the fact that what I was doing was the natural rhythm of my body, instead of artificially introducing a new circadian clock into my system.

What I really loved about having that hour in the middle of the night was that I never felt pressured to get anything done. Before this experiment, I’d had the “restful hour” before my sleep time in order to get ready for bed, but too often I would have to interrupt this time because there was some task that was just urgent enough for me to spent an extra ten minutes doing it. That ten minutes would sometimes stretch into the full hour, and I’d just have time to do a quick wipe of my face before heading off to bed. When that restful hour is in the middle of your two sleep blocks, there is no longer that lazy “getting-ready-for-bed” attitude that can seep into your alone time. I was free to do whatever I wanted that was just for me. Hell, I was so calm that I could meditate for an hour if I wanted to – something I would never be able to do an hour before bed.

Why I stopped

While my new sleep schedule was a pretty interesting experience, a week in I was already noticing the one glaring problem:

I couldn’t get myself out of bed.

And it wasn’t because I was tired – it was because I was just too lazy. My mind was awake, but my body just felt so warm in its cozy cocoon. I didn’t want to fall asleep, but I also didn’t want to flip open the covers and start being productive either. The last night before I gave up the experiment, I just lay in bed for the full hour, staring at the ceiling and trying to will myself to sit upright. I realized that while I might be able to do work, the fact that I didn’t have the motivation to get up would suck that hour right from my schedule. I might as well have been sleeping for 9.5 hours instead of 8.5 then.

Me now

Even though I’ve stopped sleeping in two blocks of time, I’ve kept up my use of the Sleep Cycle alarm to wake me up in the mornings. It’s super nice to wake up in a good mood, and also be able to flip through all the stats from your last night’s sleep to see what went on. I find it super satisfying to see how many times I hit the deep sleep stage, almost as if it’s an achievement.

What I learned from this experience?

“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” -Homer

 

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