We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little lives are rounded with sleep.
-William Shakespeare, The Tempest.
Do you have the sort of scumbag brain that says: “Hey it’s 1 am in the morning… maybe now’s a good time to contemplate the infinite beauty of the universe.”
Then you can probably empathise when I say that I have a bit of an insomnia problem.
I’ve always chalked my intermittent bouts of insomnia down to my adherence to the writer’s diet (Staples: caffeine, nicotine and the tears of frustrated copy editors), or my brain’s aforementioned nocturnal tendencies.
What I didn’t do until a few months ago was to read up on the literature about sleep cycles and maximizing the quality of one’s sleep.When I did – after a week-long wrestle with sleeplessness – my research led me down the rabbit hole of theories known as polyphasic sleep, and the bizarre, burgeoning subculture that’s sprung up around it.
Which is why I’m typing this while I’m – more or less – awake at 4:50am on a Thursday morning.
We take for granted that humans sleep for 8 hours during the night. But apparently, this is a development that came about with industrialisation and the invention of the lightbulb.
As recently as the 1800s, it was common for our ancestors to sleep for 3-4 hour periods, wake up for several hours in the middle of the night, and then sleep again until morning. Apparently, our forefathers used that period of wakefulness to talk to their family, pray and get up to visit their neighbors.
I’m pretty sure that ‘pray’ is an euphemism for having hot sex.
The reference to ‘firste’ sleep even turns up in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If you studied literature in college, I apologise for bringing up the source of your undergraduate PTSD.
These aren’t just the quaint habits from our not-so-distant past: Studies have shown that humans naturally gravitate towards a biphasic sleep pattern when subject to natural patterns of light and darkness. And we all know about the Spanish tradition of the siesta, or midday nap.
Polyphasic sleepers, however, advocate a more radical belief: namely, that an individual can minimize – or even do away completely – with that long, sustained block of sleep.
In a nutshell, the most crucial phase of sleep is known as REM, or Rapid Eye Movement. Regular people sleep for 8 hours a night, with about 2 hours of REM. Polyphasic sleepers believe that you can shave off the ‘unnecessary’ amount of time one spends comatose.
This is done with 15 minute naps at regular intervals in the day time. The most daunting of polyphasic schedules, the Uberman sleep cycle, relegates sleep to just 15 minute naps every 2 hour interval.
No Rest For The Weary
Disclaimer: The author’s documentation in this section of the article is purely experiential. There have been numerous cases that have highlighted the hazards of sleep deprivation.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an advocate of the polyphasic schedule. It sounds suspiciously like pseudo-science, the kind of wishful thinking that gave us juice cleanses and Paleo diets. And there are warning about how a lack of sleep can lead to a decrease in optimal creativity and problem solving.
But I’m a glutton for cruel and unusual punishment. Particularly new forms of punishment.
As Sir Terry Pratchett once put it: “Some humans would do anything to see if it was possible to do it. If you put a large switch in a cave somewhere, with a sign saying ‘End-Of-The-World switch. PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH’, the paint wouldn’t even have time to dry.”
If nothing else, I told myself that the experiment would be the ultimate lesson in empathy with those who’ve suffered from truly severe cases of insomnia.
Self-deprecation aside, there’s a deeper allure behind my human guinea pig attempt at a polyphasic schedule. In a world where the global economy is transitioning towards what’s being termed as a gig economy, the idea of customizing one’s sleep cycle carries an inherent appeal.
It’s a tantalizing-sounding goal when you think about it: Who wouldn’t want extra hours a day to explore a new city or finish the Sisyphean task of replying emails.
Despite the mystique surrounding the Uberman schedule, there are polyphasic schedules that seem less taxing on paper:
6 hours of sleep, one 15 minute nap.
Everyman Schedule 1:
4 hours of sleep from 12am-4am, two 20 minute naps.
Everyman Schedule 2:
3 hours of sleep, three 20 minute naps.
Four 30 minute naps every 6 hours.
Six 20 minute naps every 4 hours.
Even the most modest of these schedules, the siesta, would hypothetically allow an individual to shave 1.5 hours off nocturnal sleeping time. The most infamous of these, the Uberman schedule, would hypothetically allow someone to add 180 hours – the equivalent of a week of time- to every month. Or probably turn them into hallucinating mouth-breathers.
I decided against attempting the Uberman Schedule due to the following reasons:
- Apparently, it is fiendishly difficult, if not downright impossible, to adapt to an Uberman schedule without assistance from someone else.
- The mental image of doing my best Sleeping Beauty impression in front of a scandalized client is something I’d like to avoid in real life. Some of my work is dull, but none of it is that boring.
- Strict adherence to a 15 minute nap every 2 hours sounds highly impractical if you:
a) run around a lot
b) value flexibility
c) have any friends
I started my experiment with the Everyman Schedule, which is, perhaps, not that unfamiliar to someone who occasionally suffers from insomnia. For me, this worked out to a sustained period of sleep from 12 to 4am, followed by a 20 minute nap mid-morning, and another in the late afternoon.
There’re a ton of blog posts on the Internet where you can read about the tribulations of people adapting to a polyphasic schedule; I won’t bore you with the monotony of a day-to-day account. Like many others, I experienced sleep deprivation, and problems falling asleep during stipulated nap times.
Unlike most of those who have tried the schedule, I didn’t make any changes to my current lifestyle choices, which includes imbibing an unhealthy dose of caffeine, and smoking like a chimney. Which perhaps explains my aforementioned difficulties napping.
By the 3rd day, I found myself almost growing accustomed to the low concentration and time dilation, punctuated with brief moments of bright-edged clarity. I find myself feeling less alert, more prone to making surreal typos (or ‘teepees’, as this original sentence read in an earlier draft) from having to dictate to myself to fully concentrate.
There are short spells where visual sensory details – the afternoon light, the colour of leaves – feel more intense; other moments feel dull and out-of-focus.
It’s a side effect of sleep deprivation that I’m familiar with: It leads to entertaining results for a writer, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who drives regularly, or works with heavy machinery.
On Day 4, my afternoon naps yielded a vivid, recurring dream wherein I visit a strange cafe, housed in a subterranean cavern. The baristas had the leathery wings of bats sprouting from their back, and the cafe was illuminated by the constellation of lights emanated by slow-moving fireflies.
Vivid dream states aside, I can see the allure behind the deliberate wakefulness of polyphasic schedules. I’ve never been a morning person, and there’s something mildly intoxicating about waking up when it’s still dark, and feeling a sense of control over the profound silence that the sleepless are familiar with, that only seems to come around in the dark hours of the morning.
An extra 3 hours makes the day stretch forward like a horizon; I can’t imagine what those on an Uberman schedule would do with all the extra time on their hands.
It’s now Day 5 of my attempt to cheat sleep. Apparently, the body takes anywhere from two weeks to a full month to fully adapt. At this moment, I feel truly awake, but we’ll have to see how long that lasts.