The Power Sleep Program

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Polyphasic Sleep

03.14.10 | 1 Comment

“Polyphasic Sleep” refers to the practice of sleeping multiples times a day, usually with the goal of reducing total sleep time.

The original idea was that perhaps by splitting up the 8-hour chunk of nighttime sleep into smaller segments distributed throughout the day we can make sleep more efficient and thus require less than 8 hours.

In recent years, polyphasic sleep has evolved into a nearly cult-like, underground, and mostly online community.

So it’s no surprise that the most common question I receive by email is:

Dear Jeff,

What do you think of polyphasic sleep?

In this post, I will answer that question.

Personally, I am a strong supporter of napping. Every afternoon I lie down for 20 minutes with headphones — this is my meditation session, in which actual sleep may or may not occur (I prefer not to stress about it). This has been one of my best habits in terms of general well-being and creativity.

With that said, “polyphasic sleep” is a completely different beast. Here’s a quick intro for the unacquainted. You choose a particular polyphasic schedule with strict nap times and durations, usually amounting to 2-4 hours of sleep total per day. You then dive in to the schedule. Finally, if you are lucky enough to have the willpower of the gods, you make it successfully through the “adaptation phase” and emerge on the other side with a few extra hours of wake time per day. Presumably, this is also when you would patronize your silly monophasic friends.

The online polyphasic community has somehow agreed upon a set of canonical sleep schedules: “Uberman”, “Everyman”, “Dymaxion”, and “Biphasic”.

This is how "normal" people sleep. 8 hours a night.

20 minute naps every 4 hours. Total sleep time: 2 hours.

A "core" sleep with a few 20 minute naps throughout the day.

See Time Magazine's 1943 article on "Dymaxion Sleep" by clicking the image.

The above schedules are roughly based on concepts of ultradian rhythms, and perhaps influenced by some of the original research experiments on polyphasic sleep. But throughout my sparse online exploration of the polyphasic community, I can’t help but think that these schedules are more arbitrarily defined and memetically agreed upon by the hive-mind than they are robust representations of something inherent in our human physiology.

Nevertheless, let’s get into the basic questions prospective polyphasers are likely to ask:

Is polyphasic sleep more “natural” than monophasic sleep?

Perhaps it is. Most (or all?) species in the animal kingdom are polyphasic sleepers. Human infants are naturally polyphasic before their sleep schedules consolidate to a monophasic pattern.

More interesting is that some modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes tend to be polyphasic. The Pirahã people, for example, reportedly…

take naps of 15 minutes to two hours at the extremes throughout the day and night, and rarely sleep through the night

-Wikipedia.org, or see this (excellent) book

Nevertheless, such hunter-gatherer tribes did not sleep in strict “Uberman” patterns. Also, they presumably did not have to go through an adaptation period.

I think the lesson here is that monophasic sleep is not necessarily the canonical, standard, or “right” way for all humans to sleep. To me, this says there seems to be some fluidity with how we decide our sleep patterns.

Does polyphasic sleep cause long term effects on health?

Unfortunately, this is an unanswerable question. It probably depends. It appears that Buckminster Fuller lived a long, healthy life of which two years were on a polyphasic regime — but that’s not a guarantee of anything (some people live long, healthy lives as smokers).

It would help to know just how “natural” or “unnatural” polyphasic sleep is. I think if you lived outdoors in a hunter-gatherer tribe and effortlessly fell into a polyphasic sleep pattern — then you’d probably be OK health-wise.

But few of these online polyphasic bloggers fall into their patterns effortlessly. Given that “adaptation” is such a struggle (and given that most people fail at adapting), I can’t help but think there’s something inherently unnatural about how these people are going about the practice.

My heuristic approach is to consider the human body as a complex, well-designed system, just like a Boeing 747. In most complex systems, random changes to the status quo tend to be destructive. Making random changes to an airplane design is most likely going to degrade its ability to fly or at least have a neutral effect. Only in rare cases would a random change be beneficial to its function.

This is the general idea behind my concept of health. Changes to our evolutionary status quo – like adopting agriculture — are more likely to do harm than good. Given that polyphasic sleep (in the Uberman sense) requires so much effort, it seems more likely that such a perturbation would have negative, rather than positive, consequences. Perhaps the effects are subtle or even inconsistent from one person to the next — but do know that, given the limited research on the problem, there is some risk involved.

Are there polyphasic sleep studies or published research?

Yes. The best resource for polyphasic sleep research is in Claudio Stampi’s book Why We Nap. You can download a pdf copy from the SleepWarrior website here.

Is polyphasic sleep worth attempting?

That depends on who you ask. In my opinion: no.

The polyphasic sleep alternative:

Here’s a better alternative.

Instead of potentially wasting several weeks of your life as a zombie, why not first focus on improving your monophasic sleep?

The whole purpose of this website is to show people how lifestyle habits can have a drastic effect on the quality of our sleep.

I’ve added several hours of productivity to my day just by learning how to obtain “power” sleep. I’ve decreased my natural sleep time (I tend to wake up before the alarm) by about 2 hours — all while mostly monophasic (if you don’t count afternoon power naps).

I recommend starting there. 

You’re more likely to add hours to your day by improving the quality of monophasic sleep than you are by sloppily adopting a bizarre polyphasic pattern.

If you’re absolutely sold on the idea of polyphasic sleep, or if you have your ego so tied up in the idea of successfully making it past the adaptation ritual, then by all means go for it — but wait until you start getting real results in your monophasic sleep first.

So if you’re new to this website, and you want a general guide on improving sleep, then start with the ebook I wrote: 40 Sleep Hacks: The Geek’s Guide to Optimizing Sleep.

It’s free.

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