Or: How I cured my insomnia by sleeping less
What is it?
Polyphasic sleeping is, as the name implies, sleeping more than one time per day. However, we find, in practice, that polyphasic sleep is significantly more complex than that. There are several recognized sleep patterns to which the term has been commonly applied, the best known of which are Uberman, Dymaxion and, simply, catnapping.
Uberman, the subject of this study, is sleeping six times per day, approximately 20 minutes at a time. On Uberman you end up sleeping for about two hours out of every 24 hour period. This schedule is alleged to have been practiced, at times, by personages such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and numerous long distance sailboat racers (who use it as a matter of time efficiency when racing for months at a time, an extra six hours per day makes a huge difference). Dymaxion sleep, founded by the late inventor Buckminster Fuller, entails sleeping four times per day approximately 30 minutes at a time.
I was on a modified Uberman sleep schedule from February 22, 2006 through June 9, 2006.
Note: I have changed the times, the original article stated Uberman as six thirties and Dymaxion as four forty fives, it was pointed out to me that these were not in accordance with the accepted naming conventions.
This is the big question. The obvious answer is time savings, of course, as sleeping only two to three hours per day adds so much more available time to a person’s schedule. And now you can catch up on all that television you’ve been meaning to get to, yes? No.
Not for me at any rate.
Through the time frame of December 2005 through mid February 2006 I had been going through a horrific state of chronic insomnia. I would sleep roughly 3 to 4 hours daily and then could not get back to sleep for the remainder of the day. Once every week or two I would crash hard and sleep for ten to 14 straight hours, and then, next day, straight back into the 3 to 4 hour thing. A few months of that crap will knock you on your ass.
Then I received an e-mail from Derek, the founder of CDBaby.com and happened to click open a motivational article on StevePavlina.com. While reading through this I noticed a link to an article on sleep and figured I should read it, since I’d had so much trouble with it lately.
Well, I read the article and it put me into the single most profound change I have gone through in life-polyphasic sleeping. I saw this as a possible way to overcome my insomnia. I figured worst case scenario I lose some sleep. That wouldn’t mean a thing to me at that point as losing sleep had become a way of life for me.
Plus, it’s really weird, and if something really weird is happening, I want it to be happening to me.
Most polyphasic sleepers that post to the internet have chosen to write up their information in diary or blog format. One thing I learned about myself while doing this is that I hate keeping a diary. So if that’s what you want, tough. Actually Steve Pavlina has kept the most accurate polyphasic sleep logs that I have seen and I would fully suggest that you read them by clicking here, here or, if you prefer, here (But not here, won’t do a thing for you).
The process works like this.
On day one of the new schedule you start taking your naps, I chose to set my alarm for 25 minutes (Based on the Pavlina model). I also set a safety alarm for 27 minutes, just in case. You continue this and with the short naps you never get to R.E.M. sleep. Once you get to your first subjective night (the time when you would normally sleep, for me this was 6 am to 2 pm) you start to feel sleep deprived. This is where the adaptation becomes difficult as you must force yourself to continue to take naps, instead of standard sleep, when your body is screaming at you to get some R.E.M. So you continue this through day two and into day three.
By day three you are pretty much of a useless lump of sleep deprivation. At this point I can tell that there would have been absolutely nothing, not food, not sex, not even guitars that would be more appealing than the idea of sleeping for about 18 straight hours. But if you do it, you will not be able to adapt.
Somewhere around here is where the major change occurs. Your body realizes that you are not getting R.E.M. but that you are sleeping on a regular schedule and so you start to automatically go into R.E.M. sleep as soon as you hit your nap. Now you’re polyphasic. But you are not out of the water yet because you have some serious catching up to do. It still requires the high level of will power that you have been already using.
Overall, adaptation takes somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to 15 days, the most difficult part being around days three to eight, depending on the person. I had the misfortune of contracting a cold at about day six and thus effectively extending my adaptation period out to nearly three weeks.
During this adaptation phase it is vitally important to stick very strictly to the schedule as you must train your body to accept the new schedule and become accustomed to the R.E.M. naps.
If you look around the internet (oh, this bastion of truth, which is the internet (yes, that was sarcasm)) you will find that a tremendous percentage of those who attempt polyphasic sleeping end in abject failure. The reason is simple: it is incredibly difficult. It is the single most profound and difficult thing I have intentionally put myself through. In fact when I compare it to quitting smoking it is as if the smoking cessation were a nonevent.
Once a person has gotten through the adaptation phase the schedule becomes fairly routine, I have found, however, that even though it is not difficult, the schedule does require a modicum of maintenance. If you start to get lazy (which I have done a couple of times) or you try to extend your nap intervals too far (which I have also done a few times), you will tend to slip into a longer sleep.
I would set two alarms one for 25 minutes and one for 27 as a safety net, though the second alarm was not necessary, I never had any trouble getting up to that first alarm, and in fact I often would wake before the alarm. On those naps which I woke before the alarm, which were usually accompanied by a memorable dream, I would feel the most refreshed.
There were a few times that I slept through a night, and I found that the occasional full night sleep was a nice “reboot” to the routine.
The mental adaptation is at least as, if not more, profound than the physical. Big time. It is very difficult to describe the psychological changes that occur with this, but let’s crunch some numbers.
The big thing, and the one that is most easily explained was the change in my perception of the passage of time. To start off, out of every 24 hour period I have at least 21, often 22, waking hours available to me. To add to that, every time I take a nap it feels as if I am sleeping for two or three hours. Multiply that by six naps and it is as though I am getting 12 to 18 hours of virtual sleep every day. Add the waking hours to the virtual sleep and each day feels like it has about 36 to 40 hours. I also never get to “reboot” by sleeping through the night, so the flow of one day to another is meaningless, it is like I am still on day one. Additionally, in the time that I did this, you probably went to bed about 110 times. I probably went to bed about 650 to 675 times.
Here’s another example. I had had a normal nap and woke up to my first alarm, I immediately fell back asleep for, as near as I can recreate, about 1 minute 10 seconds. When I woke from this I thought I had had a major oversleep, as it felt like I had slept for well over an extra hour, all because of one little minute. So I got up, and right away tried to piece together what had gone wrong. Of course, analytical thinking is not at it’s high point the first few seconds after waking, so I was suddenly shocked to hear my second alarm go off, followed shortly by my third, me being thrown for a major loop and taking another couple minutes to finally figure it out.
Polyphasic sleep is a great mind expansion tool, because of the changes to the way a person thinks on a very fundamental level. Time flows differently and you just view things differently. The passage of days becomes meaningless, you have more time, but it’s like the same day all the time. I never knew whether the other people around me were coming or going, I often did not know what day it was. I don’t know how to describe how it all seems to someone who hasn’t done it. It’s just very different, if you are the type of person who has trouble challenging your own beliefs, then you should stay very far away from this kind of thing.
My sleep history
A little more information about me that you may find useful or at least interesting.
I have always been a troubled sleeper. My earliest memories of sleep are of nightmares, and I have been plagued with nightmares through out my life. Also as a child I would commonly sleepwalk, the sleepwalking stopped around the onset of puberty. About that same time I found that I would tend to sleep better if I slept later, and began my journey to becoming a total night owl.
Twice, while in the military, scheduling needs (also known as: idiots in chain of command) necessitated that I stay awake for a period of slightly over 3 days, probably about 73 to 75 hours without sleep. It sucked, stay up for three days you’re and basically a useless piece of shit. Numerous times I stayed up two days, this had never affected me as much as other people. In fact there was a period of nearly two months, shortly after getting out of the military, that I slept only every second day, just to see if I could adapt to it. Didn’t work. It was, however, during this period that I learned that my creative output is greatly increased by sleep deprivation. See Whale, Widow and Floyd for examples of drawings that I have done on sleep deprivation. I’ve never understood why this would be the case, but it has happened too many times to deny it.
Basically, my sleep has always been pretty screwed up.
The other side
So, is polywollyphasic sleeping just all good times and fun? Well, there are a few negative aspects that I have found.
Almost immediately I noticed that my neck and back pains had all but completely disappeared. Initially this appealed to me by the logic that I was not in a lying posture for extended periods every night. Great, that’s awesome. Then it was pointed out to me that when people sleep their spinal column decompresses to the point that on waking a person can be up to an inch taller than when going to bed. This decompression is known to allow people to feel pain that they otherwise would not. As I am not fully decompressing my spine on a regular basis it may be that I am simply not feeling pain that is present. It is also of note that there seems to be no long term data on the effects of the spine not decompressing.
So I started to take measurements to find my fully compressed height, and then compared it to what it is after a standard nap, the difference being a little over a quarter inch. I also had the opportunity to measure myself after four and half hours of sleep and found a difference of about three quarters of an inch. There was a single time that I slept for about seven and a half hours and found the difference at that point to be close to one inch.
In the end, I was unable to detect any change in my overall height after the three and half months. So I was decompressing far more often than normal but not as much. I was spending less time horizontal but shorter intervals vertical. Is this good, is it bad, I don’t know. Do you?
Another item I noticed very soon after beginning was that my skin was very dry on polyphasic. It has been suggested that this could be a dietary consideration, as dietary needs change when adding an additional six waking hours on to your day. Unfortunately, I was unable to affect any change in this no matter the change I would make to my diet. I just don’t know what may have been the cause, but I know this: it made these fingers squeak a lot on my guitar strings which, my friends, is a damn problem, and if you don’t understand it, then you are not a musician, and it sucks to be you.
A very abstract feeling that I had throughout the experiment was that though I had no great desire for more sleep, I did have a very strong desire to just lie down. Where I would normally be horizontal for up to a third of my time, suddenly I was horizontal for only about one twelfth of my time. Sometimes I would just want to lie down. But that seemed to kind of defeat the purpose of polyphasic sleeping, and on the occasions that I gave in, it would often lead to an extra nap.
I did see a marked increase in what are called myclonic jerks. That is a muscular contraction, often enough to wake a person up, and usually interpreted as a falling sensation. While I saw that increase, I noticed that though I sometimes would have auditory sleep starts when monophasic, (a loud sound that seems to originate from deep within the skull, fairly common and apparently meaningless) I had none while ployphasic (I have had them again since going back to monophasic).
Dreams. Oh, dreams. This one could go either way, but for me, for whom nightmares are the norm, this was a negative. Polyphasic dreams are vivid, very vivid, and the two worst nightmares I ever had were during this time. I have had some bad dreams before, but these were so intense I would wake drenched in sweat, choking, and nearly screaming. Those dreams sucked. If you normally have good dreams, they would probably be even better, but for someone like me…woah.
In order to aid in my changed sleep schedule I made a few other changes to my lifestyle. The biggest of these changes was that I almost entirely removed red meat from my diet (I didn’t give up pepperoni pizza, it just seems unethical). I increased my fish and seafood intake slightly, and occasionally had a bit of chicken, but red meat was kept to an absolute minimum. The reason for this is that it has been demonstrated that because red meat requires greater digestive effort that with greater red meat intake a greater amount of sleep is required, it follows that when drastic sleep reduction would be aided by eating less meat. I have had three people hear about this experiment, and love the idea until they heard this part.
I also had no caffeine or alcohol at all during this time. I felt that caffeine would hinder my naps, and alcohol would be likely to extend them. But when I was done, oh, my friend, I had a cup of coffee that day and a glass of wine that night. (How crazy is that?)
Another change, which was very weird for me, was going barefoot. I normally would keep my shoes on unless I was getting in bed or getting in the water. I felt that keeping my feet wrapped in leather for as much as 22 hours a day, and only letting them air out for short periods would be detrimental. It was a small change, but it was there nonetheless, and took a while to get used to it.
Many polyphasic attempts are made with the idea of supplementing the regular naps with a nightly core sleep, usually of about three hours, to insure that all sleep phases are gotten to.
I experimented with core sleep and found that when I was on core sleep of any kind, my naps would almost always go through to the alarm, where when on a more strict Uberman schedule I would wake up before my alarm from more than half of my naps. These naps were always the most refreshing and so I preferred not to have the core sleep. I also believe that not all naps hit R.E.M. and it seems to me that the body ensures that all necessary sleep phases are achieved by putting the sleeper into whatever phase is needed at the time. I have no way to prove this, as I have no equipment at my disposal with which to measure sleep states, so this is pure conjecture.
It should be noted however that I have found an occasional core sleep, say once every two weeks or so, to be very refreshing and this seems beneficial.
My conclusion: daily core sleep is completely pointless and will likely lead you to excessive oversleeps, and poor quality naps.
As I was looking in to this I found that many people put forth the claim that polyphasic is a natural way to sleep and that in fact at times in history was the norm. I believe that this idea comes from a misinterpretation of statements made by other sources and from a great desire for this to work.
My conclusion, after having actually used this sleep schedule is that there is absolutely nothing about it that is normal or natural. While polyphasic, my sleep, though fully refreshing and adequate did seem to feel “synthetic,” for lack of better terminology. I don’t know how else to describe it.
Does it work?
I was polyphasic on the Uberman schedule for just over three and half months. As I stated, I did this to overcome my insomnia. It worked. Though adaptation was incredibly difficult, I have to say it worked, because ever since adaptation ended, I have not felt tired or sleep deprived. In fact I felt better on polyphasic sleep than I did before the chronic insomnia (note though, that I have always had difficulty sleeping).
Steve Pavlina was on Uberman for about five and half months, and chose to go back to monophasic to conform to family and social considerations. He considered it a complete success with many advantages.
However, it appears that Pavlina and I have had very atypical results, as stated earlier, most attempts end in failure long before even coming close to being adapted. I believe that most people fail primarily as a result of not planning out their adaptation phase. Additionally I feel that it is important to have a solid reason to do this. I did this to overcome a really bad case of insomnia, Pavlina did it primarily for posterity. It has been conjectured that Da Vinci would adapt to this type of schedule when he had time sensitive work to do (such as dissecting the rotting human corpses he had ripped off from the graveyard, you know, important, fun type stuff). The point is, if a person is going to attempt this, they need to give very serious consideration to why they would want to do it, to whether or not it would fit their lifestyle, and whether they have the will power to go through with it.
It seems to me that though polyphasic is a very useful tool, it is not, in fact, a reasonably good lifestyle. It appears that those to whom this is attributed have been known to do it at times, and not as a permanent schedule.
So does it work? Well yes, it can and does. Will it work for you, only one way to find out, but the odds are probably against it.
Right now I am monophasic again. Like Pavlina, I do not consider this a failure, I stopped, and went back monophasic, not making it through adaptation is failing, going mono again is just making a change.
I would like to go poly again just to find out what it is like to adapt the second time. My conjecture is that it will be much easier the second time, as my body knows how to get to R.E.M. sleep already. Only one way to find out. I’ll let you know if it happens.
Most likely I will get insomnia again, and let me tell you what, that happens, and I’m poly again. Since coming off polyphasic sleep I am sleeping better than I ever did before, no clue why that is, but I can’t deny it. If I do it again I think it would be interesting to try regularly eating red meat (after adaptation) to see how that affects things. I would imagine I could think of a few fun experiments to do.
Until then, maybe you should be listening to some good rock and roll.
Any questions or comments? Hit me up.