Sleep and I have a love-hate relationship. I love to sleep, but I hate it when I oversleep. I love to be well-rested, but I hate when I have to go to sleep just as I begin to get some work done. May the reasons for my sleep issues lie with the traditional sleep cycle that I was taught as a child? Could there be a better way to sleep other than the singular 8-hour sleep that I’ve used all my life?
To start, there are three main types of sleep cycles: monophasic, biphasic, and polyphasic. Monophasic sleepers usually sleep between 7-9 hours a day during their one sleep. Biphasic sleepers usually sleep around 6-8 hours, having two 3-4 hour sleeps a day. Finally, and most controversially, polyphasic sleepers can, allegedly, sleep as little as 2-4 hours a day on certain sleep cycles that require several separate naps. Of course, you are probably wondering how such a promise could be kept. The theory about polyphasic sleep cycles is based on the idea that taking short naps can trick our brains into entering REM sleep faster than it would with one long sleep. REM sleep is the most important part of sleeping, so to reduce the other parts of sleep, we might be able to condense the entire process into a much shorter amount of time with no problems, in theory. This infographic from Dreams, a United Kingdom bed retailer and manufacturer, does a great job of spelling it all out but is too large to put in this blog.
The two most popular examples of polyphasic sleep cycles are the Uberman, a cycle that requires six 20-30 minute naps a day; and the Everyman, which requires one long “core” sleep along with 3-5 shorter naps a day. These two polyphasic cycles have been given quite of bite of attention online due to their promise of an increase in waking hours with no adverse side-effects, and if you go on Youtube and search for either you are sure to find videos documenting many peoples’ attempts to try and make these sleep cycles work. The key word is “attempts.” People who attempt to switch to a polyphasic sleep cycle often have a two week period of struggle known to the internet community as the “adaptation period.” Many, such as this poor bloke, fail to apply either the Uberman or the Everyman past this period and end up returning to monophasic.
Some, though, do make it through to the other side and these people could not be happier. This go-getter, whose YouTube channel is suitably called BeYourPotential, is just the type of motivated, young person who might want to make something like polyphasic sleep work. He did, in fact, make it work for thirty days, but eventually fell off the boat once he accidentally drank some caffeine and missed a nap, throwing off his entire sleep schedule. Many others online say that they made polyphasic sleep work for them, but could not continue due to the contrast between their schedules and the rest of the world. Even if polyphasic is more efficient, it certainly is not realistic.
But could a polyphasic sleep cycle be more natural for humans than monophasis or biphasic? Many animals are polyphasic, and even human babies sleep with a polyphasic cycle before they eventually conform to the rest of the world. But how could it be more natural when so many on the internet have such a difficult time adapting to it? Surely our bodies would be quicker to reform if our current monophasic cycles were really that bad for us. Scientist and researcher Thomas Wehr authored a paper on an experiment in which subjects were exposed to sixteen and ten hours of light a day. Wehr found that as the amount of light was reduced, subjects began to sleep in biphasic cycles with about one to three hours in between the sleeps. Could the true, natural sleep cycle for humans be the less controversial biphasic sleep cycle instead of the Uberman or the Everyman? Some Hispanic countries have even made biphasic sleep a part of their culture, incorporating a daily siesta after a mid-day meal. Interestingly, a resource from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School tells us that “Afternoon naptime typically coincides with a brief lag in the body’s internal alerting signal.” This signal helps to offset the body’s drive for sleep, and its sudden drop off may be a sign from our body telling us that we need a rest.
Some people, known as short-sleepers, do not need and afternoon nap and barely even need sleep at all. According to Ying-Hui Fu, a professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, these short-sleepers need only about six hours a sleep a day and tend to be much more ambitious and energetic than the average person. A paper published in Science in 2009 by Fu revealed that people you are qualify as short-sleepers have a mutation in the gene known as DEC2 that makes them require less sleep than the rest of us. Making up about one-percent of the population, these super-humans could probably pull of polyphasic sleep better than the average person because of the decreased effects of sleep deprivation that they would experience. I’m pretty jealous.
The worst part about this is that we don’t really have a chance to try out the more complex sleep cycles because we, as college students, have hectic schedules that are constantly changing. When taking on something like the Uberman, one missed nap can completely ruin everything. Regardless, it is known that a large number of the world’s greatest geniuses have tried polyphasic sleep at one time or another. Somehow the likes of Nikola Tesla and Leonardo Da Vinci made such rigorous schedules work for them. Just know that before you try any of this for yourself, you should talk to your doctor about the risks and dangers that sleep deprivation can cause to you. If you are not in peak physical condition there is a large chance that the consequences may be much worse than being a little sleepy. Stay safe, and thanks for reading.