Polyphasic Sleep Rants
April 6, 2012 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Whoever claims to be on a perpetual polyphasic schedule must be either suffering from a sleep disorder, or be a liar, a mutant, or a person with a mulishly stubborn iron-will that lets him plod through the daily torture of sleep deprivation
Polyphasic Sleep: Facts and Myths | Polyphasic Sleep: 5 Years Later!
posted by Foci for Analysis (40 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Worst X-Man ever.
posted by cmoj at 1:08 PM on April 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

Two of my close friends tried polyphasic sleep during their senior year of college, when they didn't have many academic obligations outside of writing their thesis. It was actually going really well for them, until they got sick (with one of the various colds or flus that thrives in the close quarters of college) and their body needed more than the 4 or so hours they were getting. Another issue seemed to be that their waking hours during their biphasic sleep hours didn't seem very productive at all - possibly less productive than sleep. They didn't seem to have the mental energy to actually work on their thesis, so they usually spent those hours watching TV, waiting for their next 45 minute block.

(Also, nothing kills a party quicker than "Feel free to stick around while I take a nap real quick, but keep the noise down.")
posted by muddgirl at 1:11 PM on April 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

A chronobiologist? That must be like a doctor... a doctor who... knows stuff about science and everything and also knows about time.
posted by XMLicious at 1:11 PM on April 6, 2012

Doctor When.
posted by aaronbeekay at 1:14 PM on April 6, 2012 [41 favorites]

Chronobiology primarily focuses on the study of circadian rhythms.
posted by Jernau at 1:16 PM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chronobiology sounds ripped right out a SciFi original movie.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:35 PM on April 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Oh my God. I've been "sleeping" like this for almost nine months, with the world's worst-sleeping baby, and I want to STAB EVERYTHING I SEE. ALL THE TIME. It's seriously the worst thing ever. Like, I understand why it's a form of actual torture.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:41 PM on April 6, 2012 [48 favorites]

This space/time needs an inspector!
posted by blue_beetle at 1:47 PM on April 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

That's actually a good point, Eyebrows McGee - who was the first person to look at sleep-deprived parents and think, "Hey, they seem to have it all! Lots of time to conquer the world without those wasted sleep hours!"

Both links are very fascnating and informative for me. For example, I didn't know that Stampi had developed polyphasic sleep not as a method to eke more hours out of a day, but merely to minimize the effects of necessary sleep deprivation.
posted by muddgirl at 1:51 PM on April 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I understand why it's a form of actual torture.

Solzhenitsyn gives the impression that sleep deprivation was really all it took to get anyone arrested by the NKVD to sign any kind of confession. I got the idea that anything else done to detainees was just sadism.
posted by thelonius at 1:53 PM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by the young rope-rider at 1:54 PM on April 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

They didn't seem to have the mental energy to actually work on their thesis, so they usually spent those hours watching TV, waiting for their next [nap]

So basically polyphasic sleep had no effect?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:59 PM on April 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Well, it was pretty amusing to watch them practically sleep-walking right after they were woken up from their 3am nap, but otherwise no, polyphasic sleep does not do anything that regular biphasic sleep deprivation doesn't do.
posted by muddgirl at 2:06 PM on April 6, 2012

When I said that my friend's polyphasic sleep experiment was going 'really well', I don't mean that they were experiencing enormous amounts of energy or productivity. I just meant that they seemed to be sticking to the schedule relatively easily.
posted by muddgirl at 2:09 PM on April 6, 2012

I also knew someone who tried this in college. After a couple weeks of him claiming that it was great, he was almost adjusted, it was almost working if only he hadn't had to shift that nap to accommodate a meeting, etc. while appearing increasingly sleep deprived and out of it, some of his friends kept him awake all day to return him to a monophasic sleep schedule for his own good.
posted by JiBB at 2:18 PM on April 6, 2012

Although a majority of westerners do not nap on a regular basis their alertness shows a slump in alertness in the middle of the subjective day.

So I'm guessing he wrote that sentence around 2PM?
posted by gurple at 2:24 PM on April 6, 2012 [12 favorites]

I tried polyphasic sleep once, kind of by accident. I've always been a "late night/sleep in" sort of person. Ages ago, I worked at a job that put me on an early morning schedule. My shift started at 5AM and ended at 2PM.

By the time I got home at 3 I was so exhausted I would sleep for several hours, then be up from 6-9PM, sleep another chunk, be up for a while, etc. Basically, forcing myself to get up at 4AM to go to work knocked my entire set of circadian rhythms into chaos.

After about two weeks of this, I was completely miserable. I felt like I was on the verge of a psychotic break, and I was probably right. I was sweaty all the time for no apparent reason. I started having visual distortions. Noises and smells seemed sharper than they should have. Irritable? Oh my yes.

I fully appreciated that quote from Fight Club about insomnia, "you're never fully awake, and you're never fully asleep."

On my third weekend of the shift, I decided it was time to Seriously Fix This Before I Die In A Car Wreck. I bought a bunch of Benadryl (a.k.a. "the exact ingredients as Unisom but way cheaper") and drugged myself into a somewhat normal sleep schedule. Which I was then able to somewhat follow for the next month, until I was able to swap shifts with another employee.

New parents: I am so sorry. I don't have kids, but I've led that sleep deprived life. It is TERRIFYING.
posted by ErikaB at 2:41 PM on April 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah I'm here to jump on the polyphasic bullshit bus with the other parents.
posted by iamabot at 2:42 PM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's a video on an actual 6-week study that was conducted on polyphasic sleep. The subject started off fine, but gradually he got harder and harder to wake. An occasional full nights sleep apparently helped mitigate the effects, but it was clearly an unsustainable schedule.
posted by Panjandrum at 2:45 PM on April 6, 2012

I've got a sleep disorder, and it's not uncommon for me to run on 3-4 hours of sleep per 24-hour period for weeks at a time, whether I want to or not. And after awhile, I got pretty good at it. People assume I'm rested. The disorientation drops away. Sometimes I become very, very alert. I do get a lot done.

I would gladly trade it for the ability to crash at 10:30, get up at 6:30, enjoy a morning cup of coffee, and live like normal people instead of faking it. I would love, one time, to genuinely say the phrase, "Man, it's getting too late for me. I need to head to bed." Just once. Also, after an unbroken string of years of 4AMs, you become very aware of how solitary much of life is and who your social options are in the middle of the night. They are not awesome. You can't imagine how many times I've said to myself at that hour that I wished I had someone to talk to.

It's funny to see people who want that. I'll gladly trade you my powers of 3 hours of sleep if you can give me your normal 8 hour nights.

One man's miracle is another's curse, it seems.
posted by kochbeck at 2:53 PM on April 6, 2012 [9 favorites]

No matter how hard I fight it, my body wants to have a sleep schedule like this:

Tired around 4am. Sleep until 7 or 8am. Tired around 10am, sleep until 12pm or 1pm. Repeat. Give or take an hour or two either way.

This has been as long as I could remember. I could be forced to sleep all night but when it came time to go to school in the morning, I was a zombie. Barely awake, falling asleep at the drop of a hat. I'd have a bit of an awake moment in the morning, then when the afternoon came I was too knackered to pay attention to anything that was going on in school.

Maybe if I was one of those kids who drank soda I'd have been much better at staying awake.
posted by Malice at 3:26 PM on April 6, 2012

I manage on about 5-6 hours a night during weekdays due to stress and inability to sleep. I am frustrated, irritable, and prone to evening napping if I can get away with it. The only thing keeping me going in the morning is strong coffee, and trying to stay alert after lunch is hell. I try to catch up some at weekends.

Sleep only three hours a day for extended periods and stay sane? Bwahahahahahaha.
posted by ArkhanJG at 3:27 PM on April 6, 2012

I spent a while sleeping every other day while doing a half a years worth of writing in a couple of weeks. I'd take two fifteen minute naps and then 8 hours every 48 hours.

I got everything done, but the most terrifying part was how difficult it was to adjust back.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:27 PM on April 6, 2012

Oh my God. I've been "sleeping" like this for almost nine months, with the world's worst-sleeping baby, and I want to STAB EVERYTHING I SEE. ALL THE TIME. It's seriously the worst thing ever.

This times a thousand. I was exclusively nursing the world's worst-sleeping baby & working full time, and by the time the kid was nine months old, I would zone out at crosswalks while thinking fondly about how awesome it would be to be hit by a car so that I might get a few days of uninterrupted sleep in a hospital. IN A HOSPITAL.

I don't understand the drive to sleep less. It seems like anyone who wants to hack their brain and schedule for more productivity ought to focus more on optimizing eight hours of wakefulness rather than concluding that seven-eight uninterrupted hours of rest is the problem.
posted by sobell at 3:53 PM on April 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's like having that 2:30 Feeling™ ALL DAY AND ALL NIGHT.
posted by not_on_display at 4:32 PM on April 6, 2012

I had this going on for a while when I was having the worst allergy attacks of my life and they had me on a combination of antihistamines and steroids to keep things under control, so eventually I'd pass out from exhaustion until the steroids brought me back to consciousness READY TO MURDER EVERYTHING. It was the worst seven months of my life. I was ready to kill everyone and myself and there are entire months I don't remember, work I did that I don't remember doing, things I wrote that I don't remember writing. And I don't mean "I don't remember" in the hazy sense, like if you show me something from that period I'd recall it. I mean everything from that period is completely unfamiliar to me.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:46 PM on April 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

A few scattered comments -

First, "Incremental reading?" Is this a thing? It sounds way more crack-pot and implausible than any alternative sleep schedule I've ever heard.

Second, it seems to me the first article can be neatly separated into two parts.

The more interesting part is the statement that can be summarized as, "lots of people have tried this, and it doesn't seem to work, and most of the lore surrounding it is either false or unverifiable." That's hard to argue with. It certainly is consistent with everyone I've known who's tried this.

The other part of the first article is just a string of fuzzy appeals to natural order and the stretching of unreasonably simple models far beyond sense.

The author lays out a pretty decent argument for why one might imagine that optimal sleep and natural sleep may be different: different animals with structural similarities require very different amounts of sleep. I'd also add the radical diversity among people performing the same jobs with the same level of recognized achievement as further evidence.

If that's true, then why not try to determine the optimum and enforce it through artificial means? Instead of a coherent argument or a suitably well described experimental result, we're given the platitude that alarm clocks are bad, some gobbledygook about the information economy, and a totally unsupported bogey-man argument about the possibility of "neural stresses" leading to "cell loss."

If alarm clocks are bad, then show us, and give us some clue about what the conditions of the tests were so that we can evaluate which results are appropriate to a proposed sleep schedule. Simply saying that alarm clocks are unnatural doesn't cut it. Not eating all the fats I can get my hands on is also thoroughly unnatural, but I'm a lot happier and healthier as a result of suppressing that natural impulse. Arguments about RAM and disk-defragmentation are just plain silly. (You gotta try this new xfs hippocampus; with online defrags, I never have to enter REM sleep!)

Any model that maximizes some ill-defined qualitative measure integrated creativity and doesn't provide any details is suspect at best. Maximizing alertness is actually a pretty weird assumption to apply to human motivation. A useful model ought to take into account that (1) there are many, many tasks that don't require maximal alertness, even in the rarefied halls of those pursing the life of the mind, and (2) a lot of people spend their recreational time paying money to achieve less alert states and enjoying them thoroughly. If I had the option to trade 18 hours of maximal alertness for 16 hours of near-maximal alertness and an extra 8 hours of less-alert recreational time, I'd jump on it.

All these complaints aside, I've love to see a layman's summary of modern sleep research that isn't loaded with wacky assumptions, question begging, and exaggerated confidence. All the popular articles I've read seem to start from the assumption that what's natural for most people is always best, and then focus on those who are troubled by irregular sleep and how to cure them. That may be useful for some, but it's a lot less interesting than the question of why we sleep for so long and whether it has to be that way.

Though I haven't read it since I was in high-school, and don't know how consistent it is with the broader field of sleep studies, I remember that James Horne's Why We Sleep book was fascinating. A version of the same that isn't 25 years old would be awesome.

Personally, I still hold out hope that some day we'll find a cure for sleep. But, it seems pretty clear it's going to take more than willpower. Until that day, or until someone gives me a coherent argument against it, I'm sticking with my alarm clock. Also, I'm glad I never wasted time on a polyphasic experiment. (I've always been more of a binge sleep-dep type myself, and I try my best to avoid regular schedules in all things; volunteering for an even more annoyingly regimented day wouldn't be worth a few more hours, even if it worked.)
posted by eotvos at 4:50 PM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

My experimentation with "hacking" sleep was a success, mostly, I think.

I had a few months break after I finished my uni degree and when my full time job started, and the new World of Warcraft expansion was released.

I thought, hey, why not do something crazy... be the first person on the server to reach the new level cap. It would take about a week, maybe two.


This needed some thought and planning.

Sure, anyone can pull an all night gaming session. But you won't be much use after that, your play will be sub optimal, and your body will pay you back the next day.

The problem, really, is that your body and mind IS NOT OPTIMIZED to work 100% for the usual sleep cycle we have. A normal person would sleep 7 hours and be awake for 17 hours. Can you really study, work, or even play a game, at 100% intensity, for 17 hours in a row? No. You begin to shut down after 10 hours or so.

So the normal sleep cycle wouldn't work. I needed something else.

I figured it out pretty quickly: the moment my attention started to slip and I started feeling tired, I went to bed. No alarm clock - I'd just sleep for however long I needed, then when I woke up, straight back to the game. When I got hungry, I ate. If not, I kept playing (I did not eat very much).

I settled for a pretty comfortable cycle that left me feeling really good: something like 8 hours of wakefulness, then 3 hours of sleep, repeating, for about 10 days straight. The reason why I didn't fall into the full 7 hour sleep was because of the timing of the first sleep period - 10 hours into the first waking day - which meant I took my first sleep in the afternoon about 5pm of the first day and it only lasted till 8pm, because your body just does NOT want to sleep that long, and then from there on it was easy going because if you've only just been awake for 10 hours your body won't sleep the full 7 hour cycle.

I didn't win, though. Someone got there 2 hours ahead of me.
posted by xdvesper at 5:08 PM on April 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

eotvos: it tends a bit wacky/self-experimental, but I found The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness to be quite interesting in providing information about recent sleep research. (I posted an AskMe question to remember the name of it after reading an article about "second sleep" on the BBC's site.)
posted by epersonae at 5:10 PM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I adjusted myself to polyphasic sleep for about 2.5 months, mainly as an attempt to minimize my total sleep time. Ordinarily I have no problem sleeping; I turn off and on like a switch. I usually take a 20 minute power nap in the afternoon and can go with only 6 hours at night and have done that for 10 years now. But greedy maniac that I am, I wanted to squeeze even more time from sleep. So I moved to the 4-hour cycle and short naps between.

I reduced my total daily sleep to about 4.5 hours, and I wasn't insane. I felt I dreamed more, or rather that I remembered my dreams more. I had energy, but I did feel I COULD sleep anytime, if I wanted to. I worked at home so I was able to take this naps at any time of the day (or night).

BUT... (you knew this was coming)....

If I ever missed one of those naps, I was totally fried. It was like missing a whole night of sleep. It was murder to keep going till the next block. And given real life, with a family and kids and weekends, it was too easy to miss those naps every 4 hours or so.

So, I think this method is sustainable but only for some kind of oddball who has total control of their schedule and don't mind a daily cycle as demanding as an infant baby's. For the rest of us, I don't think it is sustainable long-term...

BUT, I can be done, and productive, and might be useful (at least for me) for short periods of time, measured in weeks.
posted by kk at 5:48 PM on April 6, 2012

I actually started a polyphasic sleep experiment a couple of days ago. The first day was fine, (fantastic actually), but so far every day after that has been a dismal failure and I just oversleep my alarms after my core sleep. It's super annoying because when I do manage to stick to the schedule I don't feel too bad, but what has been happening is that I'm taking 8 hours of sleep every night at a weird time PLUS a bunch of naps, and it's still not enough. I'm gonna keep trying though.

I do find that even on a monophasic schedule, I sleep weird, sleep in, sleep at weird hours, and need several naps throughout the day, so maybe I just have a sleep disorder.

If anyone who has been successful with polyphasic has any tips, I would love to hear them. Or is it a waste of time?
posted by windykites at 6:06 PM on April 6, 2012

I reduced my total daily sleep to about 4.5 hours, and I wasn't insane. I felt I dreamed more, or rather that I remembered my dreams more.

This has something to do with your brain being starved for REM sleep, IIRC. It happens to parents a lot too (and has happened to me from time to time--fallen asleep with baby on my lap and dreamed the entire short naptime and remembered the dream clearly).
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:09 PM on April 6, 2012

I still want the world to get fixed somehow so I don't have to be awake at 7 a.m. or earlier to be at work at 8. Really, wouldn't THAT solve all of the problems with sleep, if I didn't have to wake up to that evil alarm because my body naturally wants to do midnight-8 a.m.-ish?

I concur with him that polyphasic sleep is a monumentally bad idea, but also, geez, how many people can be employed on that schedule?
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:42 PM on April 6, 2012

Yeah, jenfullmoon, I used to work a 6pm-2am shift and I would kill a million cute things to go back to it. I'd go to bed like clockwork between 4 and 5am, pop up awake and ready to go at noon or 1pm without needing an alarm or anything. I miss it so, so much.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:08 PM on April 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ghostride The Whip: "Yeah, jenfullmoon, I used to work a 6pm-2am shift and I would kill a million cute things to go back to it. I'd go to bed like clockwork between 4 and 5am, pop up awake and ready to go at noon or 1pm without needing an alarm or anything. I miss it so, so much"

I agree entirely. If I just let my sleep schedule go crazy, it naturally settles into sleep from 4 AM to noon, up bright and shiny at noon, awake until 4 AM. Like clockwork.

Trying to push that back 5 hours or so, so that I get up when society says work should start? A nightmare....
posted by barnacles at 10:19 PM on April 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm one of those nocturnal people, my best sleep is to bed between 6am and 8am , to 2pm or 4 pm, depending on the season. Just glorious. Due to a conjunction of different factors I had three months off from the real world in 2001 and could just do what I wanted. I was living in a student residence with no authority figures and great facilities and so I slept for most of the day and had a lively social life at night, being a 18 year old student, and I would read or bum about on the internet until about five when I'd clean for a bit, then go swim a few k in the res pool and be home in time to make pancakes for my housemates as they got up. Bliss. Every time I have a substantial block of time to myself everything settles back into that pattern - sleep, socialisation, thoughful private time and then a wee bit of domestic activity just as the world wakes and I can justify a bit of noise.

Understandably I don't get that.

I live in this weird constant state of mild sleep deprivation. A bit like being a graveyard shift worker. I function just fine, but with this nagging doubt I'd do better if my sleep was good. I've managed to find a job where I spend most of my shifts start between 2 and 4, but I'm still up three or four hours earlier than I'd like. Forcing myself up for work can also trigger big bouts of insomnia where I just. Don't. Sleep. for days and days - at best a half hour of actual sleep sandwiched in between tossing and turning.

I also know that I cannot accurately judge how sleep deprived I am past a certain point. So reading about polyphase and how people "feel fine" I can't help but wonder how many of them are spacing out and micro sleeping, or who are too far gone to accurately self report.
posted by Jilder at 11:57 PM on April 6, 2012

Yeah, if I get, oh, a long weekend or a week off from work, I will inevitably drift towards my natural state of going to bed at 4am and sleeping til noon or so. So not only do I have to deal with the hassle of going back to work, I have to spend a week after my vacation resetting my sleep schedule to work with the business world again. Sometimes I just stay up the night before the last night so I'm so exhausted I go to bed at a reasonable hour and can reboot my sleep schedule that way.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:45 AM on April 7, 2012

I don't have a sleeping disorder. I just sleep stochastically.
posted by loquacious at 9:35 AM on April 7, 2012

Re "free sleeping": Oh, does that sound like bliss. I would love to spend a couple of weeks completely ignoring society's clock, just sleeping and waking when it felt right. It would be very interesting to see what my sleep schedule wound up stabilizing as.
posted by Lexica at 10:15 PM on April 7, 2012

My first kid didn't sleep more than four hours at a stretch for... well, I don't want to scare the new parents in the room, but it was years. Usually he slept in three-hour chunks. Somehow I survived, and even got used to it. Oh, wait, there was one time when he slept five hours; the next day I was bragging to some friends about how good I felt because of that, and they looked at me with horror.

Now I need my eight hours, and if I don't get at least seven hours then I'm a mess the next day. I wonder if I'm less flexible about sleep now because I'm older, or if I were forced to go back to that eeevil schedule I'd get used to it again.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:46 AM on April 15, 2012

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