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What Is Polyphasic Sleep, and Should You Try It?

From infancy onward, many of us try to resist the body’s need for sleep, going to bed kicking and screaming—sometimes literally in the case of children. But even as adults, as we try to cram more and more activities into our lives, we may feel that the time we spend sleeping is somehow wasted, and wonder if we really need seven to nine uninterrupted hours per night.

What we think of in American culture as normal adult sleep—that single block of rest at night—is called monophasic sleep. But sleeping in two blocks, biphasic sleep, was also common in preindustrial cultures, and many people practice it today as a matter of preference or convenience. Others, looking to further optimize their number of productive waking hours, have been experimenting with much more extreme schedules of polyphasic sleep, or multiple sleeping periods.

Here’s a look at some of those alternative sleep schedules and what science can tell us about their effect on health.

Biphasic and polyphasic sleep schedules

Here are two common schedules for biphasic sleep:

  • The siesta: This consists of a slightly shortened sleep at night, with a mid-afternoon This was traditionally common in many warm-weather countries, including in the Mediterranean, Southern Europe and Mainland China, and may have become a tradition because it was often too hot to work after lunch.
  • First sleep/second sleep: Another historically common pattern is sleeping in two blocks at night,1 with several hours in between for quiet activity. There is some evidence that this was once normal practice in Northern Europe and North America, perhaps in response to the long periods of darkness in the winter.

And here are three popular polyphasic sleeping patterns:

  • Dymaxion schedule: American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller popularized this sleeping pattern, following the rumored sleep schedules of other geniuses, including Leonardo da Vinci. Fuller was said to have thrived on taking 30-minute naps every six hours,2 for a total of only two hours of sleep every day.
  • Uberman schedule: Inspired by Fuller, philosophy students Marie Staver and Psuke Briah experimented with sleeping for 20 minutes every four hours around the clock (and named it after Nietzsche’s Übermensch). Staver wrote about the experiment,3 claiming that, after a long adjustment period, the pair felt great and were more productive than ever.
  • Everyman schedule: Unable to make the Uberman schedule work with a job and a family, Staver developed the “Everyman” sleep schedule, which is a three-hour sleep period from 1 to 4 a.m., with three 20-minute naps throughout the day, for a total of four hours of daily sleep.

Is it safe?

Biphasic sleep patterns seem to be a natural reaction4 to the climate and the amount of available sunlight, and there is evidence that some people have a biological inclination toward them. Scientists have studied afternoon napping and found it to be both common and also potentially good for mood and alertness,5 especially for people who can’t get enough sleep at night.

Polyphasic sleep, on the other hand, may be dangerous. Scientists have attempted to study these types of sleep patterns, but the sheer misery of the adjustment period and the difficulty of sticking to the schedule makes it challenging to complete the research.6 Proponents claim these sleep schedules work because their bodies adapt to the sleep deprivation by moving almost immediately into REM sleep and compressing or skipping the other stages, which they see as less essential. But that kind of thinking is fighting against circadian biology,7 sleep scientists say, and very likely asking for short-term cognitive impairment and long-term health effects.

At the very least, if you’re thinking of experimenting with polyphasic or biphasic sleep, you should be extra-cautious about things like driving until you’re well-adjusted to your new schedule.

For more in-depth information on the science of sleep and tips for sleeping better, continue reading the Sleep Talk blog.

Notes:

  1. Humans Used to Sleep in Two Shifts, And Maybe We Should Do It Again,” Science Alert, April 2018. 
  2. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt ‘Vigorous’ and ‘Alert,’ ” Open Culture, March 2017. 
  3. Uberman’s Sleep Schedule,” by Marie Staver (PureDoxyk), 2006. 
  4. The Science Behind Hacking Your Sleep Schedule,” Psychology Today, May 2018. 
  5. The effects of a 20 min nap in the mid-afternoon on mood, performance and EEG activity,Clinical Neurophysiology, February 1999. 
  6. Why Napping Can't Replace a Good Night's Rest,” by Jessa Gamble, The Atlantic, August 2016. 
  7. People Are Sleeping in 20-Minute Bursts To Boost Productivity. But Is It Safe?” by Jamie Ducharme, Time, January 2018. 

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