I have one day left of work before my vacation. As my vacation starts, so will an experiment I am doing with regards to sleep. After researching sleep on and off for about half a year, I have decided to try something called polyphasic sleep. But to introduce what it is, let us go back to some basics.

First of all, if you haven’t read my previous article about sleep, you should do so before reading on. A refresher if you read it when I first posted it: There are different phases to our sleep, and depending on which phase you are in, you will find it differently easy or hard to wake up.

Sleep phases

Phases (like sleep in general) turn out to be more complex than simply how easy it is to wake up from them, however. We don’t actually know what the phases are for, or even what sleep itself is for. A common idea is that sleep is the body’s way of repairing itself, but really there is no evidence pointing one way or the other on that, and from what we know there are really quite few reasons that we should need to sleep. The only certain thing here is that we are uncertain.

Some things we do know, however. Scientists have done studies on what the different phases mean to our body. In particular, it turns out that the REM sleep is what makes us feel rested. If you remove REM sleep from a some one’s sleep, they can sleep for a long time but still not feel rested. This is somewhat counter-intuitive, as REM sleep is the phase where the brain is in its most active, rather than its most resting, state.

Measuring thought activity, the brain seems more or less awake during REM sleep. This is where we dream.

There are still many unknowns here. For instance, REM sleep is somehow connected to depression, and sleep deprivation can be used as a short-term cure against depression. Antidepressant medication reduces the amount of REM sleep you get. This is why side-effects of such medication include reduced sleeping quality. As to why these things  are correlated, we simply do not know.

Restful sleep

hypnogramHere is the hypnogram from my previous article on sleep again. Something to note with the new information about how the body rests is that an incredibly small amount of the sleep is what actually cause us to feel rested when we wake up — only 20-25% of an adult’s sleep is spent in REM sleep.

So, for all that we know, sleep is simply incredibly inefficient. The amount of “rest” we need is at most 2 hours per day, still we “waste” 6 hours more asleep.

Optimizing sleep

What if there was a way to sleep in a more efficient way? How would that affect us as humans? I find the idea intriguing. And it turns out there might be such a way.

This, finally, lets us come back to what I mentioned at the start of this article: “polyphasic sleep” is the term used for one such way of sleeping. At its core is the idea that the human body functions better with several small chunks of sleep than with one long chunk of sleep every day. This somewhat meshes with other things that turn out to be healthy for us: eating small meals many times during the day, for instance.

Let’s establish some terms first of all. Normal sleep, in one big chunk is called monophasic, since it only contains one block of sleep. Taking a nap in the afternoon (commonly done in hot climate countries where siesta is a common name for it) is biphasic sleep.

Polyphasic sleep is sometimes used to mean any kind of sleeping pattern with more than two chunks, but for our purposes let us divide them further. Non-equiphasic sleep is a continuation of the same idea (this is sometimes called the “everyman” sleeping pattern), and equiphasic (or pure polyphasic) sleep is when you completely remove the long chunk of sleep at night (this is sometimes called the “uberman” sleeping pattern).

Like I said, in our society we are predominantly monophasic, but bi-phasics is also common in some places. Infants are polyphasic by nature (as many parents painfully find out when their sleep is interrupted), and there is research that indicates that humans by nature are at least bi-phasic.


A sleep diet

Now remember how I said there wasn’t much things we know (scientifically) about sleep? Well, it turns out that when we talk about polyphasic sleep we know next to nothing. As in any disputed field of science, there are papers out there that claim to have found polyphasic sleep to be impossible. Yet on the other end of the range of claims, there are people out there who actually live this way.

The only thing we know for sure really is that it is possible, that some people find it incredibly useful and wouldn’t want to live any other way, and sadly since there is so little research on the subject, that the only known way to switch to polyphasic sleep is hard.

The way I view it is this: There are several things your body needs in order to survive. Sleep is one, food is another. But with some such things, we are well aware that letting your body have as much as it craves is a bad idea (this is why diet and advice and healthy foods is a billion-dollar industry). Going against your body’s demands for food is possible, and the human body (amazing as it is) often adapts to even the wildest diets.

Polyphasic sleep is kind of the same thing to me, but with sleep — a sleep diet. Adapting to it is hard, but our body has its way of adapting. In this case, adapting means compressing the sleep stages to spend nearly all time sleeping in REM sleep. Some people who are polyphasic even claim to get more REM sleep and feel more rested than ever, though of course it’s hard to verify these claims.

The experiment

For at least one month, I intend to become a polyphasic sleeper. If my adaptation fails, I will have to call it quits much earlier than that, but the target is at least the month out. As I go back to work, I will have to see what kind of changes I can incorporate or if it will even be possible to keep doing. I will be blogging about my progress here, with the hope that someone will find the story entertaining, informative or useful.

As this article is already becoming quite long, I will go into more details tomorrow in a new article about what this experiment means to me, how I’ve prepared and some of the intricacies of the whole thing.