Experiment: Polyphasic Sleep

Caroline and I are two very ambitious people. This site, and it’s dedication to paving the way to being epic, is proof positive of that. We have a list of martial arts we want to learn longer than I can count, we both have around 10 instruments we want to learn, we’re currently studying Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Russian, German and French. We want to get in shape, and to get as good as possible at Parkour, breakdancing and acrobatics.

On top of all this, we’re renovating our house and working on starting two businesses, writing several blogs and I write on the side as the Cincinnati Martial Arts Examiner occasionally. We’re also both working on our own novels. Oh, right, we have to eat too. Forgot about that.

Frankly – there’s just not enough time in a day.

Pondering this perplexing problem I remembered something I had read about a few years ago while still in college called ‘polyphasic sleep’. As it turns out, it may be just the solution we’ve been looking for.

How it works

The theory behind polyphasic sleep (poly – many, phasic – parts/phases) is that rather than condense all of your sleep into one large block overnight, like most people do, you spread your sleep out into multiple parts over the course of the day and night.

Why would you want to do that?

Well, as it turns out we’re learning that the only part of sleep that actually seems to serve any rejuvenatory purpose is the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. The REM stage is the part of sleep during which you experience dreams, as well as the part of sleep during which the brain is closest to being awake from an bio-electrical standpoint. The problem is, during normal overnight monophasic sleep it usually takes the brain about 90 to 110 minutes to complete a sleep cycle. That means only about 20-25% of the time spent sleeping at night is doing anything really functional.

That’s pretty inefficient. Polyphasic sleeping seeks to train the body to enter the REM stage as quickly as possible (if not immediately) upon falling asleep by severely limiting the duration of sleep. That means that the rest of the 75-80% of wasted sleep time can be skipped, dropping the amount of sleep needed to feel rested and rejuvenated to the neighborhood of 2 to 4 hours of total sleep.

Potential benefits

  • More Free Time – This is the big one really. I, for one, have issues getting up sometimes in the morning, and generally wind up spending between 6 to 8 hours a night sleeping. With polyphasic sleep that time can be reduced to 2 to 4 hours, meaning we gain between 4 to 6 waking hours a day to go do something epic.
  • Better Dream Recall – Supposedly, switching to polyphasic sleep greatly increases your dream recall. This may seem like a minor thing to most people, but I have some lucid dreaming experiments I’d like to play with down the road, and I know this skill will come in handy then.

Potential detriments

  • Sleep Deprivation – Some people say that a polyphasic sleep pattern is unhealthy to follow for extended periods of time because it causes sleep deprivation. Even those who do say it’s sustainable admit that the acclimation period when you first start has something of a zombifying effect until your body readjusts.
  • Social Problems – The other big problem most people cite is that it just doesn’t conform well with the rest of society. This seems to be the number one reason polyphasic people return to monophasic sleeping – either they felt it made social events or work difficult or it caused too much trouble within the family schedule. The reason I didn’t try this back in college was because I couldn’t easily fit the nap schedule around my classes.

Our experiment

Experiment might be a little too strict of a word here, since I doubt we’ll wind up being nearly as scientific about this as we should be, but oh well. Our plan is to try out a slightly modified version of what’s called the ‘Everyman’ sleep schedule.

We’ll start out by getting 3 hours of core sleep very night between midnight and 3 a.m. Then we’ll take two 20 minute naps through the day, one at 11 a.m. and another at 4 p.m., cutting our total sleep time down to around 4 hours.

After we’ve adjusted to that, we’ll try cutting the core sleep by an hour and seeing if we can adjust to that as well. That would cut us down to 3 hours of total sleep a night, giving us between 3 and 5 more useful hours a day on average.

We plan on trying a few other sleep schedules over time too, but that will come later. We’ll keep you updated with how things progress every now and then, as well as all the tips and techniques we learn while experimenting.

If you’re interested in learning more about polyphasic sleep right this minute, you can start with these two links:

Are you a polyphasic sleeper? Do you think all of this is absolute nonsense? Let us know in the comments.

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com