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Sleep Hackers




by Evan Murray

      A hacker is most commonly known as a programmer who breaks into computer systems in order to change or destroy information. What if, however, this term need not only apply to the standard definition of a computer system? Our brains behave very much like computers, managing all sorts of information for us. Is it possible to change the wiring of our brains in order to make our bodies run more efficiently?

       Today, it has generally been concluded upon that humans need seven to eight hours of sleep in order to run at peak performance. Everyone is different, however, so it is possible for certain individuals to need nine or even ten hours of sleep a night. This is often no problem for children, but what kind of work day allows for that much time sleeping? It would certainly be possible, but there would have to be almost no time spent on fun or relaxing. No one wants to live a life filled with nothing but work and sleep. It wouldn’t be feasible for most people to reduce their work time, so the only option is to begin cutting into sleeping time. While it is certainly possible to live while getting less sleep than we need, no one who knows what it feels like would recommend living like that. This raises the question, “Is it possible to sleep more efficiently?” The answer may very well be yes.

       In Spanish cultures, it is very common for people to live on a biphasic sleeping schedule, that is, their sleep is broken up into two periods of time, a core sleep and a siesta nap. This contradicts the normal idea of a monophasic sleeping schedule, in which all of our time asleep is lumped into one block. In his blog article, “The #1 Way to Beat the Afternoon Slump,” Dr. Michael Breus suggests that our circadian rhythm seems to have been designed to include an afternoon nap, which combats the sleepiness that most of us begin to feel around mid-afternoon. Breus states that studies performed in sleep clinics have resulted in the conclusion that a nap during mid-day results in increased alertness until nightfall, when a core sleeping period occurs. This might sound outrageous at first since we have been raised to follow a monophasic pattern, but if you give it some thought, it might begin to make some sense. Can you think of any animal that splits its awake and asleep time into two blocks per day as we humans do? The only example of long periods spent sleeping in animals that comes to mind is hibernation. Any pet owner knows that animals take several short naps throughout the day. Why would humans be the only species that were designed differently? This notion seems to suggest that a sleep pattern which includes naps is, in fact, more natural than what we typically live with. And just as pet owners know their animals take naps, they know that their animals do not sleep throughout the whole night. Does napping reduce total asleep time? Allow me to say, if one follows the recommended biphasic sleeping schedule, the total time asleep is six to seven hours, not seven to nine. This is typically accomplished by sleeping roughly six hours at night and taking a one hour nap during the day.

      So scientists basically agree that a biphasic sleeping schedule benefits the health of humans and is more in line with our bodily rhythms, but what if we were to take it one step further? Within roughly the last decade, the idea of polyphasic sleeping has surfaced, that is, sleeping broken up into many blocks. If the nap is truly more efficient than the core sleeping block, can this block be eliminated altogether? The first person on record to experiment with this was Buckminster Fuller, who reasoned that “sleep is a bad habit.” The article in Time magazine, “Science: Dymaxion Sleep,” noted that, after adhering to his “Dymaxion” sleeping schedule, which consisted of four equally spaced naps of thirty minutes a day, for two full years, Buckminster Fuller claimed he was in “the most vigorous and alert condition I have ever enjoyed.” Furthermore, after being examined by a doctor, Fuller was declared to be “sound as a nut.” Indeed, it was social conflicts that finally forced him to leave behind his Dymaxion sleeping schedule: His associates insisted that they sleep like normal people. Interestingly, Fuller used the word “dymaxion” to name many of his inventions. It is a combination of the words “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension,” three words that Fuller was noted to have used frequently.

       Those that believe in following Buckminster’s polyphasic schedule today have made many changes as they have experimented to find what works best. The current schedule, dubbed the “Uberman” schedule by “PureDoxyk,” a blogger who was the first to successfully adapt to the schedule, consists of six equally spaced naps of twenty minutes throughout a 24-hour period. Just like the Dymaxion schedule, this results in a mere two hours of sleep per twenty-four hours. There are, however, several other varieties of polyphasic sleeping, many of which include a “core nap” of around three hours supplemented by three to four naps a day. These schedules, collectively referred to as “Everyman,” result in a less extreme change in sleep times, with totals of between three and five hours of sleep a day.
Another blogger, Steve Pavlina, has made the change and recorded the experience. Over a period of 5 ½ months, he was successful in adapting completely. He comments frequently on his increased productivity as he was able to undertake many new tasks with his extra time. Eventually, however, Pavlina decided to return back to monophasic sleeping. “Let me say that I didn’t decide to stop for health reasons… The #1 reason I decided to call it quits is simply that the rest of the world is monophasic.” The method of gaining waking hours worked for him just as it worked for Fuller and PureDoxyk. I believe it can work for everyone.

      You must be wondering something along the lines of, “Why are naps more efficient than core sleeping periods?” The idea is something like this. Scientists know that the human sleep cycle is broken up into five stages, one of which is known as REM sleep. This is the stage of sleep in which we experience dreams and become rested. Unfortunately, as people who get woken up often know, this is the last stage of the sleep cycle, and any sleep before this stage is reached is, as far as we know, simply wasted transition time. Polyphasic sleep is designed to train the brain to jump straight into REM sleep by allowing it to sleep for only short periods of time (naps). After an adaptation phase in which the brain learns to do this, a twenty minute nap will feel as rejuvenating as a much longer one simply because the “useless” transition stages of sleep are skipped over.

      This adaptation phase, though easy to understand, is the most difficult part of adjusting to a polyphasic sleep schedule. The reason for this is, simply, that in order to be able to fall asleep for naps every few hours, you have to be pretty sleep deprived to begin with. Add to this the fact that the brain does not immediately begin jumping straight to REM mode. All in all, you’re looking at about four days with little to no sleep before the effects of polyphasic sleeping kick in and you begin to catch up on your sleep. In her book, Ubersleep: Nap-Based Sleep Schedules and the Polyphasic Lifestyle, PureDoxyk writes that, in her experience, she was simply tired in days one and two, but in days three and four, there was “mind-blowing sleep deprivation” (13). After that, things began to get better, and after awhile she was consistently “full of vim.” I would, by the way, strongly recommend anyone interested in learning more to visit her website (www.puredoxyk.com), and then, if still interested, to purchase her book. It was a great read.
I didn’t think about it much before, but in the last few years I have noticed that I have some serious sleeping problems. I’m not sure how much of this is simply caused by being a full-time student with a reputation for taking on large course-loads, but it is an issue nonetheless. As a high school student, I would oftentimes find myself lying in bed, trying to sleep, but unable to stop thinking. This overactive mind would, at times, shave off as much as two hours from my already unbalanced sleep habits. Many more problems were caused by the fact that I was a notorious procrastinator. I would many times put assignments off until the wee hours of the morning simply because I knew I would have time to finish them even if I waited that long. But while I did finish the assignments, I didn’t make up the sleep that was lost by working at such hours.

      I first experimented with becoming nocturnal. I would go to sleep as soon as I returned home from school, around four in the afternoon or so, and sleep until ten, eleven, or sometimes even midnight depending on my level of tiredness. This method stopped me from losing sleep to procrastination, but I soon realized that it was not fun to miss everything that happens during the day. My life was broken up into three sections: school, sleep, video-games/computer/homework while everyone else was asleep. I must admit, it was pretty cool at first, but a feeling of missing out on daily activities inevitably set in. I decided that, instead of being a nocturnal monophasic sleeper, I might try being biphasic. I would take one thirty minute nap when I returned home and then try to be in bed by two in the morning. While procrastination sometimes got in the way of this, I was, overall, much happier and more rested than I was on an unbalanced monophasic schedule, because, no matter what happened at night, I was guaranteed at least thirty minutes of sleep during the day.

      That was in high school. Now I am a freshman at MIT, an institute that is perhaps best known for its rigorous academic work-load. Before I started college, I swore to myself that I would stop procrastinating, but I haven’t met with total success in that endeavor (nor total failure) despite my best efforts. My schedule is much more flexible here than at home, however, so I decided to experiment with polyphasic sleeping. I pulled out my trusty whiteboard and began to work out possible sleeping schedules, which is much harder than it sounds. After finally deciding on something that I thought would work (five naps per day of thirty minutes), I began planning what I would do with all the extra time I would gain. I (obviously) scheduled more studying time, but perhaps what I liked most about the idea was the additional time I would have to practice my clarinet and guitar. I was very excited… and very sleepy.
As expected, I had trouble falling asleep during my naps the first day, but what I didn’t expect was that my overactive mind would once again stop me from falling asleep during even the second day. Thirty minutes simply wasn’t enough time for me to get my brain to shut up. Not surprisingly, when I finally fell asleep, I overslept. After a few days, I fell into a rhythm of sorts. I would fall asleep for maybe two of my four daily naps, and would then invariably over-sleep my fifth nap at 3 A.M. I didn’t completely pass out for this “accidental core,” however. I would consistently sleep somewhere between three and four hours. I soon re-evaluated my schedule and saw what had happened. I had accidentally fallen into an Everyman sleep schedule. I was at first upset that my precious two and a half hours of sleep per day had become four to five hours, but I soon decided that it was a nice compromise. I re-wrote my schedule on my whiteboard.

      If you have what it takes to make it through four days of sleep deprivation, polyphasic sleeping might be right for you. If you have particularly strong willpower, you might be able to take up an Uberman schedule, but Everyman is much easier and much more common in the polyphasic community. I should comment, however, on the terrible lack of research that has been done on this type of sleeping. It would seem that the scientific community has dismissed the idea as absurd despite having accepted biphasic sleeping as equally or more beneficial than monophasic sleeping. In fact, Dr. Breus and others have cited Pavlina’s return to monophasic sleeping as proof that polyphasic sleeping will not work. Polyphasers and polyphaser hopefuls have frequently noted that sleep clinics refused the offer to study adaptation periods in new converts and the current habits of veterans. Many new ideas throughout history, however, that were rejected because they went against common beliefs have revolutionized science and technology. Such was the case with Galileo, who was almost executed for his declaration that Earth rotated around the sun. Will polyphasic sleeping become another such example?




Works Cited:


Breus, Michael. The Insomnia Blog. Web. 15 Oct 2009. <http://www.theinsomniablog.com>.

Pavlina, Steve. "Polyphasic Sleep." Personal Development for Smart People (2005): n.                                                       pag. Web. 15 Oct 2009.

PureDoxyk,. "Polyphasic Sleep Information Portal." Transcendental Logic: Better Living through Better Thinking. Web. 15 Oct 2009. <http://www.puredoxyk.com/index.php/polyphasic-sleep-portal/>.