Catastrophe. Utter catastrophe.
My two-week stint with polyphasic sleep, was a catastrophe in all its manifestations. That’s the only appropriate word for it.
It started as a simple experiment. It seemed too common an occurrence that I would get home, well after the sun had set, and struggle to decide whether to satisfy my urge to sleep, my urge to work, or my urge to go out with friends.
Since the start of Winter quarter I couldn’t remember a day in which I had satisfied all three. After some shallow reflection, I thought I had found the answer.
I’m not sure when or where I first heard of polyphasic sleep, a type of sleeping pattern that breaks up the habitual seven or eight hours at night with core sleeps and naps throughout the day. The great Leonardo da Vinci was rumored to be a polyphasic sleeper. But so was Seinfeld’s Kramer, whose stint with polyphasic sleep eventually landed him in a burlap sack in the Hudson River.
There is little, if any, scientific research on the viability or success of polyphasic sleep. But there are those who will sing its praises throughout the Internet. To find my own proper sleep pattern, I perused a handful of articles scattered on the web, the Reddit community on Polyphasic sleep and the website of the Polyphasic Society.
I decided to take on Everyman sleep for a week. Consisting of a three-and-a-half hour core sleep and three twenty-minute naps throughout the day, I found Everyman most appealing for its potential to add at least three hours of consciousness to my day.
I’m not one to go skimpy on the sleep. There are very few nights in which I get fewer than eight hours. Though I am a grumpy, hardly functioning human being with less than eight hours, I assume that with an international cult of followers, polyphasic sleep can’t all be nonsense.
I may not end up being as prolific as Da Vinci, but I’m sure I’m not going to end up in a sack in the Willamette. If anything, perhaps I’ll be able to appreciate all the sleep I get and maybe cut back an hour or two.
The week before I start Everyman, I try a self-designed schedule to prepare myself for fewer hours of sleep. I split my monophasic cycle, meaning getting my day’s sleep all at once, into two three-hour segments. As it turns out, this kind of sleep pattern is similar to the way many rested during medieval times, says Martha Bayless, an English professor at the University of Oregon. I consult Bayless for some advice before I start; her research often uncovers evidence of historical polyphasic sleep.
I often wake up in the middle of the night, mumble some profanity about being awake, then turn over and fall back asleep. Bayless says waking is something almost every sleeper experiences, but just just a few centuries ago, and perhaps up until the early ‘20s, sleepers went about the “midnight wake-up” much differently.
Before alarm clocks and widespread electrification of cities, people would generally go to sleep an hour or two after dusk. They too would wake up in the middle of the night but instead of trying to go back to sleep, they got up and did something. They would read, meditate, talk, prey, or have sex. After that, they would go back to sleep and wake with the morning’s light. Literary evidence implies and explicitly states that the brain is in its most relaxed and tranquil state in between what were known as the first and second sleeps.
With tranquility in mind, I begin my new “biphasic” sleep schedule. The first three days are great. In the two extra hours I create for myself in the middle of the night I am incredibly productive; with a sleeping town and nothing to distract me I finish two internship applications, clean my room, watch a film and catch up on some long procrastinated reading. During the daytime, I am not more tired than usual. I revel in the opportunity to say, “I told you so,” to my previously skeptical friends.
But on night four things start to take a turn. In some kind of freak occurrence, I sleep through my alarm; something that I have never done in my life. I wake up a bit before 7:00 A.M. and curse my failure.
The following night, I set two alarms and do indeed wake up, but incredibly tired. Thinking only half logically, I go for a 1:30 A.M. run and return rejuvenated, awake, and, an hour later, unable to fall asleep. I manage to get only an hour of what should have been a three-hour sleep. The day is dreadful and it’s the first time I take full advantage of my pre-arranged nap room: the Ethos office in the basement of the University of Oregon’s student union, the Erb Memorial Union, or EMU.
I had a sleeping pad, pillow, and blanket stashed in the cluttered corner room for this experiment but had only used it twice so far. Not usually being a napper, my first two attempts at twenty-minute power naps were, in reality, me listening to the low hum of a heating vent and staring blankly at the Ethernet wires strung on the basement’s unfinished concrete ceiling. My first few attempts left me more tired than I began.
At the end of my first week, I am tired, but definitely far from the most sleep deprived I have been in college. Despite that, when the 1:00 A.M. alarm goes off on the last night of my first sleep schedule, I skip the snooze and straight up turn off the alarm, saying to myself, “I need rest for the real experiment.”
At this point nothing has suffered. I’m slightly tired throughout the day, but the quality of my work has stayed the same and I am just as affable as ever. With the extra couple of hours at night, I was able to do a considerable amount of catch-up on my schoolwork and thus was feeling confident going into the first night of Everyman sleep.
The first day of Everyman sleep does not go according to plan. Due to classes and meetings, I am only able to take two of the three naps I am supposed to take. I plan to just add an extra twenty minutes to my core nighttime sleep, but, my core sleep also doesn’t go to plan; my alarm goes off at 3:30 A.M. and I wake up in total confusion. “Why is my alarm set?” I think to myself at first. After remembering I’m now an Everyman sleeper, I spend five minutes trying to draw myself from my bed, but lose the fight to my heavy eyes. I wake up five hours later, thirty minutes after my 8:00 A.M. class began.
During day one of Everyman I’m already discouraged, lethargic, and seriously tired. I pass my roommate in the kitchen who asks, “How is the sleep thing going?” I’m not sure what exactly my reply was, but in my haste out the door I believe I said more profanities than anything else.
After only one day, the experiment was starting to wear down on me psychologically. My responses to any kind of communication were delayed and either oddly giddy or defensive. At an Ethos editorial meeting, the editors gave me concerning looks as they asked, “Are you okay?”
After the second night, I started to lose control of my sleeping pattern. My three-and-a-half hour core sleep was a success, but I was only able to take one nap throughout day two; meetings, work, and school assignments became a priority over sleeping.
To have to miss a twenty minute nap or push back my three hour core sleep is not a predicament I expected myself to be in. With an additional three hours, I imagined I would be overly productive and would sit around waiting for a sleeping time to come around.
I struggled to find free time for anything. As the week went on, my motivations and ability to think creatively froze over. All I could think about was either sleep. Work that would have otherwise taken me an hour to complete took more than twice as long and came with drastic sacrifices in quality.
While I anticipated I would have extra time to debauch with my friends and pursue personal projects, the time was actually filled by completing, at a much slower pace, all the regular work I had.
As the week progressed, I fell more and more out of my intended cycle: missing naps and doubling or tripling the times of others; and some nights all out ditching the prospect of waking up early. One early morning, after waking to my alarm set at 3:30, I proceeded to hit snooze every eight minutes until I absolutely had to get out of bed at 7:15 for my class forty-five minutes later.
The following night, I put my alarm clock — my iPhone, that is — on my desktop change dish on the other side of my room. I knew I couldn’t possibly ignore the vibrating calamity the phone would create, figuring once I got out of bed I would be up for sure. My efforts fall short. I take a seat on the couch by my desk, trying to figure out what to do next, and I am asleep within minutes.
At this point, no amount of caffeine is an adequate antidote. After finishing a twenty-ounce shot in the dark, I fall asleep immediately in my Ethos office turned nap room. Naps had a refreshing effect on me, but lasted only about thirty minutes.
I became less and less friendly and interactive. I began to resent more than anything being asked how I was feeling or how my sleep experiment was going.
In my increasing inability to focus on any task I try to complete, my mind drifts back to my discussion with Bayless.
It seems obvious that culturally, we Americans take sleep for granted, or at least give it minimal priority. The past week hasn’t been the first time a lack of sleep has affected my personal, professional or academic life, and I am also no stranger to all-nighters.
In my deprivation, I curse the phrase “sleep when you’re dead,” and dream of the day when I can tell my boss or teacher that I can’t come in today because “I just didn’t get enough sleep,” and he or she won’t question my sanity.
Clocks and artificial light work against thousands of years of biological evolution. Humans’ natural circadian rhythm has developed based on roughly 12 hours of light and 12 of dark.
“We’re out of synch with our biology,” Bayless told me. “Traditional ways of human sleeping require more time.”
With three days left, I head to the polyphasic subReddit for some support. I find no reassurance. One Redditor advises that I just get used to being tired all the time. Another says after a month I will have adjusted.
I don’t have a month to devote to this. I don’t want a month.
Bayless left me thinking: If it’s hard to find enough time to sleep, what does that say about our cultural priorities?
I finish my Everyman sleep cycle one night early, cutting the experiment short. My academic and social life has become so out of whack, I have myself convinced that just one more day and I may very well somehow end up in a sack in the Willamette.
On what is supposed to be my last night of polyphasic sleep, I fall into bed two hours early and sleep — through my 8:00 a.m. class, through a meeting — fifteen hours after my alarm was set to ring, peacefully, dreaming of nothing.