Research outside the mainstream, psychoactive substances and taboo topics.
Fair Warning: This is not a neuroscience article.
But, I’m assuming that those of us who are into nootropics and brain optimization are probably interested because we want to maximize our least renewable resource: time.
So I wanted to share something I’m doing this year — my New Year’s Resolution of sorts — both because it will probably have impact on Smart Drug Smarts, and because the idea itself may have value to other people.
I call them “Barbell Weeks,” and I’m gambling approximately 25% of my 2014 on them.
Last year, I read Antifragile, a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that’s too idea-rich to easily synopsize. To grossly oversimplify things: it explores how some systems contain feedback loops that make disorder and unpredictability a good thing rather than a bad or neutral thing.
One of several terms Taleb introduces in his book are “barbell” upsides and downsides, derived from the idea of looking at a graph where results are flat-lined in middle-ground likelihoods, then shoot up on a nearly-straight trajectory at some point on the x-axis — much like a barbell if viewed head-on. Taleb, a former derivatives trader who got wealthy following his own advice, says to look for “barbell upside” opportunities — situations where the worst-case is small-to-middling, but the best-case goes straight up.
(His thesis is: On a long enough time-frame, or with enough total repetitions or chances, you will eventually land on the outlandishly-winning end of this curve, while the other, far more common areas of the curve won’t cost you that much as you land on them for months, years, or decades.)
Needless to say, not all opportunities have barbell upsides.
But one that I’m thinking might, is my plan for…
What does any of this have to do with Taleb’s “barbell” lingo? Here’s my thinking: Most of these weeks will probably have no long-term upside for me. I’ll be finger-painting or learning Esperanto or something that will seem inane or ill-advised. But in all cases, I’ll have only lost a week, and probably gotten a nice recharge by shaking off my normal daily schedule. A week, by my reckoning, is a low-impact, acceptable loss on the “bad end” of Taleb’s results-graph.
But if even one of these weeks yields a project that is a real success (in business, learning, adventure, or whatever), the potential upside is essentially unbounded. Thus, the “barbell” name.
My first Barbell Week will land at the end of January, and the project focus is going to be a tech start-up gambit that I can’t reveal just yet. But the name includes “jetpack,” so that’s fun.
Also, a public hat-tip to my friend Marcus, whose off-handed statement “You should take a week off every now and then” spurred this whole idea.
Finally, if you read this and get inspired to implement Barbell Weeks yourself, let me know. I’d be curious to hear what other people would devote a week to. And maybe we could set up some sort of post-board or forum to watch for the low-frequency, high-upside barbell win that on a long enough timeline, one of us is sure to get.
PS: Negative barbell graphs are possible too, and thanks to Murphy’s Law, more common. So watch out for those.
The following events took place during early summer of 2012, in Los Angeles, California…
Tuesday, May 15th, 2012
At this point it’s Tuesday morning, 3:35 AM.
The last time I got a full night’s sleep (thanks to jet-lag) was the previous Thursday afternoon. The last time I slept more than 2 hours at a stretch was Saturday morning between 6 AM and 8:30 AM. And since then, I’ve been cutting off my sleep after 23 minutes every single time – about 22 cycles so far over the past two and a half days. This is the strange and unnatural process of becoming a polyphasic sleeper.
Or maybe it’s better said “returning to being a polyphasic sleeper,” as we’re all born sleeping this way.
Babies sleep in multiple short cycles throughout the day, basically unhitched from the day-night cycle of the sun to determine their wakefulness. But after decades of practice of sleeping the way non-baby humans sleep, forcing a return to a polyphasic pattern is a tough row to hoe. It means bucking societal custom, bucking your own lifelong habits, and bucking the adjustable-but-not-happy-about-it neural pathways of your own brain. Sleep, as most of us know, isn’t just lying on your back and resting – there’s a lot going on; different phases of sleep that do different things for you physiologically. So, given that sleep is this complex, automatic behavior, why mess with a good thing?
Well, greed, of course. Greed for more hours in a day.
Here’s the thing: In those different phases of sleep that “sleep scientists” have discovered and “sleep researchers” research, you, as a sleeper, are not getting equal benefit for every minute spent. Some parts of your sleep cycle are far more important than others. Some, like REM (Rapid Eye Movement), literally keep you from going crazy. Others are kind of just a tossing, turning, transitional waste of time. So when you consider that your average adult spends between 7 and 8 hours invested in this sleeping process every day, it makes sense to ask: What parts of this investment are a win? Which are a loss? And can you sway your ratio of winners to losers higher and derive some benefit during your waking hours?
That’s the goal. Essentially, to crush out the non-essential types of sleep from your daily sleep-mix until all that remains are the phases your body really requires, and reclaim all the hours wasted on the “just-killing-time” phases.
The furthest this line of reasoning apparently can be pushed is what’s called the “Uberman Schedule,” which is six 20-minute naps spread equally at four-hour intervals (or thereabouts) throughout the day. Or – since sun-based days become irrelevant in this schedule, think of it as a never-ending cycle of four-hour mini-days, during each of which you sleep a mere 20 minutes. This is tough to train your body to do, but it is apparently possible, and there are people (most famously, Steve Pavlina) who have kept it up in perfect health and with rave reviews for extended periods. So that’s the pot of gold at the end of the polyphasic-sleep rainbow: reclaiming 5-6 hours of each and every day that you would normally be sleeping, at the cost of 1) the non-negotiable need for evenly-spaced naps every four hours or so, and 2) a reputedly brutal transition process to adapt your body to this new regimen.
It’s this self-directed brutality part in which I now find myself.
The actual “how-to” for this transition can be found here. This is a work-in-progress, as the online community of human guinea pigs working to build the body of knowledge on polyphasic sleeping is relatively small and young. I’m not going to go into detail on the theory behind this adaptation method, I’m just going to offer my subjective experience as the process as I go through it. A lot of people have told me they’d be interested to try it if I live to tell the tale…
So here’s the ongoing tale…
Day 1: Saturday the 12th
I was still coming off the jet lag from a 30-hour airport-to-airport plane flight from India to Los Angeles, knowing that I had the adaptation-period to polyphasic sleep not far in the future, so I didn’t even bother trying to reset to the local clock. I’d slept when I was tired, and didn’t when I wasn’t. The last lengthy block of sleep that I had was 2.5 hours starting at about 6 AM on Saturday. When I woke up for what was destined to be a busy day, I just stayed up. I took a total of three naps at oddball times throughout Saturday day and night, just kind of practicing to see how long it would take me to fall asleep from a standing start, etc. Based on the advice I’d read elsewhere on the Internet, I set my countdown-timer for 23 minutes for my naps — figuring it might take me 2-3 minutes to fall asleep, and then 20 for real sleeping.
Day 2: Sunday the 13th
My first full day of polyphasic sleeping. My iPhone was set for alarms every 2 hours, 40 minutes, leading to 9 evenly-spaced naps per 24 hour period. Staying up all night this way was surprisingly easy. (Of course, it wasn’t “all night” because I napped at midnight, 2:40 AM, 5:20 AM, etc. – but the naps are so short that it just seems like a momentary break, and the psychological feeling is like having pulled an all-nighter. Albeit one that magically required no caffeine.)
When the sun rose on Sunday morning, I felt almost completely awake; if I hadn’t known I’d been up throughout the night, I don’t think I could have discerned it from my reaction speed or manual dexterity.
It was as the sun started to dip around 7 PM that I started feeling my first real wave of tiredness. Up until this point, I’d always awoken from the naps feeling relatively refreshed. But now I was waking up still-tired. Definitely an unpleasant feeling, knowing that I “wasn’t allowed” to go back to bed and sleep off the grogginess. But it was the eventual total deprivation that my body would feel that was going to force it to adapt – so this was actually a good thing; one step back for a later two steps forward.
Day 3: Monday the 14th
When I was reading up on the adaptation period and planning for it, I read a lot of failure-stories from those who had tried the transition and for whatever reason couldn’t pull it off. Oversleeping seemed to be the common theme. People would sleep through alarm clocks or, more commonly, turn them off and then go straight back to sleep before their willpower forced them up and out of bed.
Many of the “survivors” recommended a massively loud, thumping alarm clock, and so I bought something called the “Sonic Bomb” that not only has a shockingly loud alarm at the top of its volume-range, but also a mattress-vibrator to literally shake you awake. (This isn’t as big as it sounds; you just notch this thing under the pillow-area of your mattress and your head will vibrate.) I would find on Monday that, once again, daylight hours were relatively smooth-sailing. I took my naps at the appointed times, and fell right asleep, but I also felt that I could easily have waited for the next nap with no adverse effects.
Nighttime was a different ballgame, though. Waking up wasn’t a problem. I set my iPhone’s time-based alarm a couple of minutes before the Sonic Bomb backup alarm, and never once needed the “Bomb” to go off. I would put my iPhone across the room from my bed, so in order to turn it off, I’d need to stand and walk over to get it. That proved to be enough time/effort to wake me enough to remember my goal – fighting through the discomfort. So I never succumbed to crawling back into bed. (Actually, crawling onto bed; throughout this period I’ve just been crashing on top of the bedcovers in whatever I’m wearing at the time, not making normal preparations for a nightly sleep.)
The problem came as I was awake at night – the dull feeling of unshakable grogginess that kept me from fully concentrating on anything, and a fear that if I let myself get too comfortable I would doze off. My normal practice of lying on my bed while working with the laptop was a temptation I knew I’d never survive… So instead I opted for more physical tasks – reorganizing my room, doing dishes, trying to orchestrate a makeshift “standing workstation” for my laptop, etc. The best solution to the fatigue seemed to be physical distraction.
Day 4: Tuesday the 15th
Once again, a difficult night and a comparatively easy day.
I hadn’t recognized just what a grip our Circadian rhythms have on us; I had figured that because I was fresh off of a 12-hour time difference after my return from India, my Circadian rhythm was so confused that I could boss it around, and at worst, day and night would be an indistinguishable melange from my adapting body’s concern. This proved to be wildly inaccurate.
Nights were hard; I would still wake up easily at the sound of the alarm, and quickly find myself across the room, standing, turned-off phone in my hand. The backup alarm not the Sonic Bomb was a needless insurance policy, as it turned out.
But once I was up, staying up was a greater challenge than I’d prepared myself for. I really wanted to sit down, lie down, close my eyes, black out. Every impulse my body could offer was adamant that rest was the sweetest, most all-encompassing priority. And yet I could not listen to these impulses. They were the enemy. They were trying to return me to my long-established, deeply-rooted, 24-hour default schedule. And I had to make things worse on my body in order to force a change. I was playing chicken with myself. I was telling my body I was willing to totally starve it of REM sleep, inviting radically reduced mental performance and the associated physical risks, and I would run it into the ground unless it gave me what I wanted – REM sleep front-loaded at the beginning of my sleep-cycles, rather than 75+ minutes deep in them.
It was a confrontation where, quite literally, I dared not blink.
I haven’t talked much about the nap themselves. For one, by this point, falling asleep has become remarkably easy. There is no waiting. 60-90 seconds after my head hits the pillow and I am gone, lights out, sayonara. I’ve been sleeping exclusively on my back, because I’ve always heard and also felt instinctively this is the most restful way to sleep, good for breathing, etc.
I’ve been trying – even during daytime naps — to cover my eyes from the light as best as possible, since apparently light (surprise surprise) makes it harder for your body to drop in to deep sleep. The naps often feel longer than they are. I think this is because I am so exhausted that I zonk out to a far deeper level than I would during a 20-minute nap on a normal day when I’d slept the night before. Sometimes I notice patches of dream, sometimes not — but in general these dreamy moments tend to be as I’m falling asleep rather than when the alarm wake me up, which makes me think that I’m not really getting into REM yet. I know from a lifetime of my normal sleeping I’ll sometimes have little dream-patches (I believe this is called “hypnagogic imagery”) while drifting off to sleep, well in advance of the REM-stage that won’t come for more than an hour.
Day 5: Wednesday the 16th
As the calendar-day flipped to the 16th, I was at somewhat of a mental low-point in this adjustment process.
I had found reason to hope that I was on the upward swing out of the really hard part and into the only kind-of hard part… That the nights wouldn’t be so simultaneously boring and demanding, that REM would find its way into my naps and my ability to really concentrate would return. But this night was proving every bit as hard, and maybe harder, than the previous two.
I went on two 45-minute walks around my neighborhood in an effective bid to stay awake, but even the physical movement didn’t really clear my head off the brain-fog that had settled. I found myself wishing that whatever storehouse of REM was seeing me through would just bottom out so my body would be forced to press forward with the adaptation… but there was no way to force it.
I tried doing more middle-of-the-night research on polyphasic sleep transitions to see if I was doing something wrong or missing some key ingredient to accelerate the process… but even sitting at the computer put me in grave danger of nodding off. I would lose the words I was typing, sit for a second trying to recapture my train of thought, and then find myself lapsing into a second-or-two mini-dream – just a nonsensical image or two or a patch of voices – and then I’d realize I was still at the computer.
I knew it was important to keep my naps broken up. Adding more of them wasn’t supposed to be a problem, but their length couldn’t grow. It was important to not let myself sleep until a point where REM could naturally occur, or otherwise I might “refill my REM tank” and delay the adaptation that was the whole point of this increasingly torturous process.
But by the time the dawn was breaking at about 6 AM, I realized that for the first time, the start of the solar day was not bringing increased wakefulness… I still felt like a brain-dead zombie who could barely stay animate. I was literally walking in circles around my bedroom to keep myself from nodding off. It was a little insane.
Someone in one of the polyphasic sleep blogs had written that the naps should be kept at least 2 hours apart from one another, otherwise your “body could interpret the multiple naps as one interrupted sleep cycle, rather than two discrete sleep cycles” – which could, in theory, mean that you might be given some “free REM” in the second cycle without any long-term adaptation taking place. A bad thing for anyone who wants to adapt quickly and end this painful transition.
But at 7 AM this morning, groggy to the point of misery and unable to do anything other than shuffle around my room with my eyes three-quarters closed, I made the decision that I didn’t believe this. This blogger was either wrong, or lying, or a bastard, or all three. So I took a nap, then forced myself awake for about 20 minutes, then took another nap, then forced myself awake for 20 minutes, then took another nap, then actually woke up for an extended period.
Whether physiologically or psychologically, the semi-concentrated burst of sleep seemed to help. And by the time that was done, the sun was all the way up, it was bright outside, and the rhythm of the sun was once again friend, not foe. Also notable today was the arrival of the “Zeo,” a gadget that I bought that will sit on my forehead as I sleep, measure my brain waves (cue freaky sci-fi music), and report to my nearby iPhone how long I remain in which stages of sleep. Pretty amazing tool, especially for what I’m trying to do right now. As I write this, the Zeo is still charging, so it won’t be until my next nap that I’ll be able to get this valuable data.
Update: I screwed up. Pride comes before a fall, as they say.
I took my 9:20 PM nap without setting the backup Sonic Bomb and for the first time, I wound up oversleeping, all the way through until midnight when the alarm for my next scheduled nap went off. I woke up still tired, but also a sweaty mess, face-down in my pillow. I’d obviously a) rolled over, b) gotten some undeserved REM based on the amount of time I’d slept and the amount how much more fantastically well-rested and clear-headed I feel. Short-term win, but actually a loss – that 2 hours of slippage might have cost me a day or more in my adaptation schedule. Bah, humbug!
Day 6: Thursday the 17th
Maybe last night’s screw-up with oversleeping was a blessing in disguise. We’ll see…
One other interesting thing that happened yesterday was this – the sleep-stage measuring gizmo called the ZEO that I ordered over the weekend arrived by mail.
This amazing little doohickey is worn on your forehead while you sleep and sends data about your sleeping to your nearby iPhone, which will collate the information and show you a “sleep report” when you awaken. For someone doing the adaptation-process I’m in, the utility of this sort of information is obvious. I wish I’d had it days ago so I would have some baseline information about my monophasic sleep, but no point in crying over spilled milk.
Here is what I found out. According to the Zeo, I am now pretty much maxing out on REM during my naps. This is pretty great news, as it means I’ve made it through the first of the two “difficulty humps” in the adaptation process. The first is to get your naps to include your daily needs for REM. The second is to get your naps to also include your daily needs for SWS (“Slow-Wave Sleep”), the super-deep, physically revitalizing and replenishing sleep. (My chart shows only 1 minute of this type; definitely not enough.)
The open questions are: How many days in did the REM start coming through in my naps?
Maybe I made it over that hump days ago, and the groggy nastiness I’ve felt the last few nights was a symptom of being totally depleted of SWS? Or maybe my timing is just coincidental, and it is only in the past 24 hours I made the switch to forward-spiking the REM, and the depleted feeling I had earlier was REM-deficit?
There’s no way to tell, but if I had to take a stab, I’d say it’s more likely the former than the latter. Lack of REM is supposed to make you nuts, and I never felt crazy. It was more of a total physical depletion feeling, like a Pinto trying to haul a tractor-trailer. That sounds more symptomatic of SWS-depletion, as I understand it.
But either way, this morning (it’s 8 AM as I type this, due for another nap in just a few minutes) I feel more rejuvenated and alert than I have in days. I hope that it is increasing adaptation that is responsible for this, and not a benefit of the 2 hours of oversleep I got just before midnight… Time will tell.
[This was abruptly followed by the following email to those who I had pre-informed of the experiment…]
Hey there everyone – Here’s a follow-up report on my sleep experiment on the past several days… In the midst of my reading up on this topic, I came across this article from an actual sleep scientist who shreds the idea that long-term benefits can be had from a radically reduced sleep schedule.
While it might be possible to stay awake for that many hours, maybe indefinitely, creativity and productive intelligence will plummet during all wakefulness, and you wind up in a worse position than where you started. He believes that the “success stories” of several Internet bloggers are basically lies used to drive up their own readership. Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to believe that being able to function effectively across all time zones is possible, this article basically put an iron spike through my faith in the idea. (Let it not be said that I won’t change my mind in the face of superior evidence.)
What’s funny is that despite the radically reduced sleep I’ve had in the past week, with zero caffeine, I’ve actually performed pretty well during daylight hours… but nights have been hard, sometimes very hard; there’s no getting around that.
I did get three useful things out of this experiment:
So, needless to say, the experiment is over. I’ll be returning to something like a normal schedule, although possibly including a Mexican-style afternoon “siesta” to improve late-day concentration and alertness.
Talk to you all soon,
Don’t mess with a good thing…
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…
And live simply, so that others may simply live.
These sound like great maxims – but are they really?
If you’re not prepared for a little mini-rant, it’s best you click the Back button on your browser right now.
The human brain is the best, most complex, and – all hyperbole aside – the most sacred thing in the known universe. If there is anything to which the sentiments in the maxims above should apply, it would be our brains.
Brains are amazing. The morphological differences in the human brain versus those of other animals have made us the dominant species on the planet. They allow us the gift of language, which has let us know ourselves. We think in narrative, we create symbols, and our insights become ideas that can be shared worldwide, across cultures and through oceans of time, surviving even ourselves. Our brains are so fantastically complex that we’re only now beginning to grasp how they really work.
And just like the world’s most skillful carpenter is going to be totally outmatched by the task of “building a rose,” our current means of augmenting our minds (through the physical substrate of our brains) is at best a blunt and awkward tool-set. We rightfully condemn the surgical lobotomies of the 1950s as fractional murders masquerading as medicine, and no doubt in the future our descendants (and our older selves) will grimace, remembering that we tried to affect specific neurological pathways with generalized application of chemicals throughout our entire bloodstream.
But we’ve got to start somewhere.
In our species’ effort to further improve our minds, there will be false starts, blind alleys, dead ends, and lives and minds wasted (literally and figuratively). But nobody said chasing the future was going to be easy.
The fact that our brains are our most precious assets is simply no reason not to muck about with them –it’s added incentive to do so. Biological evolution has brought us to an amazing launching-pad for the potential of Mind. The herky-jerk happenstance of history has helped us further, giving us the Enlightenment, a few hundred years of scientific progress, and finally, as a species we’re now ready to take toddling steps into the potentials offered by neuroscience.
It’s hard not to classify neuroscience as the most exciting field in the scientific spectrum today. It is the science of what we could become next. If we, as biological beings, are going to match pace (and continue to match wits) with our own silicon-based inventions – which are gaining intelligence at an astonishing rate – it is only by a near-fanatical devotion to neuroscientific progress that we will be able to do so.
To many people this may sound irresponsible.
Leave well-enough alone…
It’s your brain. You don’t know what the long-term effects will be…
But with the world changing at the incredible rate it is today – with feedback loops in technology and society remaking things year by year, decade after decade – we don’t know what the long-term effects of anything will be. Anyone who is honest, intelligent and informed has no choice but to admit: We don’t know very much about the world we are preparing ourselves for.
So… Smart Drugs. The term itself is almost cartoonishly simplistic.
Are they something we should be taking? What are the risks? What are the upsides? What are the effects, and side-effects? Is there another way? Or should “other ways” simply be add-ons to a growing psychopharmacological prescription?
These are the questions Smart Drug Smarts is set up to explore. It would be dishonest not to characterize ourselves as enthusiastic advocates. Indeed we are. Brain optimization isn’t a topic for neutrality. But neither is this a region one should wander into without the best road map currently available. That is what we hope to provide.
Ultimately, for us it is about curiosity as to where Mind is going, and what we can do – individually and collectively – to look as far into that horizon as possible. We’ve come a long way since the paramecia of primordial night. But at the same time, dawn is only now breaking.
We publish on Fridays.
April Fools’ Day, 2016 is on a Friday…
So we really had no choice.
The interview featured in Episode #122 was 100% unadulterated bullshit.
We promise never to do it again. (Except for maybe in the future.) 😉
Doing an episode like this is a bit of a risk. I feel like a naughty kid throwing a party with my parents out of town for the weekend. I know it’s going to be fun, but it’s also courting disaster.
Smart Drug Smarts’ Internal Betting Pool: 75% of our listeners will realize the episode is a joke. 15% will think we’re serious and unsubscribe forever. 10% will think we’re serious but not take offense, because they’re down with chakras.*
Love April Fools’ jokes, like we obviously do? Tweet-scam your friends:
Minnie Goode and Dan Mott are a husband-and-wife comedy team and friends of the Smart Drug Smarts family. Their expertise is less neuroscience and more funny-bone science, so doing something like Episode #122 seemed like the only plausible way to kidnap their talents. And we love them for it.
Here’s the cool part: The interview in the episode actually was a real interview. It was a bullshit interview, of course, but it was “real” in that there was no script and Jesse had no idea how Minnie or Dan (in their roles as Dr. Andreet Mankala and Jeff) would be answering the questions.
I (Jesse) spoke with them about a week before we recorded the interviews, telling them “I want to interview a doctor who has invented a new surgery that allows people to donate chakras. Can you look up all the right ‘energy medicine’ terminology so it sounds kind of real?” They took it from there. In a week when I interviewed their characters, I was “meeting” Dr. Mankala and Jeff for the first time.
* No, we are not down with chakras.