Spoiler Alert: This story does not end well. Think of it as a cautionary tale.
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.
Modern-day Jesse Interjection:
Wow, I must have forgotten that I’d written about the Zeo less than 24 hours before. I really was frickin’ brain-dead!
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.
Zeo app readout
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:
- I found this website, which has a really great, free e-Book for 40 ways to improve your sleep quality.
- I discovered the existence of the “Zeo”, a cool little gizmo that you can wear on your head at night and it feeds information to your nearby iPhone about the stage of sleep you’re in, so you can try to optimize the amounts of REM and SWS sleep you get (these are the two really important types).
- It was a great exercise in willpower, especially now that I realize what I was trying to do was essentially impossible. Given that sad fact, my ability to get by on around 3 hours of sleep per day for five days in a row, without caffeine, at least kind of makes me feel good.
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,