Illustration by Diya Gupta

How to Sleep 3 Hours Per Night for a Year

What is polyphasic sleep and how does it work?

Mar 3, 2018

Historians believe that in early modern Europe and North America, the standard pattern for nighttime sleep was segmented. Instead of sleeping eight hours straight, pre-industrialization human beings used to follow a biphasic sleeping pattern, wherein sleep was divided into two distinct chunks with a wake period in between for one to two hours. People would use this awake period to pray, read, visit neighbors or even have sex. But with the advent of electric lighting, people pushed back their sleeping schedule and adopted a monophasic sleeping pattern.
Roger Ekirch, an expert in the study of ancient sleeping patterns, believes that the reason so many people suffer from insomnia and wake up in the middle of the night is due to the disruption that modernization imposed on our ancestral sleep rhythms. To him, monophasic sleep is an unnatural sleeping pattern and that we should return to biphasic sleep. This reasoning explains the rise of online social platforms that share methods to reduce the amount of time spent sleeping without feeling sleep deprived, known as polyphasic sleeping patterns. To learn more about polyphasic sleeping, I met with Rodrigo Torres, Class of 2018, a former polyphasic sleeper.
Rodrigo double majors in Physics and Theatre, a feat which clearly justifies the need for more time spent awake. In fact, Rodrigo mentions that he first got into polyphasic sleeping due to the workload he faced in his freshman year.
“I was fascinated by the idea of having more time to do stuff, especially because Foundations of Science took up most of my time. Polyphasic sleeping allowed me to sleep less and have more time to do other things I enjoyed, such as playing the piano. Between my circle of friends, sleeping less was perceived as some sort of power statement.”
There are different types of polyphasic sleeping patterns, but all have the common goal of sleeping less without feeling sleep deprived. Rodrigo followed one of the most famous routines, known as the Everyman routine.
“The sleeping pattern I followed consisted [of] a core sleep — the longest segment of sleep — of three to four hours max during the night and three naps of 20 minutes spread evenly throughout the course of the day.”
The total amount of sleep you can get from this routine is a maximum of 5 hours per day. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sleep seven to nine hours per night to avoid feeling sleep deprived. The figures suggest that the polyphasic sleeping routine is unhealthy, but polyphasic sleepers justify their fewer sleeping hours by relying on its quality rather than its quantity. The goal of a polyphasic sleep routine is to minimize the time it takes to go from light sleep to the Rapid Eye Movement phase. The quicker transition is induced by sleep deprivation, which forces the individual to compress his or her other sleep stages in order to provide more time for REM sleep. REM sleep is considered by polyphasic sleepers as the most important stage of sleep due to recent theories that link REM sleep to learning and memory. However, the stages prior to REM sleep have been proven to be restorative, both for the mind and especially for the body. Trying to limit the preceding stages, including deep sleep, would significantly reduce the ability for a body to recover. Rodrigo agrees.
“Deep sleeping is associated with body recovery. For people that are athletes, or into sports, this is a very important phase and, therefore, it might not be a good decision for them to follow a polyphasic sleep routine.”
Following a polyphasic sleeping schedule requires a lot of dedication. Polyphasic sleepers agree that missing a nap is almost as bad as pulling an all-nighter. The importance of taking these required naps is due to the sleep deprivation status that the person is in. It goes without saying that a polyphasic sleeper’s flexibility in their routine is significantly reduced.
“Changing into a polyphasic sleeping schedule requires a lot of lifestyle changes. You cannot get into this sleeping schedule if you cannot get rid of your technological devices at least one hour before going to sleep. You become much more susceptible to the effects of alcohol and caffeine, which definitely affect sleeping patterns. Eating patterns will change too. You have to start planning every meal beforehand. All of these changes require discipline and changes of habits, which a lot of people may not be willing to make.”
Transitioning from a monophasic sleeping pattern to a polyphasic one is surely not an easy task. Some polyphasic sleepers suggest staying awake for 48 hours straight before starting polyphasic sleeping so that the person will be sleep deprived and it will be easier for them to fall asleep during their scheduled naps. Rodrigo thinks there are easier ways to start a polyphasic sleeping routine.
“When I started polyphasic sleeping, I was jet lagged, so I guess I was sort of sleep deprived. However, there are definitely easier ways to get into a polyphasic sleeping routine. I would suggest first moving to a biphasic sleeping routine, which involves breaking up your sleep in two chunks. From there it is easier to shift to a more complex polyphasic sleeping routine.”
The best way to see if polyphasic sleep works out for you is to try it. So if you ever feel overwhelmed with work, just like Rodrigo did, perhaps it might be worth a shot. If you decide to undertake this journey, there are numerous online communities that help you to avoid feeling alone when you wake up at 3 a.m. in the morning. And, of course, there is also Rodrigo.
Andrea Arletti is Opinion Editor. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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