Remember the Seinfeld episode where Kramer tries to copy Leonardo da Vinci’s famed sleep patterns? The practice of taking short naps throughout the day instead of sleeping in one large chunk at night?
It’s called polyphasic sleep. For Kramer, it didn’t work out so well, but there’s a whole community of people dedicated to polyphasic sleep. I even tried it myself.
A quick briefer: Polyphasic sleep is based on the idea that rapid eye movement sleep, or REM, is all you really need. There are three major phases of sleep — light, deep and REM — and typically REM, which is when most dreaming occurs, occupies only about 20 to 25 percent of total sleep time. By training your body to enter REM right away, as opposed to the 90 or so minutes it usually takes, you can supposedly cut out the sleep you don’t need and live on naps alone.
There are a number of people who claim to live successfully this way, and they reside online in forums and blogs where they discuss all things polyphasic. They maintain polyphasic sleep logs, trade advice on beating the adaptation process and discuss the positives and negatives of going polyphasic.
The most popular polyphasic method is called the Uberman, which involves one 15 to 20 minute nap every four hours, around the clock. If you can make it through the extreme sleep deprivation of a brutal adaptation period, the claim goes, while adhering to the new sleep schedule with rigid consistency, your body will adjust its internal rhythm to match the new pattern. And in theory, you’ll be able to comfortably stay awake for 22 hours each day. But you can’t oversleep. If you do, your body can’t learn to go straight into REM, and it won’t work.
I first came across the idea after a forensic doctor I’d met told me he sleeps just two hours a day. I’d heard of such things from passing mentions in articles I’d read about famous people like Cornel West and Gilbert Arenas, so I consulted Google. Right away I stumbled onto a whole set of Internet resources for something called polyphasic sleep. My burning question: Can this thing possibly be for real?
I approached the story from both inside and outside. In addition to trying the Uberman myself, my reporting spanned science, history, sociology and anthropology. I interviewed psychiatry professors and sleep scientists. I researched the sleep practices of other cultures. I read about alleged polyphasers like Buckminster Fuller, Albert Einstein and Mircea Eliade.
The most interesting moment in polyphasic history to me, however, was its meme-like spread over the Internet. Tracing polyphasic back to its online inception, I came upon Marie Hetrick, who as a college student in 2000 coined the term “Uberman Sleep Schedule.” Hetrick told me she first experimented with the schedule to combat her insomnia and night terrors after hearing about Fuller’s infamous “Dymaxion” pattern. She recently wrote a self-published book on the subject and currently maintains the Polyphasic Sleep Information Portal online.
Another key polyphaser is Steve Pavlina, the popular personal development blogger whose site marked my introduction to the phenomenon. If polyphasic sleep sounds unbelievable, Pavlina makes it sound more than plausible. Pavlina tried the Uberman after reading Hetrick’s article and kept an unusually comprehensive log. Polyphasic bloggers frequently cite him as their introduction to the topic. There are others. Bill Turnbull, the BBC anchor who in 2006 tried the Uberman for TV (“It can drive you a bit bonkers after a while,” he told me). Josh Kornreich, a Carnegie Mellon junior, got involved in a polyphasic experiment based on the Zeo alarm clock, which uses an electronic headband to measure your brain waves and read your sleep patterns.
Personally, I designed a schedule for napping at 3, 7 and 11 throughout the day and night, with adjustments for class on certain days. I became a nomad, often crashing at the library or friends’ houses for several cycles at a time. The initial days were brutally hard, but on the fourth day I had my first breakthrough: I woke from a vivid dream feeling refreshed and alert, a sure sign of REM. I was optimistic that adaptation had begun to take hold.
One week in, however, I began to feel my body breaking down. When I played basketball, the result was stiff fingers, creaky ankles and sore knees. The problem was, I suspected, my inability to maintain absolute consistency, despite my best efforts. For whatever reason, I occasionally overslept. It got to the point where every one or two days, I would accidentally sleep an extra hour on a nap. Once, for example, I started reading a book at 4 a.m. After what seemed like a few minutes I glanced at the clock — more than an hour had passed.
The fact is, the vast majority of those who attempt the Uberman fail, unable to adhere to the strict schedule the process requires. As for myself, certain inconsistencies in my execution became apparent after I had already started. I would lay down for naps only roughly within their scheduled start times, for example, for class or whatever reason. No big deal, I figured at first, but interviewing more seasoned practitioners told me this wasn’t the case. By the time I realized, I had built up too much of a sleep debt to start anew.
Two weeks in, trapped in polyphasic purgatory, catching a cold and going comically insane, I called it quits. I still don’t know if the Uberman is real. I can’t know. Hetrick and Kornreich were insomniacs, making it impossible to tell if sleeping polyphasically actually made them feel as good as they think it did. I can only deem my experiment inconclusive.
Would I try it again? Probably not. But I won't rule it out. I still want to know.