ExperimentI tried Polyphasic sleep for a week and it felt like LSD
Hopes&Fears challenged a friend to adopt a Polyphasic sleep schedule for a week. This is her story.
Cue the scene: Oakland, California. Early 90’s. Streaks of afternoon sun.
A preschool-aged me lies staring at the ceiling, back flush against a blue gym mat, in a quiet classroom. Around me, classmates do the same, some of them fidgeting nervously with their hands.
It’s Nap Time
Luvina is an American writer living in Paris, France. She' has contributed to xoJane, Medium's Human Parts and others.
I’m still awake, as usual, but instead of spending the next half hour mentally cataloguing everything in the room, I decide to inquire further about this elusive nap thing. I turn to my friend, who is spooning a stuffed Tasmanian Devil on the mat across from mine.
“How do you go to sleep? Can you show me how?” I ask. She nods, slowly. “It’s easy.” Lip smack. Yawn. Lip smack. “You just go like this.” Her single open eye falls back closed, and in seconds, she is snoring.
Until recently, I still didn’t really ‘get it.’ I have always spent at least an hour, usually two, in bed, waiting for sleep. On nights when I have to be up early, I’ll worry so much about needing to get enough sleep that I get none. I was always ashamed of my inability to do something so hardwired into all of us.
It was an on-again-off-again search for solutions that led me to Polyphasic—segmented—sleep. Here’s their angle: Light sleep is useless trash. Polyphasic sleepers try to reduce or even eliminate light sleep in favor of both slow wave sleep and REM sleep as those are times when our bodies recover and perform other kinds of maintenance.
Across the internet, Polyphasic sleep enthusiasts boast their decreased need for sleep, their super bodies, and their increased brain power. They claim to fall asleep more quickly and use their time more efficiently. They are The Best Sleepers Who Have Ever Slept, smug bastards.
Although most of us are monosleepers (sleeping in one, long segment, usually around 5 to 9 hours), there is a lot of evidence to support biphasic sleep as our ‘natural’ rhythm. Historical records around the world make reference to ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep and the activities that take place between the two. More recently, in studies where people are left in the dark for prolonged periods, they sleep in two 4-hour sleep shifts separated by a one of two-hour period of just hanging out/chilling/whatever. Classic biphasic sleep, but certainly not the only choice.
The Polyphasic Sleep Society lists eight alternate schedules. Most consist of at least one ‘core sleep’ of a few hours and one or more naps. There are some schedules, though, that are nap-only, the most popular of which is called the Uberman. The Uberman allows for just 8 or so 20 minute naps, spread evenly throughout the day. I haven’t read any Nietzsche since I was 14, but someone who requires sleep every three hours doesn’t sound very Über to me, even if he does technically have more free time than I do.
They are The Best Sleepers Who Have Ever Slept, smug bastards. They claim to fall asleep more quickly and use their time more efficiently.
For my foray into alt sleep I decided to try a Dual Core schedule—two segmented cores and a short nap. Using a handy, poly-sleep scheduling tool (which I like to think was made by someone who was thoroughly sleep deprived, since the app is not entirely finished) I created the following schedule:
First Core Sleep:
Second Core Sleep:
4am – 6am
I have a non-typical work schedule but I’m a night owl with a moderately active social life, a writing affliction, a husband, and a boyfriend. I definitely don’t have a lot of ‘free’ time. The suggested method of acclimation for a lot of alternative schedules is to simply spend 24 hours or more awake, until you slip into sleep deprivation and then to bring in the new cycle. That kind of sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on immune systems and would have me falling asleep throughout the day. I work with kids and need to be at least semi-alert so they don’t kill themselves. I opted to skip the craziness and dive right in.
It begins with bloating
I start my experiment on a Monday evening after work. After a stop at the grocery store, I make it home just one hour before I have to start my first core sleep. My husband offers to make dinner for me, knowing I’m low on energy and leaves afterward. A lot of polyphasic guides suggest another person will inevitably be necessary to wake you up in the early phases, but I’m skeptical, being a light sleeper. My husband and I also both agree that I’ll likely be a wreck throughout the week and that his opposing rhythm might make my adjustment hard. I love you, but I need to sleep.
At ten, I close the shutters until my apartment is completely dark and then me and my full stomach flop onto my couch. Are all of the other poly sleepers single?
Lying down so close to my last meal isn’t great for my acid reflux but after twenty minutes or so of loud burping, I fall asleep. Three hours later I wake up with my alarm, but I’m in what poly sleepers refer to as zombie-mode—still in slow wave sleep and not likely to remember anything I’m doing. That’s usually the mode you’re in when you’re late to work because you hit snooze seventeen times.
I shut off my alarm, apparently, and wake up at 6, not sure where I am or what my name is. It’s my first day and I’ve nearly broken the most important rule of segmented sleep: never be asleep for more than five hours. It occurs to me that obligations are usually what get me out of bed any time before 4pm. And even once I’m up, I’m lost as to how to spend the ‘extra’ time. I end up fooling around my apartment and cleaning with noticeably less enthusiasm than if I’d taken a modafinil. Of course the modafinil, along with coffee and other stimulants, is banned. I’m supposed to be altering my mind the natural way, you know, with torture. But I survive my morning and make it to the much-needed nap.
At thirty minutes, I’m not refreshed or even grateful; no, I want to die. I leave on time for work for once, but I slug through the four-hour day like it’s a 9-5. My bus to work is, as usual, filled with senior citizens. Instead of politely standing so that someone’s great grandmother can rest her tired bones, I take a window seat and stare at passing traffic, pretending not to notice the clearing throats and exasperated shuffling next to my chair. I’ve never been very nice but my bitchness is suddenly less ambiguous: I don’t care about other people.
Once I arrive at work, the big round eyes of my preschoolers manage to warm my cold, tired heart and I give in to the biological imperative to find them ‘cute.’ I force a smile and until my eyes water and read Grumpy Bird all seven times it’s requested. Unfortunately, I have no biological imperative to carry a crate of books for a child if I determine that his 40 pound frame is perfectly capable of dragging it across the room. I stay glued to a lime green beanbag until parents arrive and then throw all of my energy into my usual animated chatter and dancing.
Sunny day zombie
On my walk home from, I get text after text asking if I want to get drinks, go to a party, have dinner. After a long and unpleasant winter, the weather has finally warmed up, almost overnight. It’s a balmy night, by Paris standards, and I should be sipping beer and eating charcuterie out on the patio of some cute brasserie or sharing a bottle of sparkling wine along Canal Saint Martin. Instead I’m trudging home, frowning because I have to go to bed soon. I’m four years old again. Can’t come out to play because I have to nap. FOMO is at an all time high.
Not to be deterred, I brush up on the do’s and don'ts of sleep as I make dinner and decide to put more effort into The Best Sleep. I eat as early as possible and just enough to not be hungry. I’m careful to keep lights low as I near sleep time, including my phone and computer screens, so as not to block my body’s production of melatonin—a sleep hormone. I also leave my shutters open so I can wake with the sun after my first core sleep. I even unfold my futon and get into an actual bed. When 10pm rolls around, I’m out like a light.
I wake up from my first core a little before my alarm. It’s too soon to declare this some kind of victory but it does feel great. The time between the two cores is relaxed, pleasant. I work on a novel outline and do some planning for the next day. What I get done is much better quality than if I had stayed up. My mind is full of energy, but my body is still as tired as if I’d been up. I find it difficult to engage in anything too physical, so I decide against cleaning and instead have another go at an Iain Banks novel I borrowed from a friend. A few pages in, my stomach growls. I make myself a fourth and fifth meal before guilty slipping into my second sleep.
I love you, but I need to sleep.
Wednesday is when it all begins to unravel. I have to be up at 6:30am and won’t finish work until about 8pm. It’s the one day of the week I have anything resembling a 9-5 and since I can’t schedule a nap around the hours, I decide to suck it up and skip the nap altogether.
My resolve begins to wane around lunch time. I’m in unexpectedly hot weather, directly under the sun, surrounded by screaming kids and my lunch is late. Sleepy, hungry and hot—a rage-inducing trifecta of Uncomfortable Ways to Be. You don’t ever want to be around me when I’m sleepy, hungry and hot; I’m ready to lose it. I pop an L-theanine late in the afternoon, rationalizing that it isn’t a stimulant. Theanine is the chemical in tea that makes us feel relaxed despite the caffeine. It mellows me out, but also makes me even more tired.
You don’t ever want to be around me when I’m sleepy, hungry and hot; I’m ready to lose it.
I grow more exhausted until around an hour before my shift ends, when I get a sudden burst of motivation. It feels more like a fit of excited and productive crazy than real ‘energy’ but I take it anyway. The wired feeling lasts well into my date with my boyfriend, who I eat with at a park. But then, as the sun begins to set, I become completely depleted. Going along with my circadian rhythm isn’t so good for evening dates. We walk around my neighborhood for a while after the park closes, and I spend twenty anxious minutes spent fretting over what I want to eat. My boyfriend stands a few feet from me, leaning against a metal pole and lighting a cigarette. I stare at his hand and then at the wisps of blue smoke curling from the end of his marlboro light. The smoke vibrates and then distorts like it’s made of static.
“Could you go for a walk?” I say, eyes still on the smoke. There’s a beat and then, “A walk to where?” I don’t know where I want him to go, only that I can’t decide what to eat while he’s here with his weird electric smoke. “You’re kind of distracting. I can’t think.” He mumbles something and disappears down the street; I walk swiftly to a nearby grocery and buy everything that looks good--way more than I can eat and most of which needs to be cooked in an oven, which I don’t own.
We take my food to another park and I tune in and out to his stories about work while growing increasingly suspicious of a man pacing back and forth outside of the park’s fence. Afterwards, my walk home is equally surreal, with undulating brick walls and proportions out of whack: I feel like I’m on LSD.
By 1am, I’m home and ready to sleep for 14 hours. I set my alarm and roll into bed.
Polyphasic sleep is mostly insanity punctuated by moments of utter clarity. Keeping the schedule is easy as I begin to make it a habit. My good stretches of wake time have me attributing all of my positivity and motivation to segmented sleep. Paradoxically, when a text that says ‘want to have lunch?’ triggers brain overload and nearly makes me cry (Lunch when? Lunch where? How far is it from where I am? When will I need to leave in order to make it to work afterwards? When will I need to get ready to make it to lunch on time? Will it be inside or outside? If it’s a picnic, should I bring a blanket? What areas of Paris are between us? What do I want to eat?) I’m positive such emotional volatility is a result of my mounting sleep debt. All of my good and all of my bad is because of my quest for The Best Sleep.
I often forgot to eat, to do laundry and keep my house clean, and occasionally, I even forgot to shower. The isolation also wears on me. I rarely get lonely but here I am thinking about how nice it would be to have a goddamn hug. And not just any hug, a big, warm, long bear hug--the kind I usually squirm to get out of. But I’m also so paranoid about changes in my generally stoic temperament that I avoid my friends rather than explain why I seem a bit ‘weird’ or ‘off.’ My goal of ‘more time’ is achieved but at a high cost.
I often forgot to eat, to do laundry and keep my house clean, and occasionally, I even forgot to shower. The isolation also wears on me.
All the times I’ve wished for ‘more hours in the day,’ I wasn’t being specific enough: Extra time is useless if you can’t decide when to have it or if it has to be broken up into short segments. I guess I don’t want more time, I want specific moments—like the sunniest part of the day or the chunk of time between waking up and going to work—to last longer. I want a free lunch.
But trying to cheat sleep is like trying to cheat death—just a matter of time. There may be a post-REM world in our future, but it’s not here yet. In the end, my body will have used about twenty-five years of my life snoozing. Polyphasic sleep works for a small, privileged, percentage, but for the rest of us, it seems like smart sleep, as opposed to less sleep, is how to get more out of your day. And after spending a week trying to be one of them, I’ve decided that most Polyphasics are probably unemployed or self-employed, social recluses, surviving on Solyent, not getting laid, or a little crazy.
That’s not to say that my segmented sleep experiment has been without its benefits. Weeks later, I sometimes still sleep in two shifts, with a couple hours in between. I’ve also retained a lot of my good ‘sleep hygiene’ habits and I’m conscious of the best time to nap (7 hours after waking, with morning naps only if I need to make up sleep). I also know how to tell the difference between types of sleep and when hitting the snooze button is likely to put me down for another few hours. After twenty-something years of practice, I think I might be getting somewhere.
Illustrations: Andrey Smirny