Some folks will do anything to cheat sleep. Somewhere
between sanity and insomnia lies polyphasic sleep, now
gaining devotees in the blogsphere. They take six 25-minute
naps during the day and maybe an hour of sleep at night.
Once you make it through the acknowledged grueling two-week
adjustment period, during which you just feel like, well,
sleeping, you supposedly enter into a euphoria defined
by more energy, more concentration and more time to live
Although no studies have been performed on the safety
or benefits of polyphasic sleep, everything we know about
sleep — and even the language of the bloggers themselves—suggest
that the technique can work only in your dreams.
Most of us are monophasic sleepers, sleeping in one
long stretch at night.
Biologically, however, we are a biphasic species. EEGs
reveal how the brain enters into a lengthy sleep mode
a night and then has a midday dip in alertness. The rest
of the body follows, with organs and various body functions,
down to the cellular level, showing a biphasic activity
cycle. Many societies cater to this need with a siesta.
Admittedly, little is known about why animals sleep,
or why the healthy range of human sleep for adults can
be anywhere between five and nine hours a day.
There seems to be no biological support, however, that
polyphasic sleep can be healthy or that this was the natural
sleep pattern of our cave-dwelling ancestors to remain
vigilant against predators at night, as some polyphasic
Why we sleep
One leading theory of why we sleep, as opposed to merely
needing to rest, is that sleep allows the brain to processes
information gathered during the day and place some of
it into deep memory. Without question, cognitive skills
diminish when the body is sleep deprived.
Human sleep comes in 90-minute cycles, comprising approximately
65 minutes of non-REM sleep, 20 minutes of REM, and another
five minutes of a transitional non-REM. Most of us get
four or five cycles each night. REM sleep is considered
the most restful, and studies show that disruption of
REM as opposed to the other cycles causes the worse sleep
The core theory behind polyphasic sleep is that, by
enduring a two-week period of sleep deprivation, you can
enter a phase in which napping takes you straight into
REM. You eliminate the so-called unnecessary aspects of
Some sleep better than none
Polyphasic sleep can be helpful in some cases. Claudio
Stampi, a sleep expert based in Boston, is the leading
researcher for polyphasic sleep and is focused mostly
on how yachtsman, soldiers or others who need to stay
awake can best cheat sleep.
Stampi has found that taking six short naps is more
useful than going several days on just a few hours sleep.
He does not recommend, nor do his studies support the
notion, that healthy people leading normal lives should
adopt polyphasic sleep as a lifestyle to gain more waking
Nevertheless, polyphasic sleep advocates point to Stampi's
work as justification for experimenting with less sleep.
Sleep blogs offer various polyphasic recipes, with the
most rigorous being just six 20-minute naps. Validating
bloggers' claims can be difficult, but assuming they
have no reason to lie and that they aren't hallucinating
from lack of sleep, many bloggers actually reveal how
polyphasic sleep isn't so great.
For example, what would you do with more wakeful hours?
These bloggers stay awake by exercising or socializing;
no one reads more books, solves complicated puzzles or
learns a language, likely because they can't. These
tasks are too taxing for the sleep-deprived mind.
Most bloggers return to normal sleep after six months
or so largely out of boredom, albeit believing they've
accomplished a mission. So much for euphoria. The extra
hours weren't productive. Bloggers also supply a long
list of famous polyphasic sleepers, such as Thomas Edison,
but likely these people were merely the napping biphasic
While it is perhaps fun to experiment with "living
longer" by virtue of spending more of life awake,
polyphasic sleep could backfire. This month, the World
Health Organization placed nightshift work as a probable
human carcinogen; there's something about getting
the sleep rhythm out of whack that causes cancer, heart
diseases, obesity and other ills.
Polyphasic sleep is a tempting idea but best put to