In a nutshell, polyphasic sleep is a different sleep cycle to what you are used to. Instead of sleeping in one chunk at night, you sleep for several short periods during the course of the day.
Different sleep schedules:
To fully understand this, we have to look at some information about how we sleep.
This is the way most people sleep: In one chunk at night. On Monophasic sleep, most people will require between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per day.
Essentially, this is monophasic sleep with an afternoon siesta. You sleep for about 6,5 – 8 hours during the night and take an afternoon nap for another 30 – 90 minutes.
Why we sleep this way:
Monophasic and Biphasic sleep is controlled by the circadian rhythm. Essentially, your body releases Melatonin which tells the brain that it is time to go to sleep. Once enough melatonin has built up, you get sleepy. Then after 7-9 hours, the body releases Cortisol which tells the body to wake up and get rid of any extra Melatonin. In most people this happens in a cycle that is about 24.2 hours long, but the body resets it’s internal clock based on external cues – the most important being light and dark. Basically sunrise resets your body clock and allows your natural rythm to stay in sync with a 24 hour day. There is also a midday slump caused by the Circadian rhytm which is why Biphasic sleep is beneficial.
Polyphasic sleep is a sleep schedule where you sleep in multiple short periods during the course of the day.
The original polyphasic sleep pattern I read about is called the Uberman schedule. On this schedule you sleep for 20 minutes every 4 hours. So you’ll have a 20 minute nap at 1AM, 5AM, 9AM, 1PM, 5PM and 9PM for a total of 2 hours of sleep in every 24 hour period.
Other than the Uberman schedule, there are also the Everyman schedules, which is essentially polyphasic sleep but with one longer sleep period at night (called Core sleep). For example, one such schedule would be 3 hours core sleep with 3-4 twenty minute naps. I’ve also seen schedules with 1,5 and 4,5 hours core sleep and anything between 2 and 5 naps.
How is this possible?
According to some sleep scientists, it’s not possible and everybody that claims to be able to do it is either lying, a mutant or has the sheer willpower to keep going despite the fact that they are permanently sleep deprived. I’ve seen too many claims of people doing it successfully to believe that they are all lying or are all mutants. I also doubt that willpower will be enough if they are causing themselves to be that sleep deprived.
The theory is that it works because the body only really need REM sleep. On average, the body goes through one REM cycle every 90 minutes or so when we are sleeping monophasically, so if you sleep for 9 hours, you would have about 6 REM cycles where the REM part of the cycle is about 20 minutes long.
Other than REM sleep, there is also light and deep sleep, but there is no conclusive evidence that the body actually needs this. Scientists know that muscle regeneration happens in deep sleep, but it seems that the body only really needs to stop moving for this to happen, the sleep is just a convenient way for the body to force us to stop.
Light sleep seems to primarily just be a transition between the different sleep states.
Why would you want to do it?
There’s a couple of good reasons. One of the best (in my opinion at any rate) is the fact that it is just frigging awesome. Of course a more rational reason would be the increase in time. What could you do with a couple of extra hours a day?
There is also the fact that it can help people with sleeping disorders. For some people, if they can’t get a decent nights sleep in any case, this is definately something worth thinking about. I firmly believe that drugs should be a last resort for most problems.
Another reason for me to try this is the fact that I often wake up with severe neck and back aches if I sleep for more than about 6 hours. And the better I sleep, the worse this is. I’ve had this on completely different mattresses and I’ve tried lots of different pillows over the years, but this pain seems to be pretty constant. I’m hoping that it will go away if I sleep for shorter periods at a time.
Sounds great, so why wouldn’t you want to it?
There are several reasons that makes polyphasic sleep unsuitable for the majority of people.
This has to be the main reason. Especially during adaptation and on the Uberman schedule, you can’t really skip naps or move them around. Once you are fully adapted, and on the Everyman schedules with more Core Sleep, you do have a little bit of freedom to move naps or miss one occasionally.
The rest of the world is monophasic:
If you don’t like being on your own or are very social, this could be a pretty significant problem. Because most of the extra time you add to your day will be when other people are asleep, you will be spending a much bigger percentage of your time alone. You will basically be out of sync with most of the world.
It’s hard to adapt:
You need to go through at least some sleep deprivation before you can sleep polyphasically and be rested from it. Generally speaking, the less sleep you are getting, the more intense the sleep deprivation will be. However, the more sleep you get, the longer the adaptation will work.
You need a fair amount of self-discipline and will-power to stick it out and get through the adaptation.
Other people will think you’re strange:
I don’t really have a problem with this, but if you do, you might want to consider this. It sounds like a great conversation starter, but it might get tedious to explain polyphasic sleep and answer all the inevitable questions (One of which is likely to be: “Are you completely mad!?”).
More free time:
The biggest pro is ironically also one of the biggest problems. If you regularly get bored, this will just make it a lot worse. There’s going to be at least a couple more hours in a day if you sleep polyphasically, so if you can’t fill up your day on monophasic sleep, this will be a big problem.
What would you need?
Like I’ve already mentioned, the discipline to get up despite the fact that you are sleep deprived and the will-power to stick it out even though the adaptation is no fun at all.
Other than that, you need a flexible schedule that will allow you to take the naps. You can’t skip too many naps or move them around too much.
Finally, you need a week or two to adapt. Provided you don’t slip up, you should be fine after two weeks, but you need about a month to fully adapt, after which it seems that a few slipups won’t disrupt the schedule too much.
Polyphasic sleep seems to be a good way to get more time (and some people report that they seem to have more energy as well) if your schedule allows it and if you can manage to adapt to it.
One of the concerning things is that there are no long term studies of health risks and what long term effects this might be having on your body. According to conventional research on how the sleep cycles work and how the Circadian rythms regulate them, this can’t possibly work and you will completely screw up your sleep patterns (possibly permanently). These are risks that can’t be overlooked, you just need to make the decision about whether it is worth it for you.