It has a daily sleep-wake cycle that lasts about 28 hours instead of 24 hours, which means each day I stay awake about four hours longer than most people. In the middle of the week, I sometimes find myself waking up at 11PM and going to bed in the early afternoon the next day. When I was younger, people thought I was insane. The only thing I remember of elementary school is being tired.
Eventually, I discovered that if I stuck to a 28-hour schedule, my body was happy; I woke up rested, went to sleep tired, and everything worked great. Except, well, that my life was incompatible with the rest of the world. Living with a normal schedule was going to be tough, so I had to find a solution.
After some research, I discovered that what I probably have is called non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome. There’s a way to fix it using a hack called polyphasic sleep, which is really fascinating and can be used by anyone. It can shave 6 hours off your normal sleeping time (with a catch, of course).
A lot of people believe sleep has been proven to repair or rehabilitate the brain and body, but this is not necessarily true. We don’t really know much about sleep. There’s no clearly defined biological reason for it, and it is intuitively an evolutionary disadvantage.
In the late 1930’s, a wealthy amateur scientist named Alfred Lee Loomis and his colleagues watched an EEG monitor for brain electrical activity during sleep, and they made a pretty remarkable discovery: there are actually five main parts to each of several phases of sleep that occur during a normal night. One of these stages is called REM (rapid eye movement), and it is where most of the benefit of sleep comes from. Ironically, it is in REM sleep that the brain looks the least asleep. In fact, it looks awake. This is the phase where dreams occur.
It seems that all you really need to survive and feel rested is the REM phase, which is only a tiny portion of your actual sleep phases at night. You only spend 1-2 hours in REM sleep during any given night, and the rest is wasted on the other seemingly useless phases. This is where the opportunity to hack the brain presents itself. What if you could find a way to cut out the other phases and gain 4-5 more hours of productive wakeful time?
One of the ways to force your brain into REM sleep and skip the other phases is to make it feel exhausted. If you’ve gone 24 hours without sleep, you might notice that you drift away into dreams straight from being awake. This because your body goes instantly into REM sleep as a protection mechanism. The way to hack yourself into entering REM sleep without being exhausted is to trick your body into thinking you’re going to get a tiny amount of sleep. You can train it to enter REM for short periods of time throughout the day in 20-minute naps rather than in one lump at night. This is how polyphasic sleep works.
There are actually six good methods to choose from; the first one, monophasic sleep, is the way you’ve probably slept your whole life. The five others are quite a bit more interesting.
How awesome would it be to sleep a total of two hours a day and feel rested? Very awesome, of course, but there is a catch. The more naps you have (and thus the less sleep you have total) the more rigorous you have to be regarding your nap times. You can’t miss a nap by more than a couple hours in the 2 and 3 “Everyman” methods, and you must have your naps within 30 minutes of their scheduled times for the Uberman method. If you miss a nap, the whole schedule is thrown off and you’ll feel tired for days.
Thankfully, when I can keep to one of these schedules, I'm able to ignore my body's abnormal internal clock and just stay awake all day and all night with minor 20-minute interruptions.
One question I always had when I was researching this was how to get started. What if you can’t sleep for the first nap? To answer this, we have to go back to the original theory that in order to enter REM sleep immediately, you have to be exhausted. During the first few days, you probably won’t be able to sleep during each nap. Just skip them. Eventually, you’ll be so tired that your body will just fall asleep. For the first week or two, you’ll feel pretty tired all the time. The key is to continue the habit of attempting naps at the correct times. Eventually, after about a month or so, you’ll adapt and the naps will feel natural You won’t even have to set an alarm or remember the times.
The rigor of keeping the schedule makes most of these methods unrealistic for most people. But if you have a flexible schedule and can manage to pick a method and stick with it for several months, you’ll find that you feel amazing and you have a seemingly unlimited amount of time during the day to get things done. It’s the ultimate brain hack. •
I haven’t included all of the material required to start these alternative sleeping methods in this article. If you really are interested in trying them, there are tons of resources online. Here are a couple places to get you started.
• The Wikipedia article is a concise and excellent introduction: Wiki on Polphasic Sleep
• And this is a good article about Everyman and Uberman: The History of Everyman
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