Unless you work the graveyard shift, most of us sleep through the night in one solid block, or what sleep researchers term a monophasic sleep pattern.
It is, after all, what experts have told us to strive for: Getting seven to nine hours of slumber every night keeps our internal circadian rhythm ticking, and in turn, regulates a myriad processes such as hormone production, eating habits and digestion, and body temperature.
Interestingly though, humans are some of the few mammals that stick to this sleep schedule. According to the National Sleep Foundation in the US, 85 per cent of mammals sleep in polyphasic patterns, meaning they break up their sleep into short periods throughout the day. Babies, for instance, naturally follow a polyphasic sleep pattern until they are about three months old, according to the foundation.
So how did we evolve to sleep through the night and stay up during the day? It became the norm during the industrial revolution, when people needed to be awake longer in the day to improve productivity.
“Some argue that since the advent of electricity and increased exposure to bright light, melatonin levels are decreasing, as they would if a person were exposed to sunlight. This can interrupt a person’s sleep-wake cycle and have a negative impact on their sleep durations,” noted the website.
DO GENIUSES SLEEP LESS?
So what exactly is a polyphasic sleep pattern? There are many variations to it but generally, it is marked by multiple intervals of sleep and wakefulness throughout each 24-hour day.
A polyphasic sleep pattern actually reduces the total amount of sleep you get across the day, so that you get more time to spend on waking activities, explained Professor Joshua Gooley, the principal investigator at Duke-NUS Medical School’s Chronobiology and Sleep Laboratory.
It is, perhaps, the kind of sleep routine a high-performing “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” like Ironman’s Tony Stark uses to get more out of each day.
Reality may not be too far off either. Great minds such as Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Telsa have been rumoured to be polyphasic sleepers; the painter of Mona Lisa himself supposedly took a 20-minute nap every four hours, while the Tesla coil inventor was said to never have slept for more than two hours a night.
In more modern times, Gucci’s former creative director Tom Ford purportedly only steals three hours to sleep a day. Meanwhile, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is said to be already up and checking his emails by 4.30am.
Conversely, there are also successful people who insist on getting their executive suite of rest. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is known to keep a normal routine that gives him seven to eight hours of sleep. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos apparently needs eight hours of sleep each night to help him make the difficult decisions he has to make on a daily basis.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING SLEEP?
It is important to understand what your brain goes through during slumber. There are four stages of sleep, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Stages One to Three are when you go through non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and it’s hard to wake up from. This is when your body regenerates and repairs itself.
Stage Four is when REM sleep and dreams occur; this happens about 60 to 90 minutes after falling asleep. “A full sleep cycle takes about 90 to 110 minutes. Your first REM period is short. As the night goes on, you’ll have longer REM sleep and less deep sleep,” noted the website.
Studies such as this have pointed out the association between poor-quality REM sleep and Alzheimer’s disease and depression. Others claim that REM sleep stimulates the areas of the brain that help with learning and memory.
WHAT IS POLYPHASIC SLEEP?
Let’s say you need more waking hours each day to get things done. Besides, you are already sleeping rather little at night due to maybe insomnia, digital distractions (are you reading this before bed?), external factors (noisy neighbours) or other changes in your life (starting a new job or having a new baby).
Is it worth exploring polyphasic sleep schedules to hack your life and get more done? After all, proponents allege that polyphasic sleep could improve memory, mood and restfulness, all while increasing productivity.
If you can work from home and incorporate naps into your day, how does polyphasic sleep fit into your 24 hours? Here’s a look:
Of all the polyphasic sleep patterns, the Everyman schedule detracts the least from the regular monophasic pattern and maintains a semblance of the circadian rhythm. Still, it only gives you a core sleep period of three hours, typically from 1am to 4am, along with three 20-minute naps sprinkled throughout the day.
Total sleep per day: Four hours
This regimented schedule gives you six 30-minute naps every four hours. Proponents say that this sleep pattern sustains the concentration of adenosine (a chemical that regulates sleep recovery) in the blood, which would otherwise drop during prolonged sleep. In turn, it supposedly lets you enter REM sleep (more on that later) quicker than a monophasic pattern of sleep. However, not many people can stick to this sleep schedule for long to scientifically prove this.
Total sleep per day: Three hours
Yes, it will give you plenty of time to accomplish what you need to do each day as you only take four 30-minute naps every six hours, or just two hours of sleep a day. Its creator Richard Buckminster Fuller was said to be able to keep this schedule for two years as he purportedly had a rare mutation of the DEC2 gene, which is known as the “short sleep gene”. But for the regular person, it is very likely to lead to chronic sleep deprivation.
Total sleep per day: Two hours
SHOULD YOU TRY IT?
If you’re curious enough to try any of the polyphasic sleep patterns, “the Everyman schedule would be the ‘easiest’ because it allows for more total daily sleep, and there is a longer bout of sleep at night”, said Prof Gooley, although he cautioned against it.
“There is a remarkable amount of misinformation on the Internet about polyphasic sleep,” he said. “There is no scientific evidence to suggest that adopting a polyphasic sleep schedule provides benefits for health or performance.
“Advocates of polyphasic sleep have the misguided view that performance can be sustained (or even enhanced) by splitting up sleep into smaller naps across the day,” he continued. “In fact, studies have shown that polyphasic sleep schedules are associated with worse sleep, impaired cognitive performance, and deterioration of mood.”
What about the pursuit of REM sleep by advocates of the Uberman sleep schedule mentioned earlier on? Matthew Walker, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, believed that REM sleep is not the only stage of sleep that matters.
“REM sleep may have its own function, but most of the research still focuses on the restorative and very important benefits of the other phases,” he said. In fact, non-REM sleep “still seems to carry the majority of health benefits”, including regulating blood flow and blood glucose levels, and clearing Alzheimer’s-related plaque from the brain.