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Since my polyphasic sleep experiment seemed to be going so well, I decided to give it a more difficult test the past few days to get a better sense of its boundaries and limits. This might have been a bit premature, given that I’ve only been at it for a week, but the opportunity was there, so I took it.
My wife was planning to go out of town Fri-Mon with our daughter for a trip to L.A. to visit friends and relatives. I had originally intended to stay home with our son, but I opted to go on the trip, since I felt it would be a good stress test to see how practical polyphasic sleep was when I didn’t have round-the-clock access to a bed.
The four of us returned from our trip a few hours ago. Here’s my trip report with respect to polyphasic sleeping:
I wasn’t able to stick to my regular polyphasic schedule with naps every four hours on this trip, so I had to be more flexible, sometimes stretching the time between naps to 6+ hours or trying to grap a quick nap in the car while my wife drove us from one place to another.
We stayed at my wife’s parents’ house, but we spent most of each day away from this home base. We managed to visit with a number of friends as well as my parents and sisters. Plus we turned part of the trip into a vegan food fest, eating at some of our favorite vegan restaurants, including Real Food Daily in West Hollywood and a new vegan restaurant called Madeleine Bistro in Tarzana. I definitely ate way too much on this trip, especially with vegan desserts like coconut cream pie and bananas fosters split.
On this trip I had to take my naps when I could get them, sometimes in the car as we drove from one place to the next.
Overall, I was amazed at just how well this worked. I had no trouble going six hours between naps during the day. As I passed about five hours between naps, I felt a mild urge to take a nap. However, it wasn’t a feeling of drowsiness at all — it was more like a gentle pressure. I could feel a nudging sensation that it would be a good time to take a nap, yet that sensation didn’t cause any loss of functionality or tiredness, so it was easy to put it aside until I was finally able to nap. I found that whenever I was in a situation where napping wouldn’t quite work (like while having lunch with someone), I received this signal to nap, but that was all. Then when I was in a place where I could take a nap, that’s when I felt a stronger onset of tiredness, and I was able to go to sleep almost immediately and awaken refreshed after about 15-20 minutes. It was as if my body knew that I couldn’t nap, so it just gave me a gentle signal until the situation made napping practical.
Think of this like the signal you get when you have to go to the bathroom. You begin to feel a sensation of pressure that tells you it’s time to go, but unless you’ve had too much to drink, you can set it aside for a while and just take note to go the the bathroom when it’s convenient. Then when you’re near a bathroom and can finally relieve yourself, the signal becomes very strong, and you have to act on it.
I never began dropping in the middle of a conversation, but a few times when my wife and I got back to the car, I quickly fell asleep during the car ride. I found those car naps to be semi-restorative. I was definitely able to sleep, even sitting up, but it didn’t seem as restful as when I nap in a bed or on a couch. Even so, it was enough to give me the reboot I needed to go on for another several hours before the next nap. It’s just that during the period following a car nap, I didn’t feel as great. It was still pretty good, and I felt fully functional, but sometimes I was a little groggy for the first hour.
Juggling the naps around was no problem. They didn’t need to be as rigid as every four hours. But when I stretched the naps during the day, I felt more tired at night and made up for it by taking more frequent naps at night. This was very easy to do because everyone else was sleeping anyway.
Being up at night was very interesting. This was a fairly busy vacation, but it seemed less so for me than for my wife because I had the whole night to do whatever I wanted. Mostly I used it to do reading and writing. I even wrote a couple blog entries during the trip, both in the middle of the night. So that made it very easy for me to handle the rapid pacing of the trip without feeling overwhelmed. My wife found the trip a bit too fast-paced, however. She’d have to go to bed shortly after we got back each day, and once we got up each morning, we were off and running again within an hour or so. For her the only downtime was sleep. But I felt like I had much more downtime, and the vacation seemed longer to me as well.
I also noticed that I was hungrier at night on this trip, so I’d often have something to eat around 2-4am. That seemed to boost my energy level a bit during this time.
Daylight Savings Time occurred during the weekend, and that was no trouble to adapt to. I was on an irregular nap schedule anyway, napping mostly when I felt the urge to do so instead of on a preset schedule. DST just made one night seem a little longer, since everyone else slept in for that extra hour.
I find that I’m always able to sleep during a nap, usually falling asleep within just a few minutes. It’s common now for me to lie down, fall asleep, and wake up remembering a dream in a total elapsed time of 15 minutes or less. So that isn’t such a big interruption that you throw other people off schedule. It feels more like a rest break than a sleep period. I was also amazed at how easily I was able to catch a nap in the car while my wife was driving. Normally I’d only be able to sleep very lightly in such a situation, unless I was extremely tired. But I found that when I needed those naps, my body just pulled me down to sleep, and I naturally woke up about 15-20 minutes later.
Overall I found polyphasic sleep highly practical and very adaptable. I was impressed with how easily it adapted to the requirements of this trip. Because I could shuffle the naps around and even stretch the time between them, I was able to work the naps to fit our schedule instead of having to force our schedule to fit my previous nap schedule. It was just a matter of catching naps when I could. Plus I always knew that if necessary, I could take more frequent naps during the night.
Polyphasic sleep has a very different feel than monophasic sleep. Because the naps are so short, it’s not remotely the same thing as going down for the whole night. Napping feels like I’m simply taking care of a recurring biological need. As I mentioned previously, it’s similar to getting the urge to go to the bathroom. I think I may want to relax the rigid napping schedule and try just napping when I feel the need to do so. While you could go to the bathroom to relieve yourself on a fixed schedule too, that seems kind of silly. Sometimes you’ll want to go more frequently and other times less frequently. So I think I’ll try the same approach with polyphasic sleep and just allow my body to tell me when it needs to nap. I think that may produce better results than following a fixed nap schedule. This trip convinced me that the naps don’t need to be rigidly scheduled.
When I returned from the trip today, I found an overload of email waiting for me, with about 90% of it related to this polyphasic sleep experiment. Even with my extra time, I’d have trouble responding to all the email privately, but I was at least able to read all of it. I’m sorry I can’t send everyone a personalized response, but I’ll address some of the most common questions here now.
Night-vs-Day: One good question was whether my waking periods are similar between night and day. Do they feel similar, or do I feel the effects of changes between day and night? The answer is that I do feel the effects of some kind of daily rhythm, although they aren’t as strong now as they were last week. The major difference is how I feel the onset of a nap coming. During the day, as previously mentioned, I experience the feeling of a gentle nudging to go take a nap, but there’s no sleepiness or loss of functionality. I just know it’s time to nap. But at night I don’t get that gentle nudging; instead I become drowsy and begin to lose functionality if I continue to stay up (loss of concentration, low energy, nodding off). The latter sensation was my normal manner of getting tired as a monophasic sleeper — if I stayed up late, I’d gradually become more drowsy. But the former daytime sensation is new; I didn’t experience it until adapting to polyphasic sleep. I don’t seem to have any daytime drowsiness, just this gentle nudging instead. I don’t know why this is so, but the effect is that I can stretch the time between daytime naps quite easily, but it’s much, much harder to delay nighttime naps.
After waking up from a nap, I feel about the same during the day as I do at night, but I find the daytime naps more refreshing. Overall I feel more energy and alertness during daylight hours.
During the daytime I also notice that my energy feels very stable. My alertness doesn’t yo-yo between naps. I’m just as alert before a nap as after one. But the nighttime isn’t so steady because of the increasing drowsiness between naps. So at night I feel best about 10-20 minutes after a nap, but the longer I stay awake, the more drowsy I become. At night I feel like I have two pretty good hours after waking from a nap, but after that my alertness begins to drop, especially if I’m reading. However, this effect is really limited to the 1-5am period, so it’s not the entire night. I usually feel just fine until after midnight, and the onset of sunrise helps boost my energy too.
I really love the stable energy and alertness from 6am-midnight though. I can keep busy all day and feel just as mentally alert at 11pm as I do at 8am. I don’t feel a steady decline in my ability to concentrate during the day. All hours of the day feel like peak times for me. On monophasic sleep though, I wasn’t very productive after dinner. By then my brain felt juiced of all its resources, especially if I did a lot of writing. Polyphasic sleep seems to be yielding a strong boost in mental endurance. I’m hoping to find a way to extend this through the night as well, but even the current situation is pretty darn amazing.
I’m going to ramp up my exercise soon (so far I’ve been limiting myself to yoga and walking during this experiment), so I’ll see what effect that has. I think if I do some aerobic exercise at night, it could help boost my energy levels during the 1-5am period where I experience the most drowsiness. One night I did yoga at 2am and found it helped a lot with the drowsiness problem. I suspect the drowsiness may be related to the fact that I’ve been more sedentary at night. The wife and kids are asleep during that time, so I’m not as active then. If I increase my physical activity during the night, I may see changes in my energy patterns during this time.
I’m going to try some weight training and calisthenics to see how my body recovers from such workouts. Will I notice the same pattern of initial soreness? Will I see my strength increase predictably over a period of weeks and months as I would with monophasic sleep? Will I be getting enough rest for my body to conduct the necessary repairs?
Nature on Sleep: Several people referred me to a special issue of Nature that’s about sleep. I haven’t read it myself, but I include it here as a resource for those who want to do more sleep-related reading.
What about non-REM sleep? Since I’m not getting the quantities of non-REM sleep I used to, many people wonder about the long-term effects. Some people told me they’ve heard there are important benefits to those other phases of sleep. I’m sure there are benefits to those other phases of sleep, but I don’t feel this is significant in the case of my experiment because that doesn’t tell me how my body/mind will adapt to the absence of those sleep phases. Many foods are beneficial as well, but their absence from one’s diet doesn’t cause problems because the body will do just fine without them. So the real question is how critical those other phases of sleep are. Do they yield any irreplaceable benefits? It doesn’t help me to know what the body does during those phases of sleep. What I need to know is what the body does in the absence of those phases of sleep. Does it find other ways to produce the same benefits? Are the benefits negligible enough to be abandoned? I don’t know, nor do I think anyone else presently has these answers. That’s partly why I wanted to try this experiment. If I start going nuts, I have hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors to tell me I’m churning out gibberish. 🙂
Another question to ask is whether or not polyphasic sleep produces new benefits. So perhaps you monophasic sleepers are being deprived of potential physiological benefits right now and don’t even know it. In fact, I’m already beginning to suspect this may be true. I’ve noticed that during my normal waking periods, I’m spending far more time in an alpha state. I’m familiar with this relaxed state of mind from relaxation/meditation exercises. I feel that for the past few days, I’ve been spending more time in an alpha state than in a “normal” beta consciousness state. I can’t tell if that’s the reality or just my perception — I’d need an EEG to be sure — but I’m definitely feeling physically relaxed and mentally clear-headed without any mental chatter or noise. Alpha states are supposedly great for creativity. So this could be a hidden benefit. It could also help to explain Leonardo da Vinci’s amazing creativity, as he was supposedly a polyphasic sleeper for part of his life. He was also a vegetarian.
Time to take a nap and then take the kids trick-or-treating for Halloween….