Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

[Polyphasic Sleep] Towards a Theory of Polyphasic Sleep, Reports From the Field

nb:The theory discussed below is updated here, but I've elected to leave its original presentation as-is. If I must have faults, I would rather they be revealed where they'll drive me to do better.


Why should this polyphasic thing work at all? A fair question; I too was once skeptical. Here's a quick explanation, though, to approximately the best of my understanding.

Prevailing neurological understanding of sleep distinguishes between Rapid Eye Movement cycles (REM) and Slow-Wave Sleep (SWS): REM comes in brief bursts, but is crucially important to mental function and consciousness in complicate ways that we don't quite understand. SWS, on the other hand, appears to be a simple 'resting state' that allows the body to recover from the day's stress. Thus the 8-hour monophasic sleep cycle typically breaks down into:

[REM]  [SWS]  [REM]  [SWS]  [REM]  [SWS]  [REM]  [SWS]  [REM]  [SWS]  [REM]

As we subject our bodies today to much less physical stress today than was present in the ancestral environment, I think it's reasonable that modern-day, modern-living humans can healthily survive on less SWS than we evolved to desire. REM, on the other hand, is a complicated mess of complicated that we understand incompletely, if at all, and which it might be unwise to tamper with. Thus, the Everyman-3 schedule that my roommate and I are transitioning to retains six REM cycles, but cuts out much of the SWS:

[REM]  [SWS]  [REM]  [SWS]  [REM]  (awake)  [REM]  (awake)  [REM]  (awake)  [REM]  (awake)

The first segment is three hours of "core" sleep that covers three REM cycles; the remaining cycles are placed throughout the day in 20-minute naps (it turns out that 20 minutes is almost exactly the perfect length of time to fall asleep, REM, and wake up before dropping into SWS).It's worth mentioning that the original polyphasic sleep schedule (the "Uberman") looks like:

[REM]  (awake)  [REM]  (awake)  [REM]  (awake)  [REM]  (awake)  [REM]  (awake)  [REM]  (awake)

i.e. a 20-minute REM nap every four hours. Anecdotally, it's brutal, fragile, and hellish on the body, physically; reports of E3 from people who study this sort of thing suggest that E3 is gentler, more robust, and provides about as much SWS as is commonly necessary. If necessary (e.g., if I begin exercising nontrivially again), I expect that it should be possible to switch to an Everyman-2 (4.5-hour core + two 20-minute naps) or back again without too much difficulty, and thus recover an extra SWS cycle per day.


It's a common failure mode of people who are fond of thinking about things to theorize instead of applying knowledge. The theory is fine, but is less important than actual results. So, how goes my informal experiment in tinkering with my own basic neurological functionality?

In a word, "successfully". In three, "successfully, some hiccups". I survived the initial circadian reset with some suffering (What's five times more miserable than an all-nighter? An all-nighter without food.), but not too much difficulty. After celebratory Boloco (that is, burrito-foodstuff), Ben Kuhn and I set out to nap our way through the day. I was initially less-than-excited about having only sub-bite-sized naps to look forward to, but after a few "cycles" (as we soon began to call them), twenty minutes seemed comfortable and downright pleasant.

After three or four cycles, in fact, my body began refusing naps. I would lay down, close my eyes, and be simply unable to sleep. Mind you, at this point I had had only an hour of sleep (wallclock time) in the past thirty, and my body was refusing to sleep. This seemed to be a good indication that something was happening.The two of us passed two or three days (it's actually impossible to keep track of diurnal time on a twelvefold-segmented day) napping, snacking, and occasionally being forced to wake each other up, and, in short, passed time without incident. Some work (not much) got done, but mostly I played Portal, Ben played Civ 5, we occasionally chatted with our couchsurfers, and generally idled away twenty hours per day.

On day three (ish), we decided it was time to move up the transition ladder, and we began dropping naps -- I dropped four on the first day and the last two on the second; IIRC, my roommate dropped two a day for three days. Once we were on a full Uberman, two-hours-a-day, I braced myself for hell......and was unimpressed. My body had already been rejecting four naps a day on its own, and the removal of the last two was no unbearable hardship. The first day on Uber, staying awake through the 11pm and 3am slots was definitely difficult, but as I went into the next day tired, I was able to consistently hit my 5am, 9am, 1pm, and 5pm naps, so by the time it came to wait through the next night, I fired up a monster game of Civ, settled in for the long haul, and powered through the night, running on hummus, vegetables, and the occasional squares of dark chocolate.

And then day three hit. By this point, I had spent six days nap-only, and I imagined that I was SWS-free and had no need for such outdated, wasteful sleep modes. Whoo boy.

If you've never suffered from SWS deprivation, then it's difficult to describe. Imagine being completely awake and fully alert -- and entirely aware of just how tired you feel. It's a lot like having all of the physical pain of garden-variety sleep-deprivation, without any of the drunken loopiness that makes even the awful parts hilarious.

I'd find myself sprawled on the futon-couch, staring blankly across the room at my computer screen -- my Civilization turn waiting for me there -- just too damn uninspired to get up and deal with it. I sat there for what felt like hours, only to find ten minutes gone by, according to my watch. In short, it was a living, waking, sleep-deprived hell.

The next day, I overslept my 5am nap by an order of magnitude (i.e., a total of three hours), and decided that the time had come to drop to E3. My roommate held out the rest of the day on Uber, and slept his first core later that night. After my midnight-to-3 core, I threw some clothes into a suitcase and caught a 4:30 carpool to Logan airport (where I'm typing now) for a flight to visit the grandparents in Tenessee. I'll keep you posted on the remainder of my transition, and perhaps more importantly, my mental-functioning results. Which reminds me, I have a cognitive-function test to take...