Polyphasic Sleep – A Boon For Modern Humans?

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As students, we all experience a lack of time at one point or another. There are just so many things on our plate that we must achieve in a short lifespan!

 

Our decisions regarding priorities eventually boil down to a balancing act of the three-legged stool – education, social life, and sleep – with the last one ending up usually being cut. But what if I were to say that there is an alternative to the recommended 8 hours of sleep? Would you go for it?

 

Looking around the world, people usually engage in monophasic sleep, which describes a pattern where one sleeps for a set period of time (8 hours) and functions uninterrupted for the rest (16 hours). However, there is a whole another umbrella of speculated sleep patterns known as polyphasic sleep, where sleep time can be divided up into various different segments. Here are the most common methods:

Biphasic: 4-4.5 hours of sleep every night with a 90-minute nap in the middle of the day. This is the usual sleep schedule of every college student, who works well into the night and tries to catch up on some sleep during the day. It can also be compared to the “siesta” system commonly utilized in countries with a Spanish influence.
Everyman: One long 3-hour nap at night with three 20-minute naps divided up throughout the day.  

In addition to the reduced sleep time, this cycle allows for skipping a 20-minute nap, if necessary, without feeling overly exhausted.

Uberman: Six 20-30 minute naps every 4 hours. As opposed to the everyman cycle, this pattern is quite rigid in mandating the 20-30 minute naps every 4 hours in order to avoid exhaustion and sleepiness, given the reduced total sleep time.
 

Dymaxion: Four 30-minute naps every 6 hours.

 

This cycle is the most extreme, as it totals to only 2 hours of total sleep in a 24-hour period.

 

For the people who have tested out these cycles, the hardest part was the initial two-week adjustment period from their regular sleep schedule, with complaints of extreme sleepiness and exhaustion. However, the essence of these polyphasic cycles, centering on a high level of efficiency for accomplishing tasks given the longer awake time, was widely noted after adjustment. Furthermore, some of these cycles purportedly dive directly into Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which has been touted to be the most important portion of sleep, given its memory-forming and consolidation functions.

 

However, before running off to adopt one of these sleep cycles as your own, there are several points to consider. First off, while these schedules have been tried and tested by individual savants, they have not been researched by the medical community in terms of their long-term impact on health. Considering everything we know about sleep physiology, it is well-founded that sleep is one of the most important aspects of human life, playing a prominent role in the normal function of all other body systems. Furthermore, there are several different factors that determine the varied propensity of individuals towards surviving on less sleep, all of which are yet to be determined by the medical community through extensive, systematic investigation.

 

At the end of the day, this information should be taken with a grain of salt. In addition to the lack of sleep that can influence overall health, individuals following these polyphasic patterns have reported relapsing to a monophasic or biphasic schedule due to a baseline exhaustion during their extra hours of wakefulness as well as boredom given the longer awake time.

 

So even though we could theoretically be “polyphasic sleepers,” it likely comes with a hefty price. I guess we will just have to wait and see until we know more about the complex entity that is the human brain.

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Pie graph sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

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Yash Pandya

Yash Pandya is a science writer at The "Almost" Doctor's Channel. He is a rising third-year student at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Emergency Medicine with minors in Neuroscience and Chemistry. Yash plans on attending the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Fall 2016 with guaranteed admission. In addition to the usual humdrum of academic involvement, Yash loves to play Ping Pong, catch up on the latest "Big Bang Theory," and travel. Having lived in India for half his lifetime, Yash aspires to expand his horizons into international healthcare by practicing medicine globally.