Update: 69 of your fellow adventurers are now enrolled in Amplify, our new creative productivity deep dive. Join us for this epic journey as you amp up your creative flow for 2021 and beyond! Save 40% when you join by March 12.
It’s been nearly a year since I terminated my polyphasic sleep experiment. If you didn’t follow that experiment, for 5-1/2 months (Oct 2005 – Apr 2006) I followed a pattern of sleeping about 20 minutes once every four hours around the clock — 6 naps every 24 hours, about 2 hours of sleep per day. I blogged about it as I went along, and you can find the links to all those log entries by following the link above.
Adapting to polyphasic sleep took many days, and I felt like a zombie the first week. At one point I just sat on the couch staring at a wall for 90 minutes, unable to form any thoughts. But eventually I was able to adapt, and it was one of the most unusual experiences of my life.
I was lucky to have a lifestyle that gave me every possible advantage in conducting this experiment, including working from home, a flexible schedule, and a supportive family. Most people who attempt polyphasic sleep can’t make it fit their schedules, and it takes a lot of discipline to avoid oversleeping. You can shift your naps around a little, but not by much. As soon as you awaken from a nap, you have only 3 hours 40 minutes until your next one. By adapting to polyphasic sleep, you may gain some waking hours each day, but you sacrifice a lot of schedule flexibility.
Eventually I abandoned the pattern and returned to monophasic sleep, mainly due to social reasons as I explained in my final post of the series: The Return to Monophasic. The rest of the world simply isn’t polyphasic. However, returning to my original sleep pattern wasn’t quite the same after that experiment. Something came back with me.
Cue eerie sci-fi music…
No, I didn’t come back possessed… although some might refer to my recent ramblings on subjective reality and polarity as evidence to the contrary. What happened was that part of the polyphasic sleep adaptation seems to have stayed with me.
The critical part of polyphasic adaptation is to reach the point where you can take a 20-minute nap and hit REM sleep. During typical nighttime sleep, you don’t normally hit your first REM cycle until after about 90 minutes. So when you first attempt polyphasic sleep, you’ll initially suffer from terrible sleep deprivation because you won’t be getting any REM sleep during your naps. You’ll awaken feeling even more tired, and you WILL feel like a zombie for many days, possibly weeks.
If you can withstand the sleep deprivation long enough, your body eventually adapts, and you begin experiencing REM sleep during your naps. Dreams occur during REM sleep, so you’ll know you’re getting there when you start having dreams during your naps. Once this starts happening, it may take a few more days to make up for the sleep deprivation and start feeling functional again. REM naps leave you feeling rested and rejuvenated.
After adapting to polyphasic sleep, I could lie down for a nap, set a timer for 20 minutes, fall asleep, and wake up remembering an extremely vivid dream. During my polyphasic experiments I could normally fall asleep within a few minutes, and I’d often wake up naturally a minute or two before the alarm went off. The dreams I had during these times were extremely vivid, and I experienced a sense of time dilation. Even though I was only asleep for 15 minutes or so, it felt like my dreams lasted more than an hour. I’d awaken amazed at how little time had passed.
The interesting thing is that I still have this ability today. I suspect it may be a permanent adaptation. I took a nap this afternoon, had a dream that seemed about an hour long, and woke up naturally feeling refreshed and with a clear memory of the dream. But the total time I was lying down was only 13 minutes. As long as I’m in a fairly calm mental state, I can still basically do this at any time of day.
Also, during my regular nighttime monophasic sleep period, I will often awaken within the first 20 minutes after I go to bed, remembering a very vivid dream. Usually I can fall back asleep again fairly easily after this happens. Overall the quality of my nighttime sleep doesn’t feel any different than it was during my pre-polyphasic days.
Whenever I take a nap these days, I awaken with the same feeling I had when I was polyphasic. I described this feeling in some of my log entries. It’s a feeling of being extremely mellow and relaxed, as if my mind is a blank slate with no background noise. Before going polyphasic I never experienced this exact state of mind. Today my 20-minute naps virtually always return me to this mental state, which usually lasts for hours afterwards. I’m in this state right now.
This post-nap state is terrific for writing because ideas flow through my mind very easily. I certainly had a high blogging output (at least for me) during my polyphasic experience — you can verify that just by looking at the archives (Oct 2005 – Apr 2006).
Permanent physiological changes?
For good or ill, my sleep physiology appears to have been permanently altered by my polyphasic sleep experiment. I wouldn’t even know how to completely revert back to my pre-polyphasic pattern.
I consider these after-effects to be positive, but who knows what the long-term consequences could be?
Despite its weirdness I often miss my polyphasic days, except for the adaptation period of course. Having so much extra time available was really nice, and to an extent I enjoyed the balance of social time and alone time. I liked that I always had plenty of time to explore various interests. It was strange tending a house of hibernating bears at night and the blurry borders between days took some getting used to, but I certainly got a lot done.
My current sleep pattern is that I go to bed around 10-11pm each night and get up at 5am, still using an alarm clock. It’s the basic early riser pattern I used before the polyphasic experiment. In an average night I sleep about 6.5 hours, and I normally don’t nap during the day anymore.
Because of the lingering after-effects of my polyphasic experiment, I’m curious as to whether it might be possible for me to re-adapt to polyphasic sleep far more easily if I were to try it again. Would I have to endure another week or two of zombie-hood, or could I readapt within a couple of days? Apparently I still possess the REM adaptation, which I believe is the most crucial element.
What if it were possible to switch back and forth between monophasic and polyphasic sleep patterns with relative ease after making the polyphasic adaptation the first time? What if a person could go one week on polyphasic sleep and the next week on monophasic sleep? Then you could gain the benefits of polyphasic sleep while falling back on a monophasic pattern when polyphasic sleep was impractical. For example, a student could go polyphasic during spring break and return to monophasic the following week. I feel polyphasic sleep would still be impractical for me as a long-term pattern, but I could make good use of it for a few weeks every quarter if it were possible to switch within a day or two.
I have no idea what it would be like to readapt to polyphasic sleep now, but I suspect it would be much easier the second time around. I’m certainly curious, but I’m not committed to testing this just yet. I just ran the idea past Erin, and she’s opposed to it because she remembers all the schedule juggling that had to be done to accommodate my naps, especially when traveling.
Nevertheless, I’m going to give it some thought and consider whether I’d want to give polyphasic sleep another trial to see what a second adaptation period would be like. The downside is that if I do this, I have to be prepared for it to take just as long as (or longer than) it did the first time, which was certainly no picnic.
I mainly wanted to share this information for the benefit of those who are considering altering their sleep patterns (polyphasic, biphasic, triphasic, or otherwise). I’d caution that once you cross a certain threshold, things might never be the same again. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but such experiments shouldn’t be taken lightly.