There is an old saying about time management at MIT - "Work, sleep, friends: pick two." Like any good MIT student, I'm going to bend the rules and exercise some creativity. After my first semester (which I will use to establish a performance baseline and make sure I can survive), I'll be experimenting with a new sleep schedule that will add hours to my day, among other exciting effects. In other words, I will be hacking sleep. =)
"Normal" people (whoever they are) sleep once per day for eight hours. This cycle is called monophasic sleep, and it follows the circadian rhythm. Polyphasic sleep, sometimes called "polynapping", involves separating sleep into smaller cycles that may follow ultradian rhythms. There are many different polyphasic sleeping schedules, but perhaps the most widely known is the uberman schedule. Generally considered the most extreme form of polyphasic sleep, it involves sleeping six times per day (every four hours) for 20-30 minutes, resulting in 2-3 hours of sleep per day.
During the adjustment period (normally one to two weeks), the body experiences severe but controlled sleep deprivation and adapts to the new schedule by compressing sleep cycles into the allocated nap times. All stages of sleep are still present - and in roughly the same proportions as in monophasic sleep - but the total daily amount of each stage is reduced.1 Upon completion of the adjustment period, sleep deprivation ends and the schedule becomes comfortable and easily sustainable.
What are the costs and benefits?
The obvious negative aspect of this experiment is the adaptation. For about two weeks I'll be in a zombie-like state, battling sleep deprivation and self-doubt. That will be quite the adventure, I'm sure. There is also the burden of having to schedule naps around everything else, but that shouldn't be too difficult.
If I can pull off the transition (many have tried and failed), the most obvious benefit of the schedule is the addition of five to six waking hours to each day. I could use the extra time for sports, projects, studying, blogging, etc... There's hardly a shortage of things to do at MIT. But the real reason I want to do this is plain old curiosity. From the accounts I've read, experiencing life as a continuous stream without a daily reboot is pretty fascinating. I also want to see if I can make it through the adaptation, since it's likely to be the hardest thing I've ever done.
What About Health Effects?
The long-term health effects of this schedule have not been scientifically studied. Of those who have successfully adapted, none have reported major health problems. In fact, some with pre-existing sleep-related problems experienced a sudden end to their disorders.2 The inventor Buckminster Fuller successfully followed a polyphasic schedule for two years with no problems.3 Leonardo DaVinci is said to have slept polyphasically throughout most of his life (unverified). At any rate, I'll be doing this at my own risk.
How Does It Work?
The official answer is "no one knows," but I'll give you my theory in the next entry. I'm sure you all have some questions, and I've done a lot of sleep research over the past six months, so ask away!
1. Why We Nap by Dr. Claudio Stampi:
"The nap mean overall percentage composition of stages 1 (18.9%), 2 (32.8%), SWS (27.4%), and REM (20.9%) was very similar to that of baseline sleep (13.5%, 38.6%, 26.1%, and 21.8%, respectively). The total daily amounts of each stage, however, were considerably and proportionately reduced."
2. Uberman's Sleep Schedule by PureDoxyK:
"If you have sleep disorders like nightmares, night terrors, mid-sleep choking fits, thrashing, muscle soreness or sleepwalking, this will probably flat-out cure you. I had many of the above, and they all disappeared on me virtually overnight."
3. Dymaxion Sleep by TIME Magazine:
"For two years Fuller thus averaged two hours of sleep in 24. Result: 'The most vigorous and alert condition I have ever enjoyed.' Life-insurance doctors who examined him found him sound as a nut."