Sunday, January 13, 2008

Hacking Sleep

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. =)

Polyphasic 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."


Paul said...

I might recommend doing this during first term due to the Pass/No Record policy, unless you enjoy taking chances with your grades. ;)

Sounds like a cool project though!

Piper Hunt said...

There's this one lady at MIT Medical called "The Sleep Lady". She came to EC and gave a talk about cheating sleep. It was awesome. =P

Hank R. said...

So I did this my senior year. It worked great. Until CPW completely messed it up, and I slept for 12 hours a day for a week to recover. Haven't done it since.

Hawkins said...

@Paul - I'll take my chances in the name of science; I want to measure performance and all sorts of physiological stuff during my first semester and then compare that with data from the experiment. Do you think there's a way to get some research support from the friendly folks at MIT? It would be groundbreaking sleep research...

@Hank - You did the uberman schedule? If it's done right, there shouldn't be anything to "recover" from at the end...

Paul said...

"I'll take my chances in the name of science in the name of science " - haha, I like that! You're braver than I, my friend.

I'd suggest looking into the Brain & Cognitive Science Department, as they seem most likely to have research in that area. (Although I don't know if they'd approve of using yourself as a test subject...!) There's also a ton of "come see us if you want to participate in asleep study" ads around campus. Next time I see one, I'll try and remember who posts them, although I don't know how sketchy they are. ;)

Star said...

Wow, that sounds really cool. I actually kinda want to try that now (although I do like sleeping in on weekends, and I wouldn't be able to do that anymore...). I think I'll have to wait for university though, 'cuz I can't just tell my teachers that I'm off to take a nap or else it'll ruin my crazy sleep pattern.

Also, this reminded me of that xkcd comic... the one with the 30whatever hour day, where you just stay up till you fall asleep, and then sleep till you wake up. Your way is more hardcore, but probably easier (schedual-wise) once you addapt, plus it'll save you more time.

Hehe, let me know how it works for you!

Isshak Ferdjani said...

okay i am so trying this right now. i'll get back to you on the results ! i'm already sleeping like 5 hours a day, so i guess the transition will be easier.
"in the name of science" lol you could right like a thesis !

Hank R. said...

I didn't use uberman. Didn't work with my schedule very well. The thing is, CPW completely knocked me off my schedule, because I basically slept whenver I could and not at a set time.

Star said...

Ok, so I just spent all night last night reading up on the uberman sleep cycle (yup, second all nighter this week - more proof I need to start this cycle? I think so). Anyways, it looks really interesting, I really want to try it now!

I've got a question though, hasn't there been research done saying your brain doesn't start functioning at max capabilities till you've been up for at least 2 hours, or something like that? (Don't remember where I heard that, something about waking up 2 hours before SATs, lol). So would that still apply for these 20 minute power naps? If so that would be 50% of the time you're awake...

Anyways, if you're going to start it next year, and don't want to start till second semester, why not do it during IAP? That way you aren't going to be adjusting during actual classes, when you need to be functioning properly and all that.

Hawkins said...

Just to clarify, I intend to adapt during Christmas break (and IAP if necessary). If all goes according to plan, I shouldn't be in zombie mode during any actual classes.

@Paul - Thanks for the tips on research possibilities. I may attempt to contact Claudio Stampi himself (noted chronobiologist and the only person to ever publish info on a scientific polyphasic sleep experiment, back in 1991).

@Star - You referenced XKCD #320, one of the funniest comics EVER. You rock! I too have spent a few sleepless nights looking up uberman info. Some of it is speculation, and some of it is just crap. To answer your question though...

Either you're talking about the basic rest-activity cycle, which happens independent of when you actually sleep, or you're talking about sleep inertia, which hasn't been a problem in any account I've read. Fully adapted polyphasic sleepers usually talk about waking up feeling refreshed and ready to go, with possibly more clarity and alertness than they felt on their monophasic schedule. Look for more on this subject in the next entry. =)

Hank R. said...

It's honestly a great sleeping schedule if you stick with it. I broke it, and I haven't found a need to go back yet.

new age scheherazade said...

this sounds immensely scary to someone who sleeps about ten hours a day, and sneaks in more hours if school's out, but best of luck.
and didn't buckmister fuller document his life every few minutes, (using up a huge amount of paper)?
maybe people could try that as well...oh yeah, that's why we all have blogs :)
this is a fun blog.

kate said...

Good luck and godspeed with the sleep plan, Hawkins. I, for one, already have a weird sleep schedule and yet could not see myself pulling this off. Yikes! Anyway, I'm really interested to see how this all turns out.

revlisy said...

i know someone who did this successfully (besides Hank) here at MIT for awhile. i would do it myself, but I feel that sleeping long periods of time ( "long periods of time" I mean about four hours) is therapeutic. also, I don't actually need to. I mean, if I don't get what I need to get done in 20 hours every day, then I don't think much more can be done.

I'm not into the whole "sleep is healthy" thing (I mean, I'm sure it is, but different things work for different people), but emotionally, I feel that it's something that makes you feel good. Like, if one could survive without eating, or eating very little, yeah, that'd be great, but why would you want to do it?