Biphasic Sleep, Polyphasic Sleep, and Napping

16.07.2019 |

Episode #4 of the course Sleep hacks: Using science to improve your sleep by John Robin


Welcome to Day 4!

Now that we’ve seen the importance of REM for harnessing the full power of our brain, it’s time to start exploring further how we can get enough REM all the time.

While it would be wonderful if we could all sleep eight to nine hours every night and never have to wake up to an alarm clock, the reality is that our society has evolved in ways that this difficult. Does your alarm tell you to get up at 6:30 am every day, and the demands of life never let you sleep before midnight?

Today’s hack will be all about how to get the REM we need without staying in bed for eight to nine hours every night.


Biphasic Sleep, a History Lesson

It wasn’t until the 1880s that sleeping all night became a widespread norm.

In fact, in medieval Europe, long before the advent of electrical lighting, sleep had two parts:

• “death sleep,” also known as primo somno in Italian, meaning “first sleep”

• “morning sleep,” or “second sleep”

The pattern, as can be inferred from references in medieval manuscripts, points to the habit of first falling asleep at dark, as we commonly do today. Upon awakening, often between 2 and 4 am, it was common to light a candle, and read, write letters, pray, or reflect. Many famous works of literature were written during these hours. When one was sleepy again, they would return for that second slumber.

Because people lived with more dependence on nature’s lighting, sleep patterns changed with the seasons. In winter, for example, people would often have their second sleep early in the morning, rising at sunup, whereas in summer, they would usually stay awake for sunrise, then have a long nap in the afternoon. This pattern is still used in regions like Spain, Italy, and China—the well-known siesta.

Another familiar incarnation: napping.

The question we want to ask, though, is this: Can napping make up for missing REM, and if so, how much and exactly when should we nap?


Polyphasic Sleep: A Warning

Many creative sleepers have devised ways to minimize sleeping using a technique called polyphasic sleeping. Buckminster Fuller, for example, claimed to sleep for 30 minutes every six hours and never more. Thomas Edison followed a similar pattern. According to his claim, he would keep a ball bearing in his hand while in a chair, with a bowl underneath his hand. This way, as soon as he fell asleep, the clang of the ball hitting the bowl would awaken him, and he would continue to work until he was tired again.

Research, however, suggests this approach is not one to emulate. Like Jeffrey Katzenberg and others who can sleep little and achieve outward success, Fuller’s and Edison’s abilities are unique to them. Elon Musk is another example of a driven, highly successful person who sleeps little; however, Musk has admitted in interviews that he relies on caffeine to keep going and takes sleep drugs every night. Research also strongly implies that documented cases on polyphasic sleepers usually arise from a sleep disorder.

Unless you have a medical condition requiring sleep medication, you shouldn’t have to hack your body beyond what’s natural. This takes us back to napping.

Though science has no definitive answer yet on whether napping to compensate for missed REM is sufficient, we can look at the examples from history to conclude that, if able, we should regiment napping if we find ourselves having to get up to an alarm clock every day.

Two patterns of this biphasic sleep are common:

• short nap: ~7-8 hours of sleep at night, with a 20- to 40-minute nap during the day

• long nap: ~6-7 hours of sleep at night, with a 1- to 1.5-hour nap during the day

Which should you use?

Again, we’ll come back to yesterday’s answer: Listen to your body!

I try my best to get eight to nine hours in bed, with no alarm. I had to make big sacrifices and say no to many opportunities to do this.

As a result, I can tell when I haven’t gotten my REM recharge. I feel awful. I’m irritable. Simple tasks feel more difficult.

Instead of just powering through, I go back to bed. My body takes over. I dream. I REM. I arise, usually after 20-40 minutes, feeling reordered.

Your hack from all this: Think of biphasic sleep as your backup plan. If you can’t get all your REM at night, then history’s pre-industrial lesson can serve as the voice of wisdom.

That’s all great, you might say, but there’s one big problem: What if you can’t nap? What if you just have to go through days where you won’t get much sleep, and you have to just keep going? Can’t you just catch up on the weekend?

Perfect question! That will be tomorrow’s lesson.


Recommended reading

Polyphasic Sleep: Facts and Myths”: An honest and frank article outlining the myths and claims of polyphasic and biphasic sleep.


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