How some people can 'cheat' sleep and stay awake longer
MANILA, Philippines – For some people, a good night's sleep boosts creativity or productivity. But for others, when faced with a barrage of deadlines and projects down the pipeline, this age-old adage applies: so many things to do, so little time.
Is it possible to spend more hours awake just for work?
Some folks have experimented on themselves – and written about or filmed their experience – in their own quest to cheat the Sandman for the sake of getting more time to beat their deadlines and the like, or just do more in general.
The answer, for them, lies in something called a polyphasic sleep schedule, in which you essentially ditch an entire night's worth of sleep (i.e. monophasic) and trade it for a few shorter and timed naps.
In a video for Quartz, Akshat Rathi, who was then doing his chemistry PhD at Oxford University, first tried doing 4 30-minute naps every 6 hours, after the so-called Dymaxion sleeping schedule from American inventor Buckminster Fuller.
After Rathi and his roommate didn't succeed with this, he tried out 3.5 hours at night, and then spaced out three 20-minute naps in the day.
Check out the accompanying video from Quartz:
Another person, Rachel McConnell, who works with crafts and is a member of a hacker collective, did something similar to the Dymaxion schedule called the Uberman. She did 20 to 30-minute naps distributed across 4 chunks in the day, as told on Wired and documented extensively on the how-to website, Instructables.
How did Rathi and McConnell manage their chosen sleep regimens? The former napped in a chemistry lab, a lecture hall, benches – practically anywhere he could. The latter sought the approval of her bosses to nap during the work day, and they obliged.
Furthermore, Rathi said he didn't have coffee (i.e. caffeine), alcohol, and a social life over the course of his experiment, but he acknowledged its advantages.
His schedule was "reasonably flexible," he said, adding that when he missed a nap, he would make up for it at night. If he missed all his naps: "It didn’t seem to affect me very much the next day."
Apart from the extra time, Rathi said that he got other benefits in a video: "I was waking up after a nap just like I would wake up after a good night's sleep in the morning."
Meanwhile, McConnell said that she reaped the same bonuses: "I was able to get more done. I was up at 3 in the morning thinking, 'Ok, what can I do now?' I was able to make significant headway on my enormous to-do lists. I would go out on bicycle rides in the middle of the night."
Later, however, it became disadvantageous for her: "Despite the feeling awful part of the time, I am definitely getting things done. If I don’t acclimatize and feel crappy half the time like now, it is not worth it."
Rathi cited sleep expert Claudio Stampi's 1992 book, Why We Nap: Evolution, Chronobiology, and Functions of Polyphasic and Ultrashort Sleep, saying that polyphasic sleep might not be too much of a struggle to adjust to nor is it "unnatural."
Segmented sleeping patterns were also common in the 18th century, based on Rathi's research that cited At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime by history professor Roger Ekirch. That was before the invention of night lighting – from gas to electric.
The science of sleep
An information resource from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School lists several definitions of sleep: "a period of reduced activity," "associated with a typical posture" (i.e. lying down with closed eyes), "decreased responsiveness to external stimuli," and " a state that is relatively easy to reverse" (as opposed to hibernation or a coma).
If there's one thing that can be said with certainty about sleep: we can't live without it. "The little we can explain comes from studying the effects of the absence of sleep," Rathi writes.
Check out this TED-Ed video:
McConnell, as previously mentioned, did not pull through after 17 days into her experiment – even with some adjustments. She noted, "My current belief is that polyphasic sleep is a method for handling sleep deprivation as well as possible, but that it likely does not provide enough sleep for an average person."
Rathi, on the other hand, managed to stick to his own Everyman schedule for "more than a year" until he lapsed back into "regular" sleeping after a conference deprived him of his naps for a week. He simply "couldn’t find the motivation" to go back into his polyphasic sleep schedule.
At least for him, he said that he would only do it again with "enough motivation for a large, well-defined project, such as writing a book."
"But I won’t do it for more than a few months, because there is a biological purpose of sleep that has only become clear in the last few years," he added, saying that he's particularly mindful of the waste clearance system that he earlier mentioned.
For him: "This is the most compelling answer to the question why sleep is so important to the normal functioning of the brain."
Circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster said in a TED Talk: "We used to understand intuitively the importance of sleep. And this isn't some sort of crystal-waving nonsense. This is a pragmatic response to good health."
He argued, "If you have good sleep, it increases your concentration, attention, decision-making, creativity, social skills, health." – Rappler.com