What Would Happen If You Never Slept? The Magic of Polyphasic Sleep

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Last Updated: Sun, November 25, 2018

How do you complete your daily rest? Do you sleep for 8 hours straight at night? Do you catch a wink between two afternoon periods or during the slow time in office? Do you dose a little on the couch every evening before having dinner and heading to bed? The daily sleeping routine you follow will determine the type of sleeper you are.

Most of us crave a long eight-hour stretch of sleep. We wait for days on end to be able to get in bed by 11 pm and sleep till 7 am without any interruptions. However, how many among us can achieve it? Over 70% of the American adults are sleep deprived, and it is impossible to catch up during the weekend due to specific commitments that include their children’s soccer practice, extra lessons, weekend parties, social plans, and work from home schedules.

Naps are not Only for Toddlers Anymore

The thought of not getting enough sleep due to work makes us want to go back to our childhood when we had the luxury to deny a nap. What wouldn’t we give to go back to bed in the afternoons or sleep in on Saturday mornings? Alas, that is not an option!

Aside from hitching a ride on a time machine, the only other option is to adopt a more flexible sleeping schedule. It is evident from several research publications that it is possible to divide a night’s rest to multiple parts. It might not even be necessary for the sleeper to spend eight hours in bed every night. Such deliberately fragmented sleep is now famous as polyphasic sleep.

How can you Sleep less Without Feeling Sleep Deprived?

You are likely to think that polyphasic sleep schedules promote sleep deprivation and you are better off with the meager five hours you are getting each night. However, accounts of the veteran Everyman and Uberman sleepers show that it is possible to sleep for only about two to three hours a day and still feel completely rejuvenated.

The objective of complete rest is the replenishment of physical energy and mental health. Sleep deprivation does a number on the physical integrity and mental health. Cases of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and schizophrenia worsen with the persistent lack of sleep.

Moreover, the concept of catching up on sleep during the weekends turns out to be a myth. Regular slow-wave sleep and REM are essential to keep you sharp and functional for the next 24-hours.

How Does the Practice of Resting in Segments Changed Over the Years?

Polyphasic sleep has developed, evolved, adapted and mutated over the last couple of decades. It is difficult to lay your finger on a single type of fragmented sleep schedule that works universally well. Rest is an individual requirement, and you need to have a thorough understanding of your body, mind and sleep habits to find a schedule that fits your bill.

Polyphasic sleep comes in many packages like the Dymaxion sleep, Uberman and Everyman schedules. You will find multiple well-known patrons of each practice. Each sleeping schedule has distinct objectives. However, almost all of these schedules have one common goal – to increase waking hours and yet complete REM sleep every day.

The concept gained popularity through holding the hands of Dr. Claudio Stampi, an Italian chronobiologist. His work focused on the effects of light and dark on the human body. Speaking in more scientific terms, he studied the sleep-wake cycle in humans and its impact on the functions of different organ systems.

How do our Genes tell Time?

In reality, human beings have multiple genes that act as the internal clock. These clock genes respond to natural light to “tell” the time to the body. According to the response of these genes, the melatonin levels in our bodies fluctuate. It is a neurohormone that signals the brain when it is time to fall asleep and when it’s time to leave the bed.

Depending on its concentration we either feel worn, tired and droopy, or we feel active, awake, and alert. As you can expect the hormone levels are highest during the night, it peaks at around 3 am and then begins to decline. Going into deeper sleep means fast degeneration of this hormone by a natural process. The lack of enough sleep causes the buildup of melatonin, and that makes people sleepier and sloppier than usual.

It is understandable that almost all sleeping schedules aim at providing necessary slow-wave and REM stages to all sleepers. That should help in rapid degeneration of this hormone irrespective of the duration of rest and prepare the person for his or her daily hurdles. That again brings us back to the point that the physiological necessities of two people can never be identical.

Therefore, there is no way someone can dictate which sleeping schedule is ideal for you. Sometimes, we wish that picking one would be as simple as choosing a swimsuit or a pair of oxfords, but the reality is rarely rosy. So, you will have to go through the intense exaptation, adaptation, and observation period for everyone in these schedules.

How Does Evolution Support the Theory of Segmented Sleep?

Extensive research on evolution and adaptation shows that all human ancestors are either biphasic or polyphasic sleepers. Generally, humans are supposed to stick to a polyphasic or biphasic sleep pattern. However, we have adapted a monophasic routine due to the social construct.

The nature of the daily school, university classes and office support continuous six to eight hours of sleep. Most offices do not have nap rooms and even think about catching a nap in a Manhattan office seems too bizarre. Only a handful of companies in Japan, few startups in the US, and a couple of colleges are trying to bring the practice of naps to the mainstream.

The history of polyphasic sleep is not ancient unless you consider the possibility of our cave-dwelling ancestors living life on exclusively polyphasic resting systems. Their nature of hunting-gathering lifestyle would only flourish in the presence of fragmented sleep.

However, anthropologists and biologists have not found much evidence on similar sleeping habits among human ancestors who evolved after the cavemen. Since not much is there that can point towards the sustainability of the practice or the possible ill effects of it, thought leaders like Buckminster Fuller have had to experiment with polyphasic sleep throughout their lives to prove its effects.

Slumbers, Naps and Wakefulness Stimulants: an Account of the most Popular Polyphasic Sleepers

While talking about Buckminster Fuller, we cannot disregard the Dymaxion sleep schedule. It is one of Fuller’s most controversial, yet greattest legacy. People have hailed it as one of the most formidable polyphasic sleep schedules, but if you manage to perfect it just as Fuller did, you might be able to go through life with as little as 2 hours of sleep per day.

Unlike Voltaire and Balzac, Fuller has never been famous for his particular fondness for caffeine. Nonetheless, he managed to pull several all-nighters, deliver speeches, and attend inaugurations in the morning. His secret was a strict but bizarre sleeping schedule that he referred to as the Dymaxion sleep.

The name comes from the portmanteau of – dynamic, maximum and tension. It reflects the perseverance, tenacity, and courage with which he practiced this foreboding schedule on himself. On several occasions, he has stated that two hours per day was more than enough sleep for him. He explained that each human being has an inherent reserve of energy.

We rarely ever run out of it, but we do need to replenish it. Think of it as topping off a drink, when you still have a bit left. According to his observation and theorization, we should stop and take a nap at the first sign of tedium. That should top our energy reserve off before it hits rock bottom. Napping for 20 minutes or 30 minutes should be enough.

Napping from time to time instead of engaging in full-fledged sleep is sometimes more than enough. We have all experienced this either during our high school years or in college between classes. Catching a quick shuteye can make us feel renewed and wipe away the fatigue entirely.

When someone can manage to nap for 20 minutes every 4 hours, he or she can eliminate the need for eight-hour sleep. They would spend only about 2 hours per day asleep and have 6 hours more to kindle his hobbies and passion. Power naps are the secret weapons that will help you go through a day without feeling drowsy, confused and irritable. At the end of the year, you will have added over two months (or 3 months depending on the schedule you follow) to a year.

People new to polyphasic sleep will face considerable challenges adopting a new and rather strange routine of power naps that replace long stretches of nightly sleep. However, it is a great blessing for the night lovers, who love to stay up until late working, playing music, reading or just watching their favorite show. No matter how intriguing the prospects of gaining close to 6 extra hours per day are, people need more than external motivation to plow through weeks and months with about two to three hours of sleep per day.

In such cases, mobile applications dedicated to controlling fragmented sleep can be beneficial. Smartphone applications like these usually have alarm settings, immersive activity settings, exaptation and adaptation planning schedules for the beginners. They also come with an extensive database of knowledge on the pros and cons of the popular polyphasic resting practices.

Some evolved smartphone applications can collect the relevant data about your slow-wave sleep activity and sleep quality. You will get a detailed look into your sleep statistics, and that will give you a clear idea about the duration of rest you need and the frequency of these naps.

Several wearable gadgets have also started polyphasic sleeping scheduling. These are effective ways to bail on endless slumbers and adopt a more time-budgeted resting routine for your daily boost of energy. There are simpler versions of these applications as well, that can give you a visual guide for the onset and offset of sleep. You can input the time you need to wake up in the morning, and the calculator will tell you the exact distribution of your nap times throughout the day and night.

Is Segmented Sleep the same as Polyphasic Sleep?

Segmented sleep is not always synonymous with polyphasic sleep. In most places, segmented sleep refers to different forms of biphasic sleep. When we say different types, we refer to the two most common forms – siesta sleep and equally distributed segmented sleep at night.  


Siesta refers to an hour or hour-and-a-half of afternoon sleep. Most people in the US might not be aware of it, but it is a prevalent practice among the residents of Spain and other Southeast Asian countries to take a short nap in the afternoon.

If you visit Spain, you will notice that their shops and other businesses remain closed for at least 2 hours in the afternoon. That is the time the operators and owners go for lunch and sneak in some quick rest before returning to their business in the early evenings.

The same is true for shops and trades in India, Bangladesh, and a few companies in Japan. Siesta boosts the energy reserve so that the people can return to work with renewed vigor. The afternoon nap is a common practice for the hotter climates where business is rather slow, post noon.

Equally Segmented Sleep

You might not find this in popular practice right now. However, historians and behaviorists suggest that it was a common practice in 15th and 16th century France. People would go to bed early, then wake up at around 2 am for prayers, writing journals, reading books, studying or sex, then go back to bed at approximately 4 am. They slept in two equal fragments of four hours each.

Philosophers and religious bodies believed that the two hours in between the resting periods was conducive to creativity. This sleeping behavior depended on the local lighting patterns, times of sunset and sunrise, and the adopted behavior of the region. The segmented sleeper got between 6 hours and 8 hours of sleep per day.

Triphasic Sleep: The Underdog of Polyphasic Sleep

Triphasic sleep is something we don’t hear about much. It is indeed a form of polyphasic sleep since it involves more than two separate segments. Life made this sleeping popular among the millennials.

While it is a little odd as compared to the biphasic patterns, it is also quite simple. The exaptation process is almost nil in this practice. Even without it, the adaptation only takes a couple of days. Once you manage to master your triphasic resting routine, you can expect to gain about three to five hours more per day.

Next, we finally enter the realm of the much-feared and much-admired polyphasic sleep. Polyphasic patterns can have various types and subtypes depending on the duration of the breaks and naps. Each model has a different objective, but they contribute to several extra hours of wakefulness per sleeper.

What is the Everyman Schedule?

First, let us try to understand the everyman 3 schedule. Puredoxyk came up with the idea and the name, right after the coined Uberman. The everyman schedule has changed quite a bit since people first started practicing it. The original plan involved a three-hour core and three repetitions of twenty-minute naps.

These napping sessions correspond to the crests of alertness that naturally occur throughout the day. The circadian rhythm and ultradian rhythm keep us swinging on the highs and lows of sharpness in a twenty-four-hour period.  

Our retina acts as photoreceptors for our circadian clock genes. With the help of them in coalition with our liver, our body can determine the time of the day relatively easily. The slow-wave-sleep pressure increases between 3 pm and midnight. Then the REM pressure increases from 3 am to about noon.

Therefore, you are likely to experience a better-quality core sleep in the evening and morning core is not going to be restorative at all. When you hit the hay around dusk, your chance of getting proper delta sleep is much higher than napping in the morning. As a result, the 3.5-hour core is more suitable than 3-hour core sleep for most people.  

Here’s a very regular everyman schedule you can try if you are new at it.

As you can see here, the core sleep duration is perfectly 3.5-hours, and it is during the dusk. Now, a lot of people might ask if it is at all possible to fall asleep by the clock since timing is of great importance here.

Well, it takes a little time to get used to. No everyman sleeper could perfect their schedule at one go. It takes numerous errors and missed alarms to be able to gain those six extra hours per day.  

How to Avoid the Zombie-mode During the Everyman Adaptation?

According to several everyman followers, setting two alarms during your exaptation phase can help you. You should always place them at 3-hours and 3.5-hours respectively. It will prevent you from entering the most dreaded zombie-mode during the daytime when you have work to do.

Restricting the core to a couple of hours within dusk should do the trick. On the weekends, you can push it back an hour or two. It is significantly more effective than going to bed late every day.

What is the Uberman Sleep?

Next, we come to the favorite Uberman schedule. Puredoxyk coined this term as well, and quite honestly, this schedule is ideal for the ‘Ubermen’ we see around. It consists of six evenly spaced 20-minute naps throughout the day.

Now, there is not much data on the health implications of this schedule, but it is safe to say that not everyone can quickly adapt to this one. Adjusting to a biphasic or triphasic sleep is much more comfortable than practicing the Uberman sleep. Although, you will find several accounts of “Ubermen,” who have successfully done this for over a year or two. By far, these people have not reported any adverse effects to this practice.

Apart from indomitable determination, you will require a human alarm system to follow this sleeping pattern. Without external help, it is almost impossible to wake up after 20 minutes of rest and to work for close to 3.5-hours, and nap for another 20 minutes.

How to Overcome the Primary Challenges of the Uberman?

The most testing part of the Uberman schedule is the exaptation process. It requires the sleeper to remain awake for a stretch of 24 hours to 36 hours.

According to the experts, who have done this before, after this initial phase of staying awake, you will feel a “second wind” or a fresh burst of energy? That is when you should try to catch your first 20-minute nap. At this point, you should start taking such naps every 2 hours or so for the next 4-5 days. That should regularize your REM stages so that each resting phase corresponds with REM.

Adaptation without exaptation is not a good idea for anyone. Even if you are a diagnosed insomniac, you should first try the exaptation before moving to the next step. You should nap every 3 to 4-hour interval. Exaptation can prevent the infamous “zombie-mode” from setting in. It might take you between 3 weeks to 4 weeks to adapt to this schedule. However, some people take significantly longer. Even when you feel that these 20-minute rests have become the norm for you, your body will continue to adjust to this new schedule for months.

Why is the Uberman Schedule Demanding for Most?

Before you jump on board thinking about the five long hours of extra time you will get when you manage to adopt this routine, you should think about the feasibility of the method.

Science states that the necessity of rest per individual depends on their genetic makeup. Only about 5% of the people in the world can survive healthily and remain completely functional with only five to six hours of sleep. That means lesser than that 5% can get by with only naps throughout the 24 hours.

There’s another way to minimize the challenges the equidistant Uberman with 6-naps puts forth. You can try resting for longer at night. That is a form of non-equidistant Uberman, and it escapes the SWS crash the traditional Uberman faces.

Taking longer naps of 40 minutes instead of two short 20-minute naps can help your brain transition into REM from SWS in a natural rhythm. According to the new Uberman variants, you can indulge in longer naps at dusk.

What’s the Dymaxion Sleep Schedule?

The Dymaxion schedule has been trending for the last two decades. Buckminster Fuller made this schedule a part of his legacy. He was famous for not sleeping much and indulging in several fields of work at the same time.

He stated that he found all the extra time from the practice of this fantastic schedule. However, recent research shows that people with one or multiple active copies of the DEC2 gene can successfully attempt the Dymaxion. Sadly, that means only 1% of the world’s population can succeed at it.

It is a bit more controversial than the Uberman although it has identical sleep-wake hours. It lacks some of the significant advantages of the Uberman and Everyman schedules. Thus, not a lot of netizens have found it as enticing or practical. In the case of the Uberman, the sleeper can enjoy a frequency advantage. That means he or she can frequently get the much-required REM sleep when he or she shuts the central unit down.

It reduces the sleep pressure. On the other hand, Dymaxion sleep encourages less frequent REM sleep, and it is not as practical (or user-friendly) as the other ones. There is a large chunk of REM and lesser frequent REM naps. It does not dissipate the building sleep pressure. The chances of sleep deprivation and crashing are significantly more with Dymaxion than it is with Uberman. The fatigue buildup for any Dymaxion sleeper may be a lot higher than Everyman and Uberman sleepers.

What is so Great about the Dymaxion Sleeping Schedule?

As per the notes and practices of Buckminster Fuller, the founder of Dymaxion sleep, it should ideally consist of 4 equidistant naps for 30 minutes. It translates to about 2 hours of sleep per day only.

Just like the other well-known proponents of equidistant naps like Salvador Dali, Leonardo da Vinci and Edison, Fuller never felt bogged down by fatigue during the daytime. He was an inventor, thought leader, and entrepreneur, who was always on his toes. Fuller had mentioned it several times that sacrificing regular 7 to 8-hour sleep had helped him stoke his creativity. As a result, he was never bored and never tired.

Modern followers of Fuller’s theories have developed new Dymaxion routines that are more realistic than the previous one. It pays heed to the increase in sleep pressure and the requirement of SWS sleep after dusk. Therefore, instead of practicing four equidistant half-an-hour naps, the neo-Dymaxion sleepers adopted a routine that allowed 1.5 hours of sleep during the nightfall, a 30-minute nap in the morning and afternoon, and a 20-minute nap in the evening.

Why should you speak with someone before starting your new sleep schedule?

So far, you have seen the personalization and adjustment of several popular polyphasic schedules according to the convenience of the sleeper. You should never attempt a new program because of your significant other, friends or family member is trying it. On the other hand, when you share the fact that you might be seeking a new sleeping schedule that involves short bursts of naps instead of long sleeping hours, your family and friends will try to talk you out of it. It is imperative that you have enough information about the kind of polyphasic schedule you are working on to convince them. You need at least someone by your side to help you during the exaptation and adaptation process. Adapting a new schedule is impossible with eye masks and alarms alone. You need human help (can be a parent, friend or SO).

What should you always consider before attempting controlled fragmentation of sleeping hours?

You must remember that staying awake for the first 48 hours is not even the beginning of the challenge. Yes, it has been possible for super-humans like Randy Gardner and Peter Tripp to stay awake for over 11 days and eight days to set world records in 1965 and 1859 respectively, but for the most of us, it is impossible to stay up all night studying, give an exam, and party all night. Staying up for over 24-hours is enough to send us into the zombie-mode. When doctors monitored the heart rates and brain waves during these phases, they discovered some staggering (but quite expected facts) –

  1. The core temperature falls below normal
  2. The heart rate increases
  3. Blood pressure increases
  4. Alertness drops
  5. Melatonin levels are on the rise
  6. Cortisol levels are on the rise
  7. Immune cell activity falls
  8. Motor activity reduces

Several other measurable parameters change due to the lack of enough sleep. Therefore, throughout the exaptation and adaptation process, when you are experiencing some form of sleep deprivation, you will face these challenges consistently.

People who have undergone major surgeries in the recent past, patients recovering from viral infections, children and teenagers, those with high blood glucose levels or hypoglycemia, persons suffering from and blood pressure irregularities should never attempt polyphasic sleep. If you have any sleeping disorder, including insomnia, advanced sleep phase or delayed sleep phase syndrome, do not practice fragmented sleep.

Biphasic sleep might be a good idea for them though since a siesta can help them feel fresh, rested and it can boost the healing mechanisms in the body. Taking an afternoon nap also takes care of the leftover melatonin levels. Additionally, if you are taking prescription pain management medications, a short nap in the afternoon will take care of the sleep-inducing properties of the medicines.  

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