The History, Neurobiology, Physiology, and Evolution of Polyphasic Sleep In Humans

Contents hide Sleep Related Was this post helpful? Sleep Related Was this post helpful? Let us know if you liked the post. That’s the only way we can improve. Yes 1 No 0

Written by:


Last Updated: Sun, November 25, 2018

Our fast-living generation has an insatiable hunger for life. There is no time for taking a step back and enjoying the sunsets. People hardly have the time for relaxing and taking things slow. It might be one of the reasons people are once again going crazy over the idea of ‘less sleep, more life.’

Simply speaking, it is the concept of breaking down the extended 8-hour sleep schedule per day to several short naps throughout the day. These can be super quick 20-minute resting phases distributed evenly throughout 24 hours, or these can be longer nap durations that allow one non-REM and one REM cycle.

One-third of the US does not get enough sleep per night, but there are several Americans out there, who believe they can do more by cutting down their sleep hours. They might be a small group, but their wish to spend less time on the bed is rattling the belief of the sleep-lovers of the world.

Apart from getting more time to work, think and spend more time with their families, polyphasic sleepers often practice short-duration naps because similar patterns of sleep have always fuelled great ideas and genius innovations. This somewhat “odd” sleeping habit has been becoming popular among the Silicon Valley workers and shift workers.

It is indeed much easier to make the most of the day when you are sleeping for less than 3 hours. According to the seasoned polyphasic sleep practitioners, you can experience the effects of complete rest from fragmented sleep spread out throughout the day.

Is it Easy to Master Polyphasic Sleep?

Most people are monophasic sleepers or biphasic sleepers. They prefer to sleep in long durations, or they take one small nap in the afternoon, usually between 2 pm and 4 pm. In contrary, people, who engage in polyphasic sleep prefer sleeping in short bursts.

As per data from the Polyphasic Society, there are several schedules that people follow all over the world. Experts state that spacing out the naps can maximize the time one spends during REM sleep. Spending maximum time on slow-wave sleep boosts restorative sleep. As a result, they believe regular 8-hour sleep schedules to be unnecessary.

What is the Uberman Sleep?

The Uberman Sleep Schedule is one form of polyphasic sleep. It consists of small 20-minute naps that are equidistant from each other. Usually, six 20-minute naps comprise the complete pattern.

According to the experts, not everyone can be a natural Uberman. However, there are several polyphasic sleepers, who have practiced this schedule for over a year with no severe health impacts. The only constraint in each case was the requirement of a human alarm clock. It is quite impossible for people to stick to this schedule without the help of another human being. The usual 6-nap cycle only takes up 2 hours time during an entire day.

The time-saving and somewhat unconventional sleep schedule has become a popular meme. It has been on the web since the early 2000s and thousands have tried this form of polyphasic sleep over the last few years. For over a decade, fans and followers of the Uberman Schedule have been attempting to perfect their sleep-wake schedules to maximize restoration and to maximize their working potential.

You can think about it this way, if you started today, you would save 5 hours per day, and that would amount to 1,825 hours per year. You would gain about 11 years in total, at an average. That would, of course, depend on when you are starting out and other health conditions.

What is Non-Equidistant Divided Sleep?

The more popular form of the Uberman Schedule is the non-equidistant Uberman. The body and the brain experiences different kinds of sleep throughout the sleeping cycle. In fact, during different parts of the day or night, we are likely to experience different types of rest.

The non-equidistant rest is possible for people who get by on fewer than 6 hours of sleep. You can shift from an equidistant eight nap schedule to a seven-nap schedule and finally to a six-nap schedule by eliminating a late-morning nap. It is all about adaptation and adjustment. The transition should always be gradual. This schedule allows for weekend “sleep-ins” with eight naps and “work days” with six naps.

What are the Different Types of Polyphasic Sleep you can Try?

The first step for adopting a polyphasic sleep is choosing a type. Assess your goals and understand your body’s unique need for rest. Various kinds of polyphasic sleep include the Everyman pattern, Dymaxion pattern, biphasic sleep method and Uberman method.

Everyman Sleep

The everyman sleep is one of the most popular polyphasic sleep patterns. The original schedule consists of a 3-hour core sleep and three 20-minute long naps throughout the day. These naps are equidistant from one another, and their position depends upon our natural drop in alertness or BRAC cycles.

Over the years, it has evolved into a 3.5-hour core sleep with similar nap timings spread throughout the day. The partition of slumber depends upon the external cues your body detects through the retina, liver and several other places. You should always time your core sleep, so your second REM cycle coincides with the end of your sleep.

Uberman Pattern

The Uberman sleep pattern requires people to sleep only about 2 hours per day. It is a borrowed moniker from the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche. It is a polyphasic sleep schedule that consists of six 20-minute naps in four-hour intervals. That means you get to nap at 2 am, 6 am, 10 am, 2 pm, 6 pm, and 10 pm. People, who have been practicing the schedule, assure that they experience increased energy.

History shows that prominent artists and eminent musicians practiced similar polyphasic sleep patterns to fuel their creative instincts. The average Uberman claims 91 extra days per year that they can utilize for new projects. Additionally, these Ubermen never experience jetlag and shift-lags since they break free of the bonds natural daylight and night impose.

Dymaxion Sleep

Several research papers postulate that people with a double mutation in the DEC2 gene can sustain themselves for years with extremely short sleeping periods. This mutation increases the chances of people experiencing the regular number of REM cycles and deep restorative sleep phases, even with shorter total sleep durations. Sadly, only about 1% of the human population has this gene.

Buckminster Fuller came up with the concept of the Dymaxion Sleep schedule. People who practice this kind of sleeping patterns take a nap four times a day for 30-minute duration only. These people can quickly get by with fewer than regular REM cycles without any severe impact on their sleep pressure. Although we currently do not have any mechanism to modulate the effects of the circadian rhythm on the human sleep-wake cycles, polyphasic sleepers can successfully reduce the sleep pressure to maximize restoration.

A more realistic Dymaxion sleep schedule includes longer nap durations that are fewer in number. It is an uneven polyphasic sleep pattern that involves four resting stages and four waking stages.

Biphasic Sleep

Biphasic sleep or bimodal sleep is when people divide their sleeping time into two periods. Although there are several forms of biphasic sleep, the extended rest – short nap version is the most popular. Taking afternoon siestas is a common practice in some areas of Europe and Asia. There are two forms of this kind of sleep.

  1. Long nap: this includes a 5-hour rest and about 1-1.5-hour nap.
  2. Short nap: this one involves about 6 hours of sleep per night and a 20-minute gap.

Another favorite schedule is the equally bifurcated sleep pattern, where the sleeper divides his nighttime sleep into two equal parts of about 3.5 to 4 hours each. This form was prevalent in the western European regions in the 18th and 19th region.

French royals used to sleep for about 3 hours during the first phase of the night, wake up to write or read or pray and then go back to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

What is the Evolutionary History of Polyphasic Sleep?

Polyphasic sleep patterns have been around for quite a while. Some people believe that similar sleeping patterns have existed to support sustenance, gathering-and-hunting lifestyle and facilitate complete restoration since the ancient times. Patterns of bifurcated sleep and polyphasic sleep are predominant in the 18th and 19th-century literature.

People have made a few changes in these sleep patterns that have given rise to the modern Uberman sleep and Everyman sleep patterns. No matter how radical these schedules seem, you must remember that none of these are brand new. People have studied the human body responses to circadian rhythms for ages and developed several poly-stage sleep patterns that can foster complete rejuvenation within shorter periods of time.

According to many noted historians and anthropologists, polyphasic sleep has its roots in the environment rather than physiology. Even today, fragmented sleep is common among the younglings of almost all mammalian species. Thomas A. Wher discovered the persistence of biphasic sleep patterns among human beings as far back as 800 BC. His polyphasic sleep study involved a group of 14 subjects. He put them in an artificial environment devoid of sunlight for 30 days.

As his research advanced, he noticed that these subjects started sleeping according to a bimodal pattern. Two 4-5-hour blocks of sleep separated comprised their total, and they lay awake in between these two blocks quite peacefully. That showed the world that the biphasic sleep pattern was, in fact, the most ancient of all sleeping patterns that our bodies naturally adopted. Biphasic and polyphasic sleep might be our “default” rest setting, and we might be struggling in vain to conquer monophasic sleep.  

Interestingly, segmented sleeping patterns may have been prevalent before the founding of the most ancient civilizations. We have the shortest resting phase among all primates and research by the department of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University shows that segmented sleep might have something to do with our cognitive capacities. The shift in sleeping patterns began about 1.8 million years ago. The discovery of fire and adaptation to cave dwelling may have fueled the practice of continuous sleep.

Monophasic sleep enjoyed three-fold advantages including warmth, security of sleeping in groups and better REM sleep that propelled cognition and memory. It only meant the modern human being did not have to sleep as frequently and yet enjoy the benefits of complete rest at night.

Why is it Challenging to Re-adapt to Polyphasic Sleeping Patterns Today?

It seems like evolution pushed us towards the monophasic sleep pattern in the last couple of million years. It might seem counterintuitive to go back to polyphasic sleep until you consider the challenging reduction of the resting hours we are about to experience.

Shifting to a new Uberman pattern or Everyman pattern of sleep can take considerable effort since we are pushing ourselves towards achieving the same level of comfort with reduced sleeping hours. You could say that we are looking towards undoing what millions of years of evolution have done to our physiology and habit.

Adapting to the polyphasic sleeping patterns can be challenging without the correct guidance and help. In addition to a “human alarm clock,” you will need the correct information. The duration of the adaptation process depends on the body’s response to the circadian cues. You can begin by napping every 3-hours or 4-hours depending on the synchronization with your internal body clock. The “zombie mode” is an unavoidable part of the Uberman if you decide to skip the exaptation. Embracing exaptation will help you alleviate these symptoms through the practice of an eight-nap schedule.

For some people, the adaptation process takes shorter than a month, and for few others, it can even take more than a month. Most claim that this period of increasing exhaustion, predisposition to fatigue and occasional sleepiness as per the old monophasic sleep patterns can last for more than a month for the regular sleeper.

Ubermen are usually able to shift their resting patterns without disturbing the natural rhythm. With daily practice, people are often able to overcome their tendency to revert to monophasic sleep. Even missing naps or oversleeping does not interrupt the Uberman routine upon extensive practice.

Why Should you try Sleeping Polyphasically?

We rarely consider the fact that we spend about 26 years (of an average lifespan) in bed. Sleep can boost health, immunity and sustain memory, but it is complicated for many of us to get 8-hour long resting phases on a regular basis.

The correct segmented sleep pattern can help you feel refreshed and rejuvenated with lesser than one-third of the time you spend sleeping right now. Here are a few reasons you should try polyphasic sleep.

You can Dedicate More Time to Regular Activities

Whether it is studying, sports, meeting with your friends or browsing the web, you will be able to do everything, every day, without losing out on essential slow-wave sleep. In fact, with several sleep phases, you will be able to experience more than one first-task-of-the-day!

Go to Bed Late, Yet Wake up Early

All the different types of fragmented sleep support late bedtimes and early wake-up times. You will never have to leave a party early or a movie halfway because it is time for you to hit the hay.

You will also be able to enjoy your morning walks and your morning cup-a-Joe even though you manage to go to bed late. In between, you will not feel tired or the need for going back to bed, if you can perfect your nap schedules.

Better Time Management

Do you always struggle with your work schedule, family time and self-improvement activities? People today feel the lack of personal time more than ever. Finding a balance between our responsibilities and our hobbies is almost impossible.

However, the Ubermen and Everymen state otherwise. They always have time for exploring new things, and yet meeting their responsibilities. These resting patterns enable convenient and flexible scheduling by increasing your net awake time.

Enjoy REM Sleep

Due to the building sleep pressure, you will never have to wait to go into REM phase. Adults spend about 1.5-hours per night in REM. When you break your sleep down to 30-minute naps, the surmounting sleep pressure allows you to delve right into a REM cycle without much prologue. It restores brain activity, boosts cognition and improves general health.

Improved Cognition and Decision Making

REM sleep frequencies can determine the power of cognition among people, and it can boost mental clarity too. It restores the neuron networks and promotes short-term memory conversion.

Therefore, any form of sleep that facilitates REM sleep has the power to provide mental clarity, increasing comprehensive skills, hone problem-solving skills and improve overall mental capacity.

Multiple Short Breaks Throughout the Day

Polyphasic patterns allow space for several brain-breaks in 24 hours. Each nap is about 4 to 6 hours apart depending on your sleep type. With several REM cycles throughout the day, your brain easily reaps the benefits of fast, frequent reboots.

Persistent Happiness

Today, one out of six adults in the US takes antidepressants. The lack of satisfaction, surmounting pressure at work, increasing instances of aggression and unhealthy competition is contributing to the rising frequency of depression among children and adults alike.

Recurrent REM cycles throughout the 24 hours can help them overcome the negativity in their lives that fuel depression. People with diagnoses of depression have found relief after adopting polyphasic sleep for extensive periods. Several informal pieces of evidence show a robust bond between polyphasic sleep and happiness.  

Overall Sleep Quality Improves

Talk about multiple REM cycles and short breaks to reboot the body and the brain! Polyphasic sleep supports quick restoration.

If you think more extended hours of sleep is necessary for better health, then think about all the times you have experienced 10-hours of sleep yet woken up groggy and confused. The renewed sleep schedules might be an answer to that. It can improve sleep stability and density. Rest should always be about quality and not quantity.

Weaning yourself off long hours of sleep is not a new idea but doing so takes some time. You should remember that polyphasic sleep can have different effects on different people and you should always stay in touch with a sleep expert or a physician when you switch to the new pattern of resting.

When Should You not try Polyphasic Sleep?

Several syndromes, existing health conditions, and disorders can take a turn for the worse if you start practicing polyphasic sleep without consulting a general physician or sleep expert first. Several factors should deter you from exercising this kind of a sleep schedule. 

Poor health. People with a severe heart condition, viral infections and other challenges of the immune system should not attempt this form of fragmented rest. There have been several instances of people falling sick within the first couple of days during the adaptation stage due to ill-effects of sleep deprivation. Additionally, research shows the presence of an immunity suppression stage at the beginning that can cause people to fall sick.

Addiction and substance abuse. Alcohol and other drugs impede proper REM sleep. People with a drinking problem should not attempt polyphasic sleep since getting quality sleep in short bursts becomes almost impossible when your brain is on any substance. In fact, people, who have a severe dependence on caffeine, should also refrain from adapting to a new sleeping format. Caffeine delays sleep onset, and this can always compromise the quality as well as the quantity of sleep you get at the end of 24 hours.  

Lousy diet choices. If you are obese or if you are suffering from any deficiency disease, you should always consider your GP before boosting your awake-time. Cutting down on your rest can cause your body to tire out much faster than usual. To successfully adopt a more productive daily routine, begin by improving your diet. Control your blood sugar, monitor your blood cholesterol and blood pressure, before starting the exaptation phase.

Which Famous Personalities have Advocated Polyphasic Sleeping in the Past?

Leonardo da Vinci. He used to sleep for about 1 to 2 hours per day only. But, it did not stop him from creating the Mona Lisa or visualizing the first flying machines. There is an official da Vinci sleep schedule that involves 10 minutes of napping every 2 hours.

Nikola Tesla. He was the king of polyphasic sleep. He has many inventions to his credit, including the methods to generate alternating current. He is famous as the inventor who made it possible to transfer electricity wirelessly for miles. If you are wondering how he found the time to accomplish all this, it might have been possible due to his polyphasic sleep schedule.  

Thomas Jefferson. He was one of those people who woke with the sun and stayed late for all parties. He used to work till late very frequently. His regular resting hours were between 4 to 6 hours long, depending on his workload. In case you are wondering how much polyphasic sleep will affect your functionality, you can inspire yourself by thinking about the founding father of America.

Buckminster Fuller. He is famous for quite a few things, but he is most famous for finding the Dymaxion sleep. It is the portmanteau of the words “dynamic, maximum, tension.” According to the TIME magazine piece of Fuller, he slept polyphasically for over two years, while working on several of his creations.

Salvador Dali. His Burning Giraffe, is as famous as his “Slumber with a Key” resting method. He was well-known among his peers and fans as the artist who never slept. His eccentricity and creativity needed more than the usual monophasic sleep.

He has often mentioned how the sporadic bursts of short-duration rest inspired him to create some of his masterpieces. You can find more details on his unique method of polyphasic sleep in “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship”.

Thomas Edison. Edison was famous for sleeping little and accomplishing a lot. He has over 1000 patents to his name. His ideas and innovations revolutionized the world. Not much is public about his polyphasic practices, but his love for segmented sleep is quite popular.

People in extreme conditions or due to the nature of their jobs have often resorted to fragmented resting throughout the day. This form of scheduled napping is common in the US military, the Canadian Marine pilots, among the astronauts in space, practicing doctors and nurses in the US and even among specific departments of law enforcement in the USA. Under duress, people are often unable to sleep at a stretch for 8-hours straight. They break their total resting necessities in small naps of 20 to 30-minutes each.

How do Food Quality,Nutrition, and Food Timing Affect Controlled Fragmented Sleep?

Food type, nutritional quality, and timing have a lot to do with the sleeping schedule. During the exaptation and adaptation phases, it is imperative to ensure proper intake of nutritional food. Deficiency diseases due to the lack of proper eating habits can become worse due to changing rest schedules.

Eating high-density food like shellfish, seaweed, leafy greens, pumpkins, chia, quinoa, rice and oat bran, cruciferous vegetables and berries help in combating any deficiency that may arise during this period.  

The timing of food intake is just as critical as the composition of food.

  1. You should always eat within the first 30 minutes of waking up.
  2. You should not eat within 2 hours before commencing the core sleep period.
  3. The meal before each nap should be a couple of minutes before you go to bed.
  4. You should restrict most of your carbohydrate consumption during the middle of the day (during peak daylight).
  5. Think of switching to faster-digesting food since gastric emptying is faster for REM sleep.

There are no specific Polyphasic Diets, but paleo nutrition diets and ketogenic nutrition diets abate fragmented REM-rich sleeping patterns. Ideally, any low carbohydrate, high fat and high protein diet with tons of digestive fibers are great for polyphasic sleep patterns.

What Should you Know Before Committing to a Scheduled Napping Practice?

When it comes to polyphasic sleeping, everyone should start with the Everyman Cycle. Not all physiologies and metabolisms can take the pressure of the Uberman. Biphasic sleep is one of the easiest and least demanding resting styles. No matter how you start or when you start, you need to remember a few points.

It’s alright to fail. Changing your sleep schedule from monophasic to biphasic and finally to polyphasic has never been easy. In case, you fail to stick to your new routine and oversleep at times, and you should always try to commit to the next sleeping cycle. Remember not to give up. Good things in life always take a little time and a lot of practice. You are looking forward to gaining over 21 years of extra time. It is entirely justified if you have to struggle for a couple of weeks to perfect the pattern.  

The millionaire entrepreneurs, inventors, and artists have mastered the art of replacing long duration sleep with short naps over the years. Only a few with rare mutations in their genome can make do with as less rest as 5 hours throughout their lives with almost no repercussions.

Sleep Related

Was this post helpful?

Website | + posts

Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic