Trading Sleep For Time

Scientists are curious about the effects of taking these naps and have developed intricate polyphasic sleep schedules to research them.

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By Ivy Jiang


The “one-step-away from an all-nighter” dymaxion schedule involves taking 30-minute naps every six hours, resulting in a total of two hours of sleep per day.

Struggling to get enough sleep, commuting before the break of dawn, and barely surviving throughout the day, you yearn for a place to lie down at school. Sound familiar? Stuyvesant students are no strangers to sleep deprivation. Barraged by daily assignments and tests, students try to squeeze in some sleep during free periods or even class. While breaking up one’s slumber may seem bizarre to the modern world, segmented sleep was the norm during pre-industrial times.

The olden times were a period without clocks, artificial light, and caffeine. Sleep depended solely on whether there were things to do. People often fell into their most natural patterns of sleep, and according to Roger Ekirch, a Virginia tech professor who researches preindustrial resting habits, ancient civilizations most likely adopted a system of segmented sleep. Thousands of sources across various languages, including Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, mention the existence of a “first sleep” and “second sleep,” leading Ekirch to theorize that people in the past utilized biphasic sleep⁠—sleep divided into two parts. At sunset, people would begin their first sleep in response to the decrease in natural light. After a four to five-hour nap, people would wake up at midnight, work, socialize, or relax for a few hours before falling back asleep for another five hours.

According to Ekirch, it was only during the industrial revolution that the practice of split sleep was entirely abandoned. People began relying on alarm clocks to follow rigid factory schedules and adjusted to artificial light and caffeine. The resulting product of this time, monophasic sleep schedules, has endured to modern day. However, there remain some Mediterranean and southern European cultures that still use a less dramatic version of biphasic sleep, opting for a nap or siesta during sweltering afternoons.

Ekirch’s theory of biphasic natural rest is supported by a 1992 study by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr, where subjects were subjected to a fourteen-hour night instead of a ten-hour one. This meant longer periods of darkness and reduced periods of natural lighting for subjects. By the fourth week of the study, participants had adopted Ekirch’s biphasic sleep schedule, sleeping for shorter periods of time and waking up for one to three-hour intervals in between.

Since the onset of the pandemic, napping has become increasingly common due to its convenience and numerous benefits. A survey of 2,000 American workers in 2020 found that more than 33 percent reported taking naps during the day, while in some states, the numbers were as high as 67 percent. Stuck at home during the pandemic, people have reverted back to versions of biphasic sleep.

Scientists have developed intricate polyphasic sleep schedules to explore the effects of taking these naps and have theorized and recognized various forms of polyphasic sleep schedules, which break a typical long rest into four to six different periods. Schedules are classified into the categories everyman, uberman and dymaxion. In an everyman schedule, one long five to six-hour doze at night is supplemented by three 30-minute naps throughout the day. In the more intense uberman schedule, a total of three hours of sleep is broken down into six naps spaced evenly throughout the day. Finally, the “one-step-away from an all-nighter” dymaxion schedule involves taking 30-minute naps every six hours, resulting in a total of two hours of sleep per day. While extreme, it has been documented that Leonardo Da Vinci and Nikola Tesla both followed the uberman schedule while working, getting only three hours of shut-eye every day. Though having more awake-time might seem more efficient at first, modern research has revealed both benefits and negative side effects of this type of sleep that should be considered.

Some people suggest that these schedules lead to increased productivity, cognitive function, and memory retention. There is a lack of research supporting these claims, and some scientists have attributed these feelings of greater efficiency to the extra hours one might have following a dymaxion schedule. A more apparent benefit is for shift workers or other jobs that require unusual wake cycles, where napping is required to maintain awareness and concentration throughout the day.

The side effects of polyphasic sleep are more well-known and apparent to researchers. According to a paper published last year on the adverse effects of polyphasic sleep, no evidence was found supporting the benefits of split sleep. In fact, the paper cited strong opposition to both the uberman and dymaxion sleep schedules, citing reduced reaction times, disruptions to circadian rhythms, and sleep deprivation as side effects which could ultimately lead to irreparable physical or mental damage. Overall, the researchers reached the consensus that splitting sleep is not recommended.

People have reported various degrees of success when trying these odd sleep schedules. Some reported having more energy throughout the day, greater academic success, and reduced effects of insomnia. On the other hand, others cited gaps in attention throughout the day and lower cognitive function overall. A more practical concern for some people was that these schedules clashed with their work or social lives. Some people were willing to adopt these schedules only if entire societies were also structured around it. Currently, there’s no clear research stating the exact effects of each polyphasic schedule. Results remain mixed and based on personal preferences as well as trial and error of finding the perfect sleep schedule.

For Stuyvesant students, it may be most efficient to retain a monophasic sleep schedule to maximize homework efficiency, but it does not hurt to try a different form of sleep. Who knows, trying out a three-hour nap after school or possibly a thirty-minute rest during a free period could lead to a better grade on that next chemistry test. Of course, this is not a system that works for everyone and it may be more damaging than beneficial. Design sleep schedules for your own needs, use this knowledge at your own discretion, and find the best schedule for yourself.