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Cutting sleep down to 6, or 4, or 2 hours per day sounds fantastic; it also sounds like something that should have evolved naturally if it were possible. Has any serious research been done into polyphasic sleep and its side effects?

Polyphasic sleep involves sleeping more than once per day at regular intervals and for regular amounts of time. There are different specific regiments, but the overall goal is usually to reduce the total time spent sleeping.

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Could you please add a short explanation what polyphasic sleep is? It would greatly help those unfamiliar with the term. –  Fabian Mar 18 '11 at 14:03
    
@Fabian: I haven't heard the term, but based on "poly" and "phase", I'm guessing it has to do with several phases (sleeping several times a day, instead of aggregating it all in one big chunk). –  David Hedlund Mar 18 '11 at 14:20
    
I seem to recall a study where it was found that if people were living in a constricted environment where they did not notice the rise and setting of the sun, they reverted to sleeping twice over a 24h period. I haven't found the research, though (hence the comment, and not an answer). I'm guessing that humans have evolved to be awake as much as possible of the time when we can make good use of the daylight. My cat has evolved to sleep pretty much all the time. etc. –  David Hedlund Mar 18 '11 at 14:24
    
@David I think I read that study as well, and recall that they also found the the people starting living more of a 26 hour day. –  morganpdx Mar 18 '11 at 17:16
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Anecdotal: When I have more work to do than time, I slip into an "everyman" schedule - a 3 hour core sleep, then 20 minute naps every 5 hours (4 hours total sleep daily). The first time I did this for an extended period (more than several days in a row) it took about a week to get to the point where my sleep urges again matched my polyphasic sleep schedule. During this time I wasn't as alert and mentally capable as I prefer to be when I'm awake. After the adjustment, though, I was as productive as during the day on a regular schedule. There were no other side effects. –  Adam Davis Jun 25 '11 at 18:11
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3 Answers

up vote 30 down vote accepted

There is little research published in scientific journals about conscious adoption of extreme sleep patterns.

In 2000 PureDoxyk proposed the Uberman schedule: Every four hours you sleep 20 minutes.

It takes a lot of willpower to adopt a sleep pattern like Uberman that only allows 2 hours of sleep per day. People need a deep inner desire to adopt such a schedule or there will be no compliance with the experimental setup.

Most people who try to adopt the Uberman schedule fail very soon. There are some such as Steve Pavlina or Tynan claim to have followed the schedule and produced a detailed account of the experience at their website. Steve Pavlina quit the schedule after 5 1/2 months. Tynan quit after 4 1/2 months. PureDoxyk quit after 6 months. They all cite impracticality of having to sleep every 4 hours as reason for quiting.

To my awareness there's nobody who upheld the schedule for multiple years.

Even if it's possible to keep up with the Uberman schedule it doesn't seem to worthwhile or those people would probably have continued with it.

As far as short term side effects goes there seems to be mental effects. We unfortunately don't have much more than self reporting about most of the polyphasic sleepers. I will therefore write a bit which is my own understanding from reading about polyphasic sleep.

A lot of polyphasic sleepers report to be more productive during the time they are on the schedule. Polyphasic sleep forces you to do detailed time management or you screw up. The forced time management might account for the gain in productivity.

It's my understanding that the mental state is similar to the state of calmness, that's reached through doing a lot of meditation. The sleepers might therefore perform better on some tasks.

On the other hand long deep problem solving such as making mathematical proofs might suffer.

In a lot of the polyphasic sleep writing you find the claim that those who practice the Uberman schedule are in the REM state when they sleep. It's my understanding that Claudio Stampi showed in Why We Nap: Evolution, Chronobiology, and Functions of Polyphasic and Ultrashort Sleep that this isn't what happens when people adapt to short nap based sleep.

What about sleeping 6 hours? There was a huge study that concluded that people who sleep 6 hours have a longer life span than those that sleep 8 hours. Correlation isn't causation and this doesn't mean that you will be healthier when you cut your sleep to 6 hours. It however makes it plausible that a 6 hour sleep schedule could be healthy.

If you want to understand more about polyphasic sleep cycles there's a mailing list and a forum. The forum is run by the Zeo guys who produce equipment to measure sleep states. With a bit of luck they will be able to gather enough data in the coming years to publish a bit on polyphasic sleep schedules.

it also sounds like something that should have evolved naturally if it were possible.

The ability to stay awake for 12 hours without pause is quite valuable. People who practice the Uberman schedule lose the ability. If you are a hunter gatherer you don't profit very much from being awake at night. It's harder to protect yourself when you don't stay near the fire that your tribe lighted during the night. I would note that the sleep practices of a person in the western world who sleep in a bed without a nearby fire are very different from the sleep practices according to which we developed.

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Very nice answer. –  Uticensis Mar 21 '11 at 4:08
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Nice answer but polyphasic sleep covers any sleep pattern that is broken up in multiple (disparate) pieces. The afternoon siesta was a big part of culture for a very long time in Spain at least and therefore presumably people have safely practiced polyphasic sleep for large parts of their lives. The less severe versions like SPAMAYL seem more attainable. –  w00t Nov 25 '11 at 10:17
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@w00t: Technically, perhaps, but the question specifies these more severe types, and I think this is the common-sense interpretation of "polyphasic." The siesta model is bi-phasic and has a massive core sleep; it's hardly in the same ballpark as uberman or dymaxion. Also of interest might be Piotr Wozniak's work, which finds that when people engage in free running sleep, they converge to a ~7.5hr core with a ~20-25min afternoon nap. Neat. –  Hendy Jan 12 '12 at 1:24
    
@Hendy looks like we both agree on the same things :-) –  w00t Jan 13 '12 at 13:54
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I agree about evolution: electricity is the only thing that allows people to be useful at night, and it's been enough for too little time. –  coverback Feb 14 '13 at 20:14
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Dr. Piotr Wozniak has research on both learning and sleep:

As for discovering yourself, with the Quantified Self movement rolling, sleep trackers, such at the Fitbit, Jawbone or Misfit Shine can be found in stores. The Zeo is the must accurate of these, but the company went out of business, and the site was taken down.

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Whilst this may theoretically answer the question, it would be preferable to include the essential parts of the answer here, and provide the links for reference. –  Sklivvz Jan 7 at 15:00
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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

The Wikipedia article on polyphasic sleep gives some interesting pointers such as this study for the NASA:

NASA, in cooperation with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, has funded research on napping. Despite NASA recommendations that astronauts sleep 8 hours a day when in space, they usually have trouble sleeping 8 hours at a stretch, so the agency needs to know about the optimal length, timing and effect of naps. Professor David Dinges of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine led research in a laboratory setting on sleep schedules which combined various amounts of "anchor sleep," ranging from about 4 to 8 hours in length, with no nap or daily naps of up to 2.5 hours. Longer naps were found to be better, with some cognitive functions benefiting more from napping than others. Vigilance and basic alertness benefited the least while working memory benefited greatly. Naps in the individual subjects' biological daytime worked well, but naps in their nighttime were followed by much greater sleep inertia lasting up to an hour.

But David Dinges (major American sleep researcher) concludes:

Dinges notes another finding of their study: Naps are a short-term fix, offering only temporary boosts in mental acuity. "They cannot replace adequate recovery sleep over many days," he says. In the end, there's no substitute for 8 sweet hours of shut-eye.

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