Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Polyphasic sleep for dummies

Some of the biological argument presented in this article may not be entirely suitable and convincing for teenagers, esp. those who slept polyphasically through their biology class. Let's then reword it all in baby language. Experience shows that "for dummies" sections are most popular and most effective in conveying the message. Disclaimer: the models presented below are used for illustration only and are a remote approximation of real processes occurring in sleep

Alarm clock is bad for you

A metaphor that may help you get some sense of what alarm clocks do to sleep is a comparison of NREM-REM cycles to your PC. During the day, while learning and experiencing new things, you store your new data in RAM memory. During the night, while first in NREM, you write the data down to the hard disk. During REM, which follows NREM in the night, you do the disk defragmentation, i.e. you organize data, sort them, build new connections, etc. Overnight, you repeat the write-and-defragment cycle until all RAM data is neatly written to the disk (for long-term use), and your RAM is clear and ready for a new day of learning. At waking up, you reboot the computer. If you reboot early with the use of an alarm clock, you often leave your disk fragmented. Your data access is slow, and your thinking is confused. Even worse, some of the data may not even get written to the disk. It is as if you have never stored it in RAM in the first place. In conclusion, if you use an alarm clock, you endanger your data. If you do not care about your intellectual performance, you may want to know that there are many biological reasons for which using alarm clocks is basically unhealthy. Those run beyond the scope of this article. Many people use alarm clocks and live. Yet this is not much different from smoking, abusing drugs, or indulging in fat-dripping pork. You may abuse your brain with alcohol for years, and still become president. Many of mankind's achievements required interrupted sleep. Many inventions were produced by sleepy brains. But nothing is able to change the future as much as a brain refreshed with a healthy dose of restful sleep.

You cannot sleep polyphasically without an alarm clock

Your whole sleep cycle can be explained with the clock and hourglass model. Deep in your brain, your body clock is running on a 24 hours cycle. Every 24 hours, the clock releases a sleepy potion that puts you to sleep. If you try to sleep at wrong hours, without the sleepy potion, you may find it very hard to fall asleep. All insomniacs suffers from the lack of sleepy potion. If they go to sleep too early, before they get their fix of sleepy potion, they will toss and turn. Often for hours. You need to listen to your body clock to know when it is the right moment to go to sleep.

Yet the sleepy potion produced by the body clock is not enough to put you to sleep. The brain also uses the hourglass of mental energy that gives you some time every day that you can devote to intellectual work. When you wake up, the hourglass is full and starts being emptied. With every waking moment, with everything your brain absorbs, with every mental effort, the hourglass is less and less full. Only when the hourglass of mental energy is empty, will you able to quickly fall asleep.

To get a good night sleep, you need to combine two factors:

  • your body clock must be saying "time to sleep"
  • your hourglass of power must be saying "no more mental work"

If your sleepy potion tries to put you to sleep but your hourglass is full, you will be very groggy, tired, but you will not fall asleep.

If, on the other hand, you try to sleep without the sleepy potion while the hourglass of power is empty, you may succeed, but you will wake up very fast with your hourglass full again. That will make sleeping again nearly impossible.

Insomniacs go to sleep before the body clock releases the sleepy potion. When you wake up early with an alarm clock, you can hardly get to your feet because your body is full of sleepy potion, which begs you to go back to sleep. When you are drowsy in the afternoon, your hourglass of mental power might be almost empty. A quick nap will then help you fill it up again and be very productive in the evening. If you drink coffee in the morning, it helps you charge the hourglass and add some extra mental energy. But coffee combined with the sleepy potion produce a poisonous mix that engulfs your brain in sickly miasma. If you try to drink coffee to stay up in the night, you will feel like a horse kicked you in the stomach. That's the acme of a criminal attack on your brain's health.

Here is why polyphasic sleep will never work naturally:

  • in the morning, if you are fresh and rested, your sleepy potion is cleared and your hourglass is full of mental energy, you are not likely to fall asleep. Trying to take a nap at that time is a waste of time. You will waste time for nap preparations. You will waste time trying to fall asleep
  • in the afternoon, if you hourglass is getting empty, you may be able to take a nap. That's ok. Your nap will be short because the sleepy potion is not there
  • in the evening, your sleepy potion is still not there. If you took an afternoon nap, your hourglass is almost full of energy. If you try to take another nap, you will be staring at the ceiling. You will waste your time again
  • in the night, your sleepy potion is released. Napping should be easy, but if you fall asleep, you will not wake up. Not naturally. You will need an alarm clock. You may manage to recharge your hourglass fast, but the sleepy potion will make you groggy and tired. You may need a double alarm or a loud alarm, or some help from your Mom (if she ever agreed to this polyphasic insanity). You will fight and struggle. You will never wake up naturally. Not while the sleepy potion is in action

If you decide to sleep polyphasically. You will have to use an alarm clock. Otherwise you will not wake up in the night. Once you use the alarm clock, you will be sleep deprived. That will make your hourglass conveniently drained of energy. Empty hourglass will make napping easier indeed. But it is the hourglass that determines your mental powers. With the hourglass empty, you will be nothing more than an empty-headed zombie.

To generate naps at equal intervals, you would have to kill the 24-h circadian component of sleepiness. You would have to kill your body clock, and prevent the release of the sleepy potion. That is not possible. The sleepy potion will be released every 24 hour and make you sleepy; however, much you fight it. The shortest natural night sleep rarely goes beneath 3 hours. Many biphasic sleepers can do well on 4 hours. Yet most adolescents may need 7 or 8 hours of night sleep to function optimally.

In healthy sleep, daytime naps are either impossible or very short. If you track your sleep with SleepChart freeware, you will see it on your own. You will see how naps tend to cluster at night time (which may be midday for you). That's exactly what polyphasic guru Dr Stampi observed with solo sailors. Remember, that for the picture to be true, you should avoid alarm clock, which naturally, is not possible in polyphasic sleep. Yet even on a forced schedule you will see regular patterns of naps being longer and more frequent at nighttime (each time your relax your discipline, oversleep, etc.). The daytime naps will be shorter, esp. at subjective evening hours (which may be midnight for you).

Body clock training has its limits

I hear it again and again that all biological reasoning is of no consequence because the body can always adapt to training and pressure, and that science has not yet studied successful polyphasic sleepers. Here is a reply based on the clock&hourglass model:

  • body clock is controlled by genes, and we do not know pharmacological factors that could significantly affect body clock period. Polyphasic sleep would require shortening the body clock period six-fold!
  • body clock phase can be shifted with light, activity, melatonin and other factors, but the length of the period in which sleepy potion is released is hard to control. Drugs can reduce the impact of sleepy potion, but this should be avoided, as this affects the sleep stage cycles (i.e. not all your PC data may get written to the hard disk and get defragmented)
  • the speed with which the hourglass of energy is emptied can be affected by drugs (e.g. caffeine); however, faster hourglass would produce more sleep (instead of less), while slower hourglass would make multiple naps even less possible
  • science have not studied successful polyphasic sleepers because they do not exist (although there are as many claimants to the title as there are UFO spotters)
  • polyphasic sleep in laboratory conditions is possible if the alarm clock is used to interrupt natural sleep. Entrained free-running polyphasic sleep is not possible in healthy individuals


Healthy body clock runs a 24 hour cycle. This cycle will make you sleepy during the subjective night (which can be midday too). This is why you won't be able to wake up from your nap in your subjective night without an alarm clock. Alarm clocks are unhealthy. They prevent sleep from fulfilling its function. The choice is yours: either (1) sleep polyphasically or (2) sleep naturally and let your brain develop its full intellectual potential.

If someone tells you he is doing naps every four hours, and that the naps last 20 min. and that he wakes up naturally, you can safely fire back: "I have seen Loch Ness monster too". That will bring it home.

Disclaimer: before you offend anyone, be sure you are not dealing with someone who is affected by a sleep disorder. For example, narcoleptics fall asleep many times during a day. But that is a result of a damage to their sleep control system. It is a disease and it badly affects their productivity and their life. Narcoleptics are always sleepy.



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