Does Polyphasic Sleep Really Work?

It is widely acknowledged that the recommended amount of sleep a healthy adult should have every night is eight hours.

However, what if there was a way to reduce the amount you needed? Many of us who, for whatever reason, struggle to hit the golden eight hours every night, would surely welcome this with open arms.

In fact, through history some of the most productive and brilliant minds like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Leonardo da Vinci survived on just one-third of the recommended amount of sleep.

This translates to the modern day through some of the most successful business people. The likes of Richard Branson, Marissa Mayer, Tim Armstrong and Indra Nooyi all reportedly get six hours or less every night despite running Virgin, Yahoo, AOL and PepsiCo respectively.


Polyphasic Sleep

So how do we become able to function just as well, off less sleep? Some suggest the answer lies in polyphasic sleep.

Essentially it is a type of sleeping pattern. The majority of us sleep in monophasic patterns, which are singular consolidated patterns over a 7-8-hour period.

Polyphasic sleep is spreading your sleep across a number of smaller periods of slumber. So, does it actually work?



The Proof

Despite its increasing popularity, the actual amount of genuinely scientific evidence is pretty slim. The basic construct of the idea stems from historical investigations.

Historian Roger Ekrich has suggested that before the invention of the artificial light during the Industrial Revolution, the most common sleeping pattern was biphasic sleep. This is sleeping in two separate periods instead of one, as we currently do.

Of course, much like any non-scientific academic, his theory has very much been questioned by those in the scientific community.

A seminal experiment into biphasic sleep in the 1990s by Thomas Wehr looked to find what a natural human sleeping pattern would be like if they only lived by daylight, in particular, the natural light of winter, meaning 14 hours of total darkness.

This experiment found that the natural pattern of human sleep was indeed biphasic, however, it also proved that when sleeping in shorter periods, we actually slept more, clocking in at over eight hours.



What About Polyphasic Research?

The research into biphasic is more prevalent down to previous work surrounding it. Polyphasic is such an unexplored area because of how it doesn’t fit in with the general process of the average 9-5 job and ethically, it is a bigger risk depriving people of sleep.

What does exist comes from research from NASA and the US military. This is because the likes of soldiers or pilots exist in specific roles which might not permit them to have eight straight hours every day.

Instead, the might be called on to perform at their peak ability for short, sharp periods, meaning they need a more polyphasic pattern to grab rest between tasks or operations.

In 1988 Claudio Stampi analysed the sleeping patterns of 99 sailors on long haul sailing races. Because of the process of sailing, none of the sailors ever had time for a monophasic pattern as they had to maintain the ship, so instead, all adopted polyphasic routines.

Unfortunately, similarly to the other research mentioned above, this also ended up proving that sleeping in periods actually means you sleep more, not good for those who believe otherwise.



No Proof?

NASA researcher Prof. David Dinges has said in some of his research that while napping is a good short term fix, it “cannot replace adequate recovery sleep over many days.”

Applying this to the example of the sailors, Dinges essentially suggests that their process of sleeping is merely one to enable them to function in those conditions, rather than an overall lifestyle choice.

All in all, there is little hard evidence that polyphasic sleep is the better sleeping pattern for us than monophasic, nor is there a prescribed way to make it work for each of us.

However it works, there are clearly firm examples that it is a plausible sleeping pattern if your lifestyle allows it. By no means is sleeping 4-5 hours instead of a solid eight recommended, however, like some of the examples above, some of the most successful people in the world regularly get by on very little in comparison to many of us.