Is Sleep Really Necessary?
What if I offered you the chance to extend your life by 10 years? I’m talking about extra time throughout your life, starting now. This offer affords you a whopping 25 percent more time to excel at your job, bond with the people you love, indulge in your dreams, or just chill.
Is that something that might interest you? If it’s not, stop reading and go to bed. You see, sweet slumber is the dead zone from which you’ll reclaim that valuable time.
I’d been adding items to my to-do list at a much faster rate than I was checking them off when I heard about the Uberman sleep cycle. This extreme form of polyphasic sleeping involves 20-minute naps every 4 hours. (A monophasic sleep pattern would be your typical 8-hour block of sleep every 24 hours.) Some converts to Uberman claim that after an adjustment period, usually lasting anywhere from a week to 3 weeks, they feel no less alert than they would have if they’d been clocking 8 hours a night. (If your sluggish workout routine is dragging you down, then check out the Better Body Blueprint, which will chisel your core and trigger your testosterone in just weeks!)
Leonardo da Vinci is said to have followed a sleep pattern akin to Uberman. Maybe that’s what allowed him sufficient time to design prototypical versions of the helicopter, hang glider, parachute, and submarine, and paint the Mona Lisa and Last Supper. In fact, geniuses and military leaders throughout history have been linked with polyphasic and unconventional sleeping habits—Napoleon, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Winston Churchill, to name a few. Who knows how different our world would be today if these men had bunked down at sunset? I wasn’t looking to invade Prussia, but I thought I could at least use some extra time to renew my driver’s license and figure out my taxes.
I was encouraged in this pursuit by Claudio Stampi, M.D., Ph.D., the editor of Why We Nap: Evolution, Chronobiology, and Functions of Polyphasic and Ultrashort Sleep. In the early 1980s, Dr. Stampi began researching polyphasic sleep after he noticed his fellow long-distance sailboat-racing comrades adopting a polyphasic sleep pattern with minimal impairment. Since then, the elusive Dr. Stampi has been dodging interviewers (like me) and seeking ways to reduce sleep.
I asked W. Christopher Winter, M.D., a board-certified sleep-medicine specialist and the medical director of the Sleep Medicine Center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia, if he considered any of this to be a good idea.
He didn’t. “All kinds of things could happen to individuals who are sleep deprived,” he told me. “Changes in blood pressure, heart rate, hormones, glucose metabolism, temperature regulation, and appetite can be seen quite quickly.”
And to boot, Dr. Winter says, certain theories even tack death onto that laundry list of results: “The sleepless individual is probably cold [due to increased energy expenditure], so hypothermia could be an eventual cause of death. So could catabolism—that is, an increased metabolic rate and protein breakdown—and susceptibility to disease from a weakened immune system.”
I kept on calling experts until I found one who would at least offer some measure of support for this plan. Sara C. Mednick, Ph.D., the author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life, stopped far short of a rubber stamp, but she did at least find an analogy that gave comfort.
“As infants we were all vociferous proponents of polyphasic sleep,” she noted, “and in late adulthood we’re prone to more frequent napping. It leads me to think that the only reason we don’t check out for refreshing 20-minute naps in the 60 years in between is because we’ve learned not to.”
It was a lesson I would try to unlearn.
I’m a pretty good candidate for an unconventional sleep schedule. I live alone, I have free-form work hours, and I’m in good health. I also had a ton of TV to catch up on. So I scheduled any appointments or meetings around my naps (at 2 a.m., 6 a.m., 10 a.m., 2 p.m., 6 p.m., and 10 p.m.). I beefed up my Netflix subscription and bought a “learn Spanish” CD-ROM, along with sheet music to Eddie Van Halen’s most blistering guitar solos. In my suddenly overflowing spare time, I would become a culture-vulture Uberman in the flesh.
The first night, I crawled into bed at my usual time and left it 20 minutes later without having slept at all. So I kicked things off with a 2:30 a.m. screening of Raging Bull. The movie’s final 20 minutes were accompanied by birdsong. I took a dawn stroll around the neighborhood (a first while sober) and returned to my apartment just in time for my 6 a.m. Ubernap. I dropped off quickly, though the buzz of my alarm just 20 minutes later drove murderous urges throughout my exhausted body. But relief was only a bath, a breakfast, and two Sopranos episodes away.