Sleeping 3 Hours a Day: Polyphasic Sleep

Photo by jorel319.

By Josh Rueff on June 10, 2013

“Sleeping is a waste of time.”

-Leonardo da Vinci

Time is perhaps the most valuable thing a person can possess.

On what seems to be (but isn’t) an unrelated note – one of the most controversial and oft debated subjects is that of sleep. Especially polyphasic sleep.

Do we get enough sleep? Should we nap? Can we sleep less?

In today’s society a subculture of polyphasic sleepers is on the rise, claiming that 4, 3, and even 2 hours of sleep per night is enough. The prevailing theory is that REM sleep is the only sleep that seems to be of any importance, and you only get 3 hours of REM in an 8 hour block of sleep. When you train your body to sleep in fragments, your brain adapts, jumping right in to REM sleep instead of wasting 5 hours before and after.

As legend has it (and it may not be much more than that) Leonardo da Vinci slept only 2-3 hours per night, which is almost absurdly believable when you take into account the vast number of inventions, paintings, theories, and contributions to science the man is credited for.

Benjamin Franklin is another supposed proponent of the habit of polyphasic sleep, which may be a myth derived from his autobiography where he advises a sleep schedule of no more than 5 hours a night, and his habit of taking naps during the day. Not much, but also not polyphasic.

Tesla claimed to only sleep 2 hours a night, leading many to believe he was a polyphasic sleeper as well, since this is the only way a person can survive off of that little sleep. The fact that he admitted to napping occasionally to “recharge” gives further credit to the theory.

Thomas Edison called sleep “a heritage from our cave days.”

Polyphasic sleep is a schedule where you take a series of scheduled power naps throughout the day ranging from 15 to 30 minutes each. Healthy Howard’s buying guide advocates that some polyphasic sleep schedules allow for a core sleep block of 1 1/2 hours to 5 1/2 hours, followed by a series of power naps, sometimes with the help of CPAP and APAP systems. The overall goal of course, is to gain more time, which is valid enough, and though the practice seems to go against nature, it turns out that most animals are actually polyphasic sleepers. So us humans, with our luxurious 7 to 10 hours of monophasic sleep happen to be the weird ones.

Sleep Schedules in Nature:

1. Giraffe: 2 hours per 24 hour day, fragmented.

2. Deer: 3 hours, fragmented.

3. Elephant: 4 hours, fragmented.

4. Lion: 20 hours, fragmented… Wait a minute – 20 hours???

Yes indeed. Well no actually, they don’t just sleep 20 hours, but they either sleep or rest for that long every day.

So why do lions get to rest so long when the other animals only sleep a tiny fraction of the night?

I don’t have a blatantly scientific answer for that, but my best guess? They can. They’re at the top of the food chain just like us, and just like us, they sleep more than they need to. It’s a luxury they’ve earned. 

So how much time should we sleep?

It depends on what you want! If you love to sleep, those extra 3 or 4 hours sleeping in on a lazy Saturday may be your favorite thing in the world, and that’s okay! If you’re more like me, you may have a Christmas list of the things you want to do, and polyphasic sleep is the perfect answer – with an additional 30 (or more) hours a week, you pretty much stretch one week into two! That’s a capital (ist) dream.

This was too good for me to pass up, so I’ve recently begun my journey into the dark (veeery dark at times – you start to feel like a vampire being up at all hours of the night when everyone else is snoozing their life away) art of polyphasic sleep. I’m not going to lie, I feel like a superhuman, even though technically I’m doing the baby version of polyphasic sleep – the Everyman 3. Who knows, maybe I’ll start the notorious Uberman schedule of 6 20-minute naps every 4 hours, but I doubt it. This is all about what benefits me best, not how much I can deprive myself. Although 42 hours of extra time every week would be nice.

I have to say, even though this post is about sleeping less, I love the example the lion gives: If you’re able to conquer the world around you, you can choose whatever schedule that fits you best.