How should we sleep? The answer seems obvious at first glance; you go to bed late in the evening and get up next morning. Simples. But what if I were to tell you that the answer only seems obvious because you have been conditioned to think that way? What if I were to tell you that people living in other cultures and at other times would have given a very different answer? Rather than just one sleep pattern, there are, in point of fact, many choices available to us.
Although it seems very clear from the science that we need somewhere in the region of seven to nine hours of sleep daily, how we get that sleep also makes a great deal of difference. Basically, there are three possibilities: monophasic, biphasic and polyphasic sleep.
Sleep Pattern 1: Monophasic Sleep
Monophasic sleep is the very simple pattern that the vast majority of people in the modern world adopt. Conventionally, it usually means getting to bed at some time between 10 pm and midnight, and getting up again between 6 am and 8 am the next morning. Given the time pressures of modern life though, it is not at all unusual for people to retire at some time after midnight and get up before six in the morning. Indeed, some people even consider that such an approach is somehow admirable.
Practising routine sleep deprivation is, quite literally, mortally wrong. By depriving yourself of sleep in such a way you would be opening yourself up to a whole range of short and long-term consequences. All manner of illnesses, both physical and mental, are exacerbated by the deprivation of sleep. Your likelihood of being involved in an accident is drastically increased. Even in the short-term, such a practice will render you more irritable, decrease your levels of concentration, reduce levels of testosterone levels (particularly in men), and generally negatively affect you in a huge range of less than pleasant ways.
Sleep Pattern 2: Biphasic Sleep
Biphasic sleep entails two sessions of slumber. This can be arranged in a wide range of ways but perhaps the most common is a long period of sleep at night followed by a much shorter nap in the afternoon of the subsequent day. Many cultures, but particularly those in South America and surrounding the Mediterranean, have adopted this pattern since times immemorial. Indeed, so ubiquitous is it that the commonly used Spanish word ‘siesta’ has entered everyday English usage.
The science is ongoing, as ever, but there does seem to be a goodly amount of evidence to indicate that Biphasic sleep may be the most effective of all the possibilities. Matthew Walker, in his excellent book ‘Why We Sleep’ related a thought-provoking situation that occurred in Greece a few years back. Traditionally, Greek shops had opened in the mornings, taken a four-hour break in the afternoons, and then re-opened for a few hours in the evenings. The Greek government, in the interests of modernity, decided to impose a system wherein the shops opened from 9 am to 5 pm. In the following years, scientists followed the effects on literally thousands of shop owners and workers. The result? A drastic increase in heart attacks, cardiac problems and all-cause mortality.
Sleep Pattern 3: Polyphasic Sleep
Polyphasic sleep, as the ‘poly’ part of the name implies, means many mini sleeps throughout the day and night. As many parents will attest, polyphasic sleep is a normal, if somewhat stressful, form of sleep (stressful for the parents, that is …). More or less every healthy baby goes through this stage, usually emerging into biphasic sleep sometime in their second year.
Beyond natural polyphasic sleep in babies, there are actually people who deliberately choose to adopt polyphasic sleep patterns, often in the belief that this is either more efficient or can save them time. Personally, I am fairly old school on this. I believe the balance of evidence indicates that we thrive on somewhere between 7 to 9 hours sleep per day. Trying to truncate the amount of time you spend sleeping is often a false economy, leading to a range of less than pleasant physical and mental consequences and generally lowering the quality of our lived experience.
Three common attempts at polyphasic sleep are known as Everyman, Uberman (curiously Nietzchian … ), and Dymaxion.
This system consists of a core sleep of around 3 hours. Subsequently, throughout the day, you are allowed three further naps of around 20 minutes each. The idea behind the longer period of sleep in this system is to allow some time for the various components of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep to take effect. Elementary mathematicians amongst you may have noted that total sleep time in this system comes to a grand total of 4 hours. The phrase ‘hopelessly inadequate’ springs to mind …
It gets worse. The Uberman pattern suggests 6 naps a day, each consisting of no more than 30 minutes (usually 20) interspersed throughout the day. The theory is that you can get all the sleep you need in just 3 hours. Needless to say, this is not a theory that I ascribe to.
A third pattern of polyphasic sleep is known as Dymaxion. Its main claim to fame is that it was, theoretically at least, adopted by the famous architect Buckminster Fuller for a number of years. It consists of 30-minute naps taken every six hours. Stunningly, that’s just 2 hours of sleep for each 24 hour period.
Pros and Cons of the Monophasic Sleep Pattern
Monophasic sleep is the accepted and ‘normal’ pattern for the vast majority of people around the world. The assumption of this pattern is built into our schedules for education, work and play. Therefore, the adoption of monophasic sleep has the huge advantage of fitting into the regulated structures of our culture such as opening hours, work routines and school times.
On the other hand, it can prove quite challenging in the modern world to actually obtain sufficient sleep while adopting a monophasic pattern. Due to the pressures of work, family and leisure we find the time that we actually have to sleep at night squeezed from both directions. We are going to bed later and later. In order to comply with our work, commuting or educational commitments, we are also having to get up earlier and earlier. The idea of sleeping for seven to nine hours a night is but a pipe dream for so many of us in the increasingly time poor world in which we live.
Pros and Cons of the Biphasic Sleep Pattern
Biphasic sleep offers us the chance to have a rest when our bodies are feeling relatively lackluster and tired following lunch. Even 45 minutes to an hour can satiate the need for sleep and leave you feeling energized for the rest of the day. Many cultures, particularly those from relatively hot countries, have built this pattern into the very fabric of their culture. As cited above, when attempts have been made to change this habit, it has led to an increase in cardiac problems and all cause mortality.
On the other hand, it could sensibly be argued that for many of us, particularly those having to go to school, Uni or 9 to 5 work, such a pattern is not possible, even if it is desirable.
Pros and Cons of the Polyphasic Sleep Pattern
The basic idea behind the various types of polyphasic sleep seems to be the notion that NREM sleep is somehow more valuable than REM sleep. Hence, by sleeping multiple times a day, you increase the deeper stages of sleep while simultaneously avoiding ‘wasting’ too much time in light and REM sleep.
To shed a little light on this area, I think I should relate the story of a rather unpleasant experiment that was conducted back in the sixties. The researchers deprived a group of rats of sleep. As expected, the rats died within a month. They then split a further group of rats into two sub-groups. The first sub-group was allowed only REM sleep and the second only NREM sleep. All the rats died, but the rats allowed only REM sleep lasted twice as long as those allowed only NREM. This would seem to indicate that the basic notion behind adopting polyphasic sleep is simply wrongheaded, based as it is on the idea that NREM sleep is more important to obtain than REM sleep.
And the Winner is …
Usually, when I get to the end of these articles, I have to qualify the answer in some ways. In this particular case, though, I feel there is a clear and unambiguous winner. If it is possible, given the limitations of your lifestyle and individual situation, biphasic sleep is clearly the healthiest pattern to adopt. If not possible, then go for monophasic sleep, but try to ensure that you get your nightly seven to nine hours by getting to bed at a sensible time and avoiding bright lights and screens beforehand. Personally speaking, I would advise against adopting polyphasic sleep patterns, fashionable as they may be. They are based on the erroneous idea that time spent in sleep is time wasted. It’s not. Sleep is fundamental to our health and well-being and enables the body and mind to carry out many functions that are absolutely vital for our physical and mental health.