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What Does Polyphasic Sleep Mean?

Updated on July 10, 2017
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We all spend about a third of our lives asleep. If that sounds like a lot of time, that’s because it is. If you live for the average eighty years, you will spend about twenty six and a half years just sleeping. We need all of that time asleep. Sleep helps us organize memories, it gives our organs and muscles time to recover from the work they do all day, it keeps us healthy and happy.

Those who are sleep deprived are far more likely to develop a serious illness, to catch a bug, to be injured, and even to become depressed. During sleep, the brain even gets rid of its own toxins and stabilizes its chemistry.

Monophasic and Biphasic Sleep

Most people in the world are awake for anywhere between fifteen and eighteen hours a day, and then sleep for a solid six to nine hours. This is called monophasic sleep and has been the standard for most of civilized society.

Some people may work during the night and might actually sleep during the day instead, but all monophasic sleep means is that you sleep just once during the day. How much you sleep or when exactly you sleep does not actually matter. It is the most common type of sleep in the world, despite the fact that it may not actually be the most beneficial sleeping pattern.

Anyone who has ever been to college or hails from Latin America can tell you that not everyone sleeps just once during the day. In fact, in many parts of the world, especially in Latin America but also in some parts of Europe, sleeping slightly less during the night and adding in a short nap in the middle of the day is very common (and is called biphasic sleeping).

Much research has been done about monophasic sleep and how it affects humans, since most other animals are actually polyphasic sleepers (this means that they sleep many times throughout the day). The only real thing that researchers can agree on is that they do not really know enough about sleep in order to determine the best time to go the bed, how long a person should sleep, when they should wake up, etc.

Some people need nine hours of sleep, others are just as productive and show negative signs if they sleep only six. Some people have a gene that allows them to sleep less without becoming sleep deprived. Others have to get nine hours every single night or they cannot function the next day.

In general, however, much of the research into different styles of sleep indicates that monophasic sleep is the best for humans. Most simians follow a monophasic pattern and require a long period (about a third of their lives) of sleep every night in order to be healthy and happy. This may only be, however, because very little research has been done into the benefits of other sleep cycles.

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Polyphasic Sleep

Monophasic sleep seems to be todays standard schedule. It is not, however, how our ancient ancestors slept, and it is not how the entire world sleeps. In many Latin American countries (and college students around the world), what is called a biphasic sleep schedule is more popular. They may sleep for a long stretch at night (upwards of six hours), and then supplement that sleep with a nap in the early afternoon.

This is closer to how our ancient ancestors slept and is much more in line with our bodies’ natural rhythms. Recent studies have started to look at polyphasic sleep, as the most natural and most beneficial pattern of sleeping. But what is polyphasic sleep?

Polyphasic sleep and famous people?

Polyphasic sleep is sleeping multiple times throughout the day. Instead of sleeping for just one (or even just two) long stretches throughout the day, polyphasic sleepers break their sleep up until several small chunks. This often allows a person to sleep less overall, and to therefore waste less of their time just sleeping, and actually getting more done. Many prominent people have ascribed to this form of sleeping, including the likes of Nikola Tesla and Leonardo da Vinci.

Different kinds of polyphasic sleep schedules?

There have been many different attempts at creating a polyphasic sleep schedule that allows you to get the most out of sleep, without having to spend a third of your life in bed. All of these approaches require the individual to go through a phase where he gradually weens himself off the standard monophasic sleeping schedule and starts to employ the polyphasic one.

One of the most common methods is to sleep from one in the morning to four in the morning, and then to take naps throughout the day. This systems are supposed to allow the person to get more done throughout the day.

Where did the idea for this type of sleep schedule come from? Largely from looking at how other animals function. Most animals do not have a monophasic sleep schedule. If you’ve ever owned a dog, you know that to be true. They are rarely asleep only when you are asleep. They wake up throughout the night, patrol the house, go back to sleep, and do the same during the day.

REM Sleep

In general, these cycles require a person to become sleep deprived enough that when they do actually sleep, the body naturally has to enter the REM (rapid eye movement) cycle faster, making it much faster to get the restorative sleep that you need, enabling you to ultimately sleep less.

Does this not fly in the face of what we know about sleep, however? We know how important sleep is for both mental and physical health, and many polyphasic sleep schedules suggest getting far less sleep than has been recommended by doctors who support a monophasic sleep cycle. What polyphasic does, however, is to allow a person to sleep when they are actually tired.

Most people know that even if they get their eight hours during the night, they will still have a drop in alertness around three in the afternoon, that usually then plateaus, and then drops off sharply again as bedtime approaches. Instead of just pushing through those periods of sleepiness, polyphasic sleep suggest that you should actually sleep during those times. Taking even just a twenty-minute power nap can leave you refreshed and restored and ready to progress through the rest of the day.

The trick, of course, is coming up with and sticking to a regular schedule. Napping throughout the day one day and then trying to return to a monophasic sleep schedule the next day will only leave you sleep deprived and your body exhausted and confused.

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