Adapting to Polyphasic SleepIf you, or someone you know, are going to attempt to convert to a polyphasic sleep schedule, then you need to read our adaptation tips page. This article will give more general information about adapting and then move on to include what is believed to happen in brain.
First off, if you have not already figured this out, adapting is difficult. Essentially what people are trying to do is retrain their brain to sleep differently. Some have theorized that this is society/our parents fault because when we were babies we all slept polyphasicly. Instead of teaching us to have shorter and shorter sleep cycles, our parents taught us to have one massively long sleep cycle. If you have never been a parent, then you cannot fully comprehend how insanely difficult it is to train a baby to sleep through the night. In our society this is considered a good thing: babies sleeping through the night. But, one might hypothesize that instead we should try and train our babies to continue their natural polyphasic sleep but with a shorter and shorter sleep time period. This is only in theory as, to my knowledge, no one has actually tried this on a baby. There is some evidence that this might not be a good idea as the other sleep cycles result in hormones, healing, growing, and the like that is even more important to children than adults. I am in no way suggesting that anyone actually attempt this with their children. But, based only on my experience with my two children, especially my three-year-old daughter, I think she would be just fine with a much shorter core sleep and then a nap or two.
So anyway, adapting to polyphasic sleep is difficult. If you are not ready for some hard work, then don't try it. Also, you will probably need the help of either these tricks, or an assistant, or both in order to actually make it through. There is a reason why sleep professionals think that polyphasic sleep is insane. The first is because the only path to get there is through sleep deprivation. As noted on that page, sleep deprivation is bad. But, there is significant proof that short term sleep deprivation DOES NOT cause permanent damage. So, attempting to convert to a polyphasic schedule will always result in one of two things (1) the person successfully adapts and his body is now getting the sleep it needs from the naps, or (2) he does not adapt because he sleeps more than he is supposed to and therefore is sleep deprived but not to a damaging level. If, of course, you have only been sleeping on Uberman scheduled naps and never overslept and are still feeling totally sleep deprived after a month, then (a) you are the first I have ever heard of and (b) should probably give up on polyphasic sleeping. On the other hand, many people give up after only a week or two, or after a month but a month that was full of oversleeping at nap times or dozing off at other times which counteracts the adaptation. Essentially, the fact that you are sleep deprived is what causes your body to adapt. So, if you get too much sleep, you will be less sleep deprived (though still likely sleep deprived) and therefore will be slowing down the adaptation process. Essentially, someone that is "adapting" but still sleeping more than their scheduled naps is not really adapting, just torturing themselves.
When people really are adapting, they are changing the way their brain works during sleep. This is not a new concept. As indicated above, it is normal for parents to essentially train (or re-train) their children to not have the natural polyphasic sleep pattern at birth into a monophasic sleep pattern. Also, it is not unusual for people to be able to change their sleep pattern to accommodate a new job on a different shift or overtime work, or an early meeting on one or more days. The human body and especially the human brain is amazing as to the level at which it can adapt to different situations and stimuli. The key is giving it the stimuli to achieve the results desired.
Most sleep professionals agree that 7.5 hours of sleep a night is the best. This is not a coincidence. In general, most people have a circadian rhythm of about 90 minutes. Over generalizing, each sleep cycle is about 90 minutes long, therefore 5 of these cycles together would be a total of 7.5 hours of sleep. The 7.5-8 hours of sleep that is often recommended comes from the fact that (a) this is a generalization and not 100% accurate, and (b) everyone's circadian rhythm is slightly different such as 92 minutes long. This is further complicated by the fact that different sleep cycles throughout the night provide different amounts of different stages of sleep. But, as a generalization, 7.5 hours of sleep results in ~5 REM cycles.
So, what happens to your brain and sleep cycles in polyphasic sleep? This is actually up for debate and contention still. This seems odd to me since it could pretty easily be settled with an EEG and some fully adapted polyphasic sleepers. But, the two theories are that the brain is being trained to go into REM sooner (in terms of sleep phases) or to condense the entire cycle and ending with REM. To understand the difference, I feel a more detailed lesson on what monophasic sleepers' brains do while asleep. See the Sleep Phases page for more detailed information.
Below is an image from Wikipedia showing a "typical" sleep pattern. There are a couple things I want you to take a look at first, as mentioned above, it is about 90 minutes after the initial falling asleep when the first REM cycle is entered. Secondly, in the first cycle at least, the stages go 1, 2, 3, 4, REM. After about 3 hours of sleep, there is no
more deep sleep, only phases 1, 2, and REM. OK, so what does this mean? To understand, one needs to know what the differences are between the different phases.
Stage 1: You're not really asleep. Have you ever had your leg suddenly jerk while you are falling asleep? This happens in phase 1 sleep. Most people think they never fell asleep if they only enter stage 1 sleep.
Stage 2: brain activity decreases but will suddenly become active and then go away again. As such, if awoken during this stage, one would know they had been asleep but not feel particularly groggy. If awoken right after going to sleep,, then of course one might still feel as tired as before going to sleep.
Stage 3: a light deep sleep in which the brain essentially switches back and forth between the decreased activity in Stage 2 and the Delta waves of Stage 4. If awoken from this stage, one will feel groggy and will likely need a moment to essentially restart their brain alertness.
Stage 4: Exclusively Delta Wave sleep. Similar to Stage 3, if awoken from this stage, one will feel groggy, feel the need to go back to sleep (and be able to do so quickly), and need a moment to become alert and aware of the surroundings. This delta wave sleep is generally believed to be needed in order to feel refreshed and is the "relaxing" time for the brain.
REM: the sleep stage where dreaming occurs, REM is so named (Rapid Eye Movement) because one's eyes move around significantly when in REM. People are usually rendered immobile. Sleepwalking occurs when people are not immobile and are effectively acting out their dreams. The exact reason for REM is not completely understood, but what is understood is that it is essential for proper brain activity, especially the formation of memory. Someone awake that did not get enough REM before will have difficulty later remembering what happened.
So as a basic summary: the exact reason deep sleep is vague, but it is needed for physical restfulness and usually needed to feel refreshed. REM sleep is needed for mental activity such as memory. Phases 1 and 2 are generally not seen as needed.
OK, so let's review that diagram above of what happens when asleep again. What can be concluded? Well, if phase 1 and 2 are not really needed then why do I want to sleep so long? The answer is REM. It is hypothesized and relatively accepted (especially by polyphasic sleepers) that the body needs REM sleep in order for the mind to operate successfully. Think of the brain as having two different kinds of memory, similar to a computer: RAM and hard drive space. REM sleep is the phase when RAM is filed into the hard drive. Each person, just like each computer, will have a certain amount of RAM and a certain amount of hard drive space (there is a theory that certain disorders such as autistic savantism can be explained by the idea that they are unable to store anything to the hard drive and therefore their entire brain is RAM, but anyway). If one "runs out" of RAM during the day then that is when he feels "tired" or rather feels the need to file all of this information into hard drive files in the brain. This is why a tired person has difficulty thinking. Have you ever tried to use a computer that is running out of RAM? It opperates VERY slowly or sometimes for difficult tasks, not at all. The brain is the same way. That tired feeling is you noticing that you are having trouble finding enough free RAM in your brain.
It is more efficient to file things multiple times a day than just once a day. Or stated another way, less RAM is needed when storing the data to the hard drive multiple times a day than if just done once a day. So, to me, Everyman makes complete sense. In Everyman, a subject sleeps about 3 hours at night and then takes a few naps during the day. During the 3 hour core sleep, roughly the same amount of deep sleep is received as a monophasic sleeper would get. During the naps, only light and REM sleep is received and this refreshes some RAM for future daily activities. Uberman is slightly more difficult to explain. Some have hypothesized that the need for deep sleep is only made up by sleep specialists and therefore the naps to attain REM sleep are all that is needed. Others hypothesize that the amount of deep sleep is not as high if received in regular intervals and therefore enough deep sleep is possible by condensing the normally 80-100 minute sleep cycle down to only 20 minutes (or however long the nap is). Both sides agree that the naps end with REM sleep, which is why it is extremely normal for polyphasic sleepers to remember dreams from most of their naps. The condensing theory has the problem that Uberman is generally regarded as easier to adapt to than Dymaxion. If the sleep schedule was merely being condensed, then it would make sense that condensing it to a shorter period would be harder. If, instead, as is theorized by those indicating the deep sleep is being eliminated, the REM sleep cycle in which the nap ends is inserted after a short phase 1 (and possibly phase 2), then this would seem to fit because after 15-20 minutes of REM sleep, then the body would start to enter deep sleep and this would be more difficult to wake up from. As noted elsewhere on this page, some actual data from an EEG of someone or preferably a group of people on a polyphasic sleep schedule would be extremely useful in determining which of these are correct.
So, to summarize, adapting to polyphasic sleep involves retraining one's brain to get the type of sleep needed in the limitted amount of time sleeping, specifically getting mostly REM at every nap. Also, a training of one's body to not need as much deep sleep is useful. Because one receives far less deep sleep when on polyphasic sleep, and deep sleep is where the body rebuilds itself, in order to make adapting easier, it is recommended to not do too much physical excersize while adapting.
You will probably want to check out our tips for adapting to polyphasic sleeping article if you or someone you know is thinking of actually adapting to polyphasic sleep.