How the moon affects our sleep

Just as solar cycle influences when we sleep, a new analysis finds that lunar cycles have some effect too. In the few days before and after a full moon, volunteers of this study took an average of 5 extra minutes to fall asleep, slept 20 minutes less per night, their delta activity (a measure of how deeply they were sleeping) was 30% lower than at other times, their level of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, was reduced, and they reported, subjectively, that they had not slept as well as usual.

The study involved 33 volunteers who were completely isolated from daylight (and thus moonlight too). Thus, this effect must not be because of the direct effect of moonlight but instead it may be an endogenous cycle that evolution has learnt over millions of years.

Reference: C. Cajochen et al. Current Biology 2013

Further reading and Image credit: The Economist

My tryst with polyphasic sleeping

Polyphasic Sleep Day 370

A little over a year ago began a journey that became a masked attempt at self-discovery through the desire to tame one of the most eluding human activities: sleep. I may not have achieved my goal yet but what I have achieved is a lot more awake time and more importantly, a deeper understanding of something we spend almost a third of our life doing.

Me napping at noon in Abingdon

When I began polyphasic sleeping though, my sole objective was to achieve more awake time. I was one of those I-cannot-deal-with-less-than-8-hours-of-sleep person. With an impending viva a few months away and a lot of lab work, I had to force myself to find this extra time that I needed. Throughout this year long journey, I have overcome many challenges and I’ll highlight a few in this post.

The initial adjustment to polyphasic sleeping has been one of the biggest challenges that I have faced. But a strong desire to discipline my sleeping habits went a long way in helping me settle into the polyphasic schedule. I began thinking that I will be able to achieve the dymaxion schedule but quickly understood how inflexible it can get. Since then, I have managed myself on an everyman schedule. In this schedule, I get 3 naps a day and sleep 4-5 hours on most days.

While trying to adjust to a polyphasic sleep schedule I developed some sort of sleep deprivation which proved to be a big hurdle. I say ‘some sort’ because it was nothing like the sleep deprivation that one develops after staying awake straight for 36 hours. I found that the only way I could to overcome it was by having a continuous desire to do something. But that means there was a constant need to find something that I was motivated enough to keep doing. It proved to be a challenge in itself. But funnily enough, my desire to find an eternal source of motivation led me to a solution not so far away. Let me explain.

I was quite skeptical of achieving this feat and never thought it would be a good idea to share the experiment with friends. But inadvertently it became a topic of conversation more often than not. I soon realised the power of what Alex kept saying about making public pledges. Quite simply, once people knew what I was doing this, I had more will power to keep doing it. Another source of motivation that came from discussing polyphasic sleep was the realisation that sleep is a problem for almost everyone. Everyone seemed to have a very unique perspective on sleep and it hardly ever worked to their advantage. Polyphasic sleeping was my way of making my perspective on sleep work to my advantage.

Three weeks into the schedule and I had started reaping the fruits of my labour. Adding to my motivation tank what followed was my first lucid dream which I remember till date and since then I’ve had a few of these. Another motivator was that polyphasic sleep kept me in a positive mind frame and pleasantly so.

Enough about challenges and motivation for now though. Let’s see what are things that I have learnt: Continue reading “My tryst with polyphasic sleeping”

How to stay awake for 22-hours everyday?

Physicists have not yet found a way to alter the Earth’s speed of rotation to give us a thirty-hour day, but sleep researchers may have found a way to get an eight-hour sleep in just two hours—letting you cram in six more wakeful hours a day. The key to this superhuman ability is polyphasic sleeping, a form of sleeping which was first reported was reported in Time Magazine in 1943. Buckminster Fuller, the great inventor and futurist, trained himself to take a half-hour nap every six hours, a pattern which he maintained for two years. This was the first polyphasic sleep schedule invented, and is known as Dymaxion sleep.

Today, there exist three polyphasic sleep schedules; Everyman, Uberman and Dymaxion in the decreasing order of sleep. Little scientific research has been done to show the safety of such sleep schedules, but enough proof exists for a thriving community of polyphasic sleepers. The longest scientific experiment was performed on a single subject, Francesco, by the founder of the Chronobiology Research Institute, Claudio Stampi. Francesco followed a schedule of sleeping for twenty minutes every four hours, now known as the Uberman sleep schedule. After the 48-day study, Stampi reports in his book, Why we nap: Evolution, Chronobiology, and Functions of Polyphasic and Ultrashort Sleep that Francesco’s performance did not seem to suffer as a result of adopting the polyphasic sleeping pattern. The studies showed a change in the brain wave pattern during the short naps. It is only recently that a greater understanding of these brain wave patterns has been developed.

Natural sleep is divided into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep. In normal sleeping REM sleep is observed only at the end of a 90-minute cycle. REM sleep is associated with dreaming and consolidation of memories. However, when deprived of sleep, as in polyphasic sleeping, subjects fall into REM sleep within minutes of starting a nap. Based on these observations, polyphasic sleepers believe that REM sleep is the most important form of sleep & the brain when deprived of sleep capitalises on any chance to sleep in this mode. The online community of people who adapted themselves to the Uberman schedule reports on the blogosphere that they achieve heightened alertness and concentration when fully adapted. Polyphasic sleeping also seems to induce lucid dreaming, a form of dreaming in which the dreamer can consciously participate in the dream.

These anecdotal theories gained some credence in a study recently published in PNAS, which shows that REM sleep is responsible for improving associative networks in the brain. The study involved 77 young adults who were given a number of creative tasks in the morning. They shown multiple groups of three words (such as: cookie, heart, sixteen) and asked to find a fourth word that can be associated to all three words (like sweet). Later in the day, some were allowed a nap, and monitored using brain scans to see what kind of sleep they entered. They were then given the same and new tasks. For the same tasks, the passage of time and sleep allowed them to “incubate” their thoughts and come up with better and more varied solutions. However, for new tasks those participants that entered REM sleep improved by almost 40% over their morning performances.

If these theories are proven on a scientific basis, does it mean that people on polyphasic sleep schedules not only sleep less but are also capable of performing better than normal people? That seems a little counter-intuitive, but a fast growing community of polyphasic sleepers is trying to prove otherwise. More research in this field can lead to development of medically-endorsed techniques which could let to polyphasic sleeping being rolled out to a wider community.

Also published on Cherwell’s Science Blog: Matters Scientific

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