At the time I’m writing this, it’s been almost eighteen years since the Seinfeld season finale, and nearly twenty years since the Friar’s Club episode where Kramer tried to emulate Leonardo da Vinci’s alleged habit of only sleeping twenty minutes at a time every three hours. I’m sure I saw it when it first aired, but I was still in high school and probably didn’t give it much thought at the time. That all changed a few years later. I occasionally see the subject of polyphasic sleep and the “Uberman” sleep schedule crop up, so I’m going to share my personal experience with it.
I met my future wife online while I was in college. This was still in the early days of the Internet, so dating sites and social networks like Facebook didn’t exist yet—if you wanted to meet people online, you either used newsgroups, web forums, or IRC. We met in an IRC channel used for out-of-character socialization between members of an email-based Star Trek role playing simulation. Yeah—it doesn’t get much geekier than that, right? She was the captain of her own ship, and I was a civilian bartender (like a male version of Whoopi Goldberg’s character on TNG), and our in-game flirting slowly migrated out into real-life flirting. I was still in Canada and she lived in Florida at the time, which made a relationship difficult, but we managed. To make a long story short, soon after I graduated from college we got engaged and I was on my way to Florida with a fiance visa.
The thing about fiance visas is that they didn’t (and maybe still don’t) come with a work permit—it could take anywhere up to a year after moving to the US to file all the necessary paperwork, wait for responses, file additional paperwork, get your fingerprints scanned, and pay various fees before you can legally get a job; and the whole time you’re waiting, you’re not allowed to leave the country or else everything is voided and you have to start over from scratch (including getting a new visa before being allowed back in—a process that could also take up to a year or longer). Suffice it to say, I had a lot of free time on my hands, and no time-sensitive commitments like a job to hold me down. I spent a lot of my time working on personal projects to sharpen my programming skills, and helping my father-in-law (off the books) with his software business. It was during this time that one of my friends (who was living with me and my wife at the time) reminded me of Kramer’s comically failed attempt at the odd sleeping schedule; he told me that it was a real thing, and pointed out that I was in a perfect situation to try it out. After a little bit of research, I completely agreed.
Keep in mind here that I’m describing the theory and thinking behind why people would try this—not what I currently believe or what is necessarily true.
The idea behind adopting the Uberman sleep schedule is that REM sleep is the only stage of sleep that actually matters (that’s when your body is recovering and healing itself). Since we typically only spend about 20% of our time asleep in REM, the goal is to cut out the remaining 80% and “hack” your body to gain the full benefit of several hours of sleep in only a fraction of the time. In a normal adult, it takes somewhere around ninety minutes after you fall asleep to enter your first REM cycle; this means that once you start only taking twenty to forty minute naps every few hours, you will be getting no REM sleep at all, and you will become sleep deprived. Eventually your body will be desperate enough that it will start entering REM sleep as soon as your head hits the pillow for your naps. The theory is that after a few weeks or months of acclimation, your body should completely adapt to these new instant-REM naps. If you’re doing twenty minutes every three hours, that adds up to a total of over two and a half hours of REM sleep per day—a typical seven-hour-a-night sleeper spending 20% of their time in REM is getting less than an hour and a half. You’d actually be getting more REM during your 160 minutes per day of sleep than someone sleeping seven hours.
This surplus of REM sleep is attributed by people who claim to be living on this schedule to feeling more awake and alive than ever—sharper wits, clearer minds, and significantly increased productivity beyond what would be expected by just having a few extra hours awake each day. Other purported benefits are that your dreams are richer, more vivid, and often lucid (meaning you can consciously control them while they are occurring). Basically everything is awesome. Why would anyone not want to do this?
Well, if you saw the Seinfeld episode, you might have a few ideas why.
This all happened about a dozen years ago, so some of the details are a little hazy now. I will recount what I can to the best of my recollection.
I decided on the twenty minute naps every three hours schedule (by far the most popular among the various accounts I read at the time). At first my experience pretty much followed the expected path—I felt groggy and sleep deprived (to the point of hallucination) over the first three days or so. I was definitely falling asleep during my naps, because waking up to my alarm when it went off was becoming extremely difficult, but I wasn’t experiencing any dreams. I did manage to stick to the schedule—no slip ups or over-sleeping at all until much closer to the end of the experiment.
I think it was around the third or fourth day that I started to dream during my naps, meaning I had finally started entering REM sleep again. And what dreams they were! The accounts of extremely vivid lucid dreaming were pretty much spot on for me. I started looking forward to the naps not only because I was so damn tired all the time, but now also because the dreams were amazing. Bringing it back around to Star Trek, it was like living in my own personal holodeck for twenty minutes at a time—complete conscious control over whatever was going on in the dreams, and a body and mind so exhausted that I didn’t wake up like I usually do when I suddenly become aware that I’m dreaming. Of course, I was still very obviously sleep deprived and dead tired between naps, but the daytime visual and auditory hallucinations did go away shortly after the dreaming started.
I continued like this for weeks with no change—I still felt like a zombie all the time and dreaded the end of my naps. My productivity was basically at zero; I couldn’t concentrate on anything long enough to get any work done, and all I wanted to do was sit around watching TV to keep my mind occupied and stay awake. I was pretty miserable, and so was my wife—she was displeased that I was no longer going to bed and waking up around the same time as her. Sometimes my naps would roughly correlate, but a lot of the intimacy normally present around bed time for a young, still fairly newly wed couple was basically completely drained.
One of the claims (and a source of constant hilarity in the Seinfeld episode) is that even though you will eventually reach a point where you are no longer tired between naps, it becomes impossible to ever skip a nap to the point of unwittingly falling asleep in the middle of whatever activity you happen to be performing when nap time arrives. This didn’t really factor in for me—I was cripplingly tired all the time anyway, no more or less so on the couple occasions I decided to try to skip or postpone a nap to see what would happen.
It would all be worth it though, I told myself. It was getting harder and harder to convince myself as the weeks went on, but I kept reminding myself that it was extremely unlikely that I’d ever be in a position to try this again later on in life when I had kids and a job; I’d never forgive myself if I cut the experiment early when I could be right on the cusp of reaping all the benefits that I had read about on the Internet.
Near the end of the first month I was experiencing little snippets of lost time and occasional disorientation. Based on what my wife and friend told me, I’m pretty sure I was experiencing little episodes of microsleep (another side effect of sleep deprivation). I tried increasing my nap time to thirty minutes to see if that would make a difference. After a few more days I tried introducing a longer nap during the night, also to no discernible effect. In the end, I lasted just shy of two months before I finally announced to my (relieved) wife and our (disappointed) roommate that I was giving up. Right after telling them, I turned off my alarm, went to bed, and slept for eighteen hours straight. The next several nights I would easily sleep nine to ten hours, and I think it was about a week before I felt totally normal again and could get by with my typical seven hours.
In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that all I was doing was severely depriving myself of sleep and suffering all of the tortures that entails. The instant-REM naps with startlingly vivid lucid dreams are real, but none of the other touted benefits ever came close to materializing for me. Staying awake was a continuous battle. Would I have become acclimated if I had given it more time? Did I do something wrong that sabotaged my efforts? There are certainly people out there who will tell you so. And you can read all kinds of other accounts from people who claim to have had success (only quitting due to scheduling difficulties or the “boredom” of having so many hours in the day). After having attempted it myself, I am highly skeptical of such claims.
Every time I delve into it, it always surprises me just how little we seem to know about sleep. The Internet has grown considerably since my experiment, however, and as more and more information on polyphasic sleep and the Uberman sleep schedule accumilates, it only reinforces my skepticism. Besides other accounts like this one and opinion pieces, the closest thing I could find to actual scientific research on the subject was this study on Pubmed, which compared biphasic sleeping (two shorter sleep periods per day) versus monophasic sleeping (a single longer sleep period). It seems to indicate that the quality of sleep was higher for the monophasic sleepers—but the total amount of sleep that each group got was the same, so it’s not really comparable to something like Uberman where you are vastly reducing the total amount of sleep. The consensus among actual physicians seems to be that there is no basis for that ever working.
All that being said, if someone can point to anyone who is actually, verifiably living on this schedule and not a in a persistent zombified state, I would like to know about it. Not because there’s any way I could actually go about attempting it again—I just still find the whole concept to be fascinating and would love for it to be a real thing.