Should we swap our pillows for productivity?

    (Shutterstock image)

    (Shutterstock image)

    Polyphasic sleep patterns like the “Uberman” promise to return your nights to you, but do you really want them back?

    Finals are here and college students everywhere have adopted wonky sleep schedules to cram for their tests. They catnap on couches, slumber under desks and doze between study sessions—that is, if they sleep at all. Whereas the average person is supposed to get eight hours of sleep, undergrads pull regular all-nighters. And if they can up their productivity, why can’t you? Why waste so much time sleeping?

    “Just get it done tonight, get all the studying done, and then we can sleep tomorrow. I’ll be up until at least one,” that’s Kevin Delmolino. He and Kim St. Andrie are computer science majors at the University of Maryland, and they’re studying for their final exams. They’re holed up in a corner of McKeldin library along with dozens of other students.

    For these two, the name of the game is staying awake. Delmolino has come prepared with two coffees. Both are topped with an obscene amount of whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It’s safe to say he won’t be going to bed any time soon.

    “I’ll be here as late as 3 a.m.” he chuckles. “The place is open all night. You gotta do what you gotta do.”

    Craig Henessy knows that feeling. As a student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, he wanted to spend more time studying and thought sleep was a big waste of time. So he started following a sleep schedule called “the Uberman.” Uberman devotees sleep only two hours a day, but their snoozes are broken up into short, 20-minute blocks every four hours.

    “I felt awful. Without any sleep you’re jittery, your eyes are heavy, and your mind is just a complete fog,” says Henessy.

    No one is quite sure when or where the Uberman sleep schedule originated, but the word uber is a prefix borrowed from German, and it means “above” or “better.” That’s because, if you follow the rules and really only sleep for two hours a day, you can add about 20 years to your waking life—two decades otherwise wasted in dreamland. And that seems to be the uniting theme for Uberman devotees…the desire to get more done with limited time.

    “Instead of having to sleep, you would have 22 hours a day to do whatever you wanted,” says Henessy. “That adds up. Every week you would have 40 to 50 hours to do extra things. Then every year you would have over 2,000 hours to apply to whatever you would like to do!”

    So here’s how the Uberman sleep schedule is supposed to work: When you’re asleep, your body goes through different phases of slumber. One is called REM sleep, which is when we dream. The other is called non-REM sleep. After staying up all night, non-REM is what you want. Researchers think it has a replenishing effect on our bodies. For the Uberman to be successful, the body has to condense that sleep cycle into just minutes. It’s almost impossible to do, though it’s rumored that the Italian polymath Leonardo DaVinci followed the Uberman sleep schedule for years. DaVinci found the time to excel as a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer—the world’s first “Renaissance man.” But to achieve universal fame, who has time to sleep?

    The Uberman sleep schedule may seem the stuff of myth, but it’s important to remember that the way we sleep now isn’t exactly normal. Historically, people had segmented sleep patterns, says Roger Ekrich, a sleep historian at Virginia Tech.

    “Segmented sleep was the dominant pattern of human slumber from biblical times through any number of ancient civilizations right on up through the middle ages until the Industrial Revolution.” says Ekrich. “Before the Industrial Revolution, most Europeans slept for up to the three hours, awakened for up to an hour or more and then returned to sleep for roughly an equivalent period of three hours. During the period of wakefulness they did everything from visiting neighbors to pilfering a neighbor’s orchard, to remaining in their beds reflecting up on dreams.”

    With the Industrial Revolution we got the light bulb, which allowed us to work later. Then, Ekrich says, our ancestors joined groups called the “Early Riser Club.” Club members encouraged people to get to work earlier. And if you’re going to bed late and getting up early, it’s hard to find the time to wake up halfway through the night…even to do something as fun as pilfer your neighbor’s orchard. Slowly, the western world lost its segmented sleep pattern for one long slumber every night. 

    “Our sleep today is highly artificial,” says Ekrich. “It is the creation of the increasing importance attached to efficiency, an attitude which portrayed sleep as, at best, a necessary evil.”

    But only sleeping two hours a day? Is it too good to be true? I asked Dr. Rachel Salas, a sleep expert at Johns Hopkins University.

    “We spend a ridiculous amount of time sleeping,” laughs Salas. “It took me until I became a sleep specialist to take that in.”

    Those following the Uberman Sleep Schedule say they are tired—tired of sleeping. These people have vowed to recoup the hours wasted in bed, to swap pillow for productivity in order to become outstanding, supreme — uber. No one knows why we sleep, but scientists do know that it’s a basic need and not getting enough has serious consequences.

    “Humans are the only mammals that willingly deprive themselves of sleep,” says Salas. “We tell individuals you should be striving to get eight hours of sleep, and we get sarcastic remarks like, ‘Yeah right, that’s never going to happen.’ Our society, we don’t value sleep.”

    In 1989 researchers at the University of Chicago did an experiment. They kept rats awake and deprived them of their normal sleep. Those rats developed skin lesions, they lost weight, and their gastrointestinal tracts started to decay. After 32 days without sleep, all of the rats were dead.

    For humans, sleep deprivation can result in high blood pressure, weight gain, and diabetes, not to mention death behind the wheel—more than 100,000 car crashes in the United States each year result from drowsiness.

    “It really is a matter of life and death,” Salas warns.” Thirty-six percent of Americans report feeling drowsy while driving. They can fall asleep for one to two seconds, that’s all it takes. You’re on the road with these people.”

    The Uberman sleep schedule isn’t the only one out there. There’s also the Everyman Sleep Schedule, where you sleep three hours at night and then have three 20 minute naps during the day, and the Dymaxion Sleep Schedule, where you sleep for half an hour, four times per day. Dr. Salas says the medical community isn’t onboard with these sleep schedules because we can’t complete the sleep cycle in such a short time. As it is, at least 70 million Americans aren’t getting enough shut-eye.

    “At this point there’s not strong evidence to recommend it, I don’t want to be Debbie Downer for anybody, but there’s just not evidence,” says Salas. “People should be aware that you should be getting enough sleep—eight hours—and it should be consistent sleep.” 

    Sleep deprivation catches up with you, which is why Craig Henessy was never able to make the Uberman work and had to quit after just a week. Despite the consequences, the promise of 20 extra waking years is tempting. I run the Uberman sleep schedule by Delmolino and St. Andrie, the two students studying for their finals, to see what they think. Is it worth it?

    “I would really like to have more time, but I really do love sleeping,” says St. Andrie. “I don’t think I could give it up.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal