What Would You Do in the Middle of the Night?

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It’s time for another edition of “How to Conduct a Personal Experiment.” Last week, it was the cold water plunge. Today, we’re going to talk about running a biphasic sleep experiment. First, though, I’d like to know: how are the cold plunges going? Are they, well, cold? More importantly, did you have any difficulties setting up the experiment, identifying variables, and choosing what to measure and track? This whole personal experiment stuff is likely new to most of you, and while there’s no real “wrong” way to go about it, there will be some initial difficulties. Be sure to keep us posted in the comment section.

Okay, on to the new experiment.

Biphasic sleeping is exactly what it sounds like — two-phased sleep. Instead of monophasic sleeping, which is sleeping in one big unbroken block of time, biphasic sleeping is broken up into two chunks of time. I wrote about biphasic sleeping last year, explaining how considerable evidence suggests that biphasic sleeping is actually the natural sleep pattern in humans. Before the Industrial Revolution, back when darkness meant bedtime and keeping the light on after dark required the consumption of expensive candles and lamp oil, people had far more exposure to darkness. They didn’t have iPhones, laptops, big screen TVs, or even lightbulbs. They had the moon, the stars, the campfire, or maybe — if their city had implemented them — street lamps that were really just candles in glass. And this shorter photoperiod resulted in a very different way of sleeping:

You’d get to bed shortly after darkness had fallen and sleep for several hours. This was “first sleep” (later mistranslated as “beauty sleep”). Sometime around midnight, you’d wake up. You’d putter around, read a little by candlelight (if you were literate and could afford candles, that is!), make love, get up and dance, check on the animals, talk with friends or folks in your tribe, think of stately pleasure-domes in a partial waking dream state… that sort of thing. In short, you would be awake and at least moderately active. You’re not a groggy, grumpy person here, fussing with your pillows, thrashing at the comforter, and agonizing over the alarm clock. You’re reasonably alert and cheery.

Then you’d drift off to “second sleep.” Sounds cool, right, but out of the realm of possibility for us living now? Maybe not.

Studies find that modern humans living in an technological permaglow of light will revert back to the biphasic sleep pattern when exposed to shortened photoperiods (from 16 hours of light to 10 hours of light), so the potential remains.

But very few of us are humans living in contrived study settings, and that’s what could make this one a little tricky. Ideally, biphasic sleep is effortless. It just happens. You wake up, read, talk, use the loo, or do something gentle for a few minutes or a couple hours, and go back to sleep without actively trying to make it happen.

That won’t work for everyone, not without active intervention and formal experimentation. Which brings us to the personal experiment.

But why biphasic sleep?

Mostly because I find the notion that we’re all “doing it wrong” when it comes to a fundamental aspect of our lives — sleeping — extremely interesting. I mean, it’s not like it hasn’t happened to us before (diet and exercise, anyone?). It’s not out of the realm of possibility. I’d even say it’s fairly likely that we’re getting something wrong when we sleep, seeing as how 60% of Americans between the ages of 13-64 report having a sleep problem almost every night, whether it’s waking up feeling groggy or waking up too early. Even those of you who are clued in to the whole Primal thing might find it helpful to explore another way to sleep. In my last post on biphasic sleep, I referred to it as more of a thought experiment than anything else, but today I’m recommending people formally attempt to integrate it into their lives, if only for a month or so.

That said, is there more than one type of biphasic sleeping? Sure:

Natural biphasic sleep

This is what I call normal human biphasic sleep — two four-hour blocks of sleep broken up by an hour or two of wakefulness in the middle of the night. Easy to understand, if hard to implement.

Modified biphasic sleep

This is the kind of biphasic sleep that lifehackers employ. They’re not really interested in anthropological or evolutionary arguments for sleeping a particular way; they want to save time and get the minimum dosage of sleep that confers the maximum amount of benefit. They see sleep as a waste of time, albeit a necessary one. From what I can tell, lifehackers typically sleep for a 4.5 hour block of time — say, from 2 AM to 6:30, which allows them to stay up late, get three, full 90-minute sleep cycles in, and rise early to greet the day. They follow up with a 90-minute nap sometime in the late afternoon, which gives them another 90-minute cycle and enough energy to make it to the next sleep block.

Sidenote: I’m somewhat skeptical of these shortcuts when it comes to sleep. From what I can tell, they focus on REM sleep and seem to classify non-REM sleep as “wasted” sleep, as if it exists only to propel us from one REM session to the next. Eh, I’m not so sure we should be so flippant about messing with a vital physiological process, nor should we immediately discount the importance of “useless” sleep. I have no problem with hacks, usually. In fact, I usually welcome them. Just be careful when hacking something like sleep.

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