Sleep – how to hack your brain?

November 12, 2012

Sleep - how to hack your brain?

Sleep is such a major part of our lives that it’s not thought about very often except perhaps when we are very tired and desperately wanting to nod off. But what we actually understand about sleep is really quite limited. We know that we all need some sleep, but that amount varies by individual and age and other different factors unique to each case. Contrary to common belief the brain does not rest during the sleep state, it is actually even more busy then than during the day when it is doing countless computations to enable us to carry on with our daily lives. In most people the circadian rhythm controls our ‘body clocks’ very well, making sure that we get the right amount of sleep during the dark hours and remain awake during the daylight hours. Yet there is an inherent mismatch in this statement, we all sleep for different lengths of time and days and nights grow longer and shorter with the seasons. However most people fit in reasonably well with a 24 hour day and night cycle and the actual times of sleep can vary within parameters. However some people find that their sleep wake cycle cannot fit in to 24 hours, some people are more comfortable with a sleep wake pattern that takes 28 hours or some other number of hours to complete. Of course this means that these people are ‘out of sync’ from the rest of us. Their days are our nights and vice versa, life becomes complicated. Fitting in to normal society becomes too difficult because days and nights are merging all of the time. This condition has a name, it’s called ‘non 24 hour sleep wake syndrome’. And the condition is treatable with a radical plan consisting of naps in addition to the main part of the sleep.

First of all we all have to understand that the standard type of sleep the majority of us have is monophasic. That is we have one long phase of sleeping, usually for around 8 hours a night. But it has been noted that all sleep is not the same. In fact many people have yet to be convinced why we need sleep. They accept that it must happen but there doesn’t appear to be a sound reason why. As said earlier, the brain is at its busiest then, biologically it puts us at a disadvantage because as we evolved we could not hunt and gather if we were asleep and we were more vulnerable at that time too. The argument that it gives the body a chance to repair itself could hold true, it’s a reasonable explanation but as yet still unproven. It was about 80 years ago that sleep was investigated and the different stages of sleep were noted. REM, rapid eye movement was identified as a stage of sleep with the most electrical impulses traveling around the brain. The EEG recorded the same waveforms when the person was in REM sleep as when the person was awake. This is the time when most dreams happen. Further research has seen that these are the important times to sleep and when we enjoy the biggest benefit from sleep. Some people believe that these REM phases are all that is required to survive and function in a normal lifestyle. Yet REM phases of sleep generally only last up to 2 hours per night. The rest of the time does not appear to be as crucial. This has led some people to assert that polyphasic sleep is the way forward. Polyphasic is when your sleep patter in broken into more than one period of sleep per day. Many of us do this routinely by having afternoon naps.

Polyphasic Sleep From a non scientific viewpoint the whole idea about sleep is to go to sleep when we are tired and then to waken up refreshed when we have had enough sleep. Most of choose the monophasic option, it’s what we’ve always done. Go to bed at night and waken up during the day. But what if you could waken up feeling just as refreshed as if you had slept 8 hours but had slept fewer hours? That extra time awake could be put to good use. To be successful at polyphasic sleep you must get straight into REM sleep quickly without going into any of the other phases of sleep. It’s the same way that your brain functions when it’s very tired and you just want to get to sleep and you know as soon as you sit down or lie down then you will be asleep. You must train your body to go straight to REM sleep. This can be done by taking some naps during the day, by knowing that you have to awake in 20 minutes your body’s brain goes straight to REM sleep because it is the best quality sleep. It’s a reflex mechanism to ensure that the body always gets enough sleep. When comparing monophasic sleep to the other types of polyphasic sleep it can be seen that a lot less time is spent sleeping but the amount of REM remains roughly the same. Monophasic is normally about 8 hours of sleep with maybe 2 hours of REM. The ‘siesta’ polyphasic sleep method requires a 20 minute nap in the early afternoon – siesta style, and the core sleep at night of 6 hours. The next method is called the ‘everyman’ method and it has core times for sleep but the amount of time varies depending on whether the person is having one, two or three naps per day. All naps are 20 minutes and if the person has one nap then the sleep requirement is 6 hours, the same as the siesta. If two naps are taken whenever the person wants them then the core sleep is only 4 and a half hours, if 3 naps are taken then the core sleep drops further until only 3 hours is needed. With 4 naps the amount of core sleep is only one and a half hours. All of these options provide the same amount of REM sleep as the monophasic sleep pattern. The most extreme pattern is called the ‘uberman’, it does not have any core sleep but does have 6 naps throughout the 24 hour period.

Limitations

If you want to gain all of the benefits of this style of sleep then you also have to be disciplined. To feel rested after only 2 hours of sleep can only come after all of the naps have been taken at the right times. If you can’t nap at the appointed time in the ‘everyman’ method then you’ve got about 2 hours to get back on track otherwise you will feel tired for days. With the ‘uberman’ style you must have your nap within 30 minutes of the appointed time. Everything must run on the preplanned schedule for the method to be successful.

Advocates of this style of sleeping say that when on schedule the body’s attachment to the circadian rhythm is broken and staying awake for 24 hours with just a few 20 minute naps and a little sleep is easy to do. Although these schedules can be successful many people will just find them too rigorous and unrealistic. However if a method is worked at over a few months then the benefits of feeling refreshed after minimal amounts of sleep can be achieved.

You will then have time to do everything that you want and feel refreshed.

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