Sleeping Just a Few Hours Sounds Great, But Could It Work?


Hamlet famously compared death to sleep in his ‘To be or not to be' soliloquy. He was being a bit melodramatic, but there are plenty of people who view sleep as the enemy. Think of how much more you could get done in a day if you didn't spend around eight hours of it unconscious!

There are tales of geniuses getting by on very little sleep. Luminaries ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Thomas Edison had reputations for catching only a few hours of sleep per night, sometimes bolstering a night's rest with a few naps throughout the day.

Those stories have inspired groups like the Polyphasic Society to try to follow suit. People in these groups attempt to divide their sleep into smaller chunks. Sometimes, they'll sleep in two blocks of time, which they refer to as biphasic sleep. Or they'll attempt to break up a 24-hour period with numerous, scheduled naps and call it polyphasic sleep amounting to just a few hours per day. But does it work?

Dr. Piotr Wozniak, biologist, chemist and all-around smart guy, says no. One of the many areas Wozniak is interested in is the relationship between sleep, memory and learning. He looked into polyphasic sleep as a short-term project and became an outspoken critic of the practice. He published his thoughts on polyphasic sleep strategies in 2005 and updated them in 2010.

Wozniak points out that our sleep is important in many ways, not just so that we can get some rest each day. It plays a role in the body's immune system and circadian rhythms. Lack of sleep can also impair our self-assessment abilities, meaning we might not realize how poorly off we are if things aren't going well.

Wozniak discovered that many people who were attempting the polyphasic sleep schedule were motivated to do so because they were dealing with various sleep disorders. In these cases, he shows a great deal of sympathy as people who are trying to find a way to get the rest they need seek out possible solutions. But based on the evidence he saw, polyphasic sleep isn't a viable approach. (If you're as curious about polyphasic sleep as we were, be sure to read our longer HowStuffWorks article dedicated to it.)

Wozniak isn't the only expert to advocate for getting enough sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, which conducted a meta study of scientific literature on sleep in 2014, the number of hours of sleep a person needs decreases with age, but there's a limit. Sleeping too much or too little can lead to serious health complications.

Meanwhile, people who struggle to sleep are still looking for relief. From ASMR videos to gadgets claiming they will help you get the deep sleep you need, there's a growing market for sleep solutions, as the HowStuffWorks team discusses in the video above. The best advice experts have is that people having trouble sleeping should consult their physicians and proceed from there.

Maybe one day we'll find a workaround for sleep. Or maybe we'll discover our need for sleep is very much tied to being human. Or perhaps we'll even conclude that sleep is a pleasure we're not ready to give up. 



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