Sleeping Like Superman: Alarming Developments

Sleeping Like Superman: Alarming Developments

“This isn’t for you. You’re not good at this,” says my wife, shouting from the other side of the apartment. She’s curled up in bed, reading a book, lazily. I’m hunched over the computer desk, jaw clenched, inches from a monitor screen. I can feel the pulsing of the brain inside my skull. “You’re not Superman,” she says. “You’re a sleepy man.”

I am a very sleepy man.

1am. The same position, posture crunched. Eyes on the keyboard. I have a throbbing on the upper left on my back; each time I turn my head a shock of dull pain fires on that one specific spot. I can’t abide it. I don’t know why it hurts; I don’t know when it started. For the last three days at least I’ve been rubbing my back constantly, checking in the mirror, enduring it and, bizarrely, putting a band aid on it. I may be going crazy.

Involuntarily I nod, in the sharp semi-circular motion of a micro-sleep. My eyelids droop. Today has been a bad day.

The night before felt like a revelation; as though I had emerged from a cocoon of sleep deprivation and become something spectacular, like I had made the transition into the polyphasic pattern. But at 1am, on Friday morning, I felt less like a butterfly, and more like a broken moth, stumbling towards fluorescent light, dizzy and drunk. I just couldn’t stay awake.

My apartment building has a gym, so I decided the best way to stay awake was to head down there, hop onto the treadmill and simply walk. I had roughly an hour until my next nap at 2am. I couldn’t fall asleep if I was walking, right?

The fluorescent light was blinding. I walked at a brisk pace as the treadmill hummed. For the next 40 minutes I felt awake and somewhat alert. I felt as though I could at least make it to the end of this cycle.

I took a deep breath and continued walking.

At 2am, I set my alarm, and slept.

What happened?

Where am I?

I’m in my apartment, it’s pitch black. I stumble in the shadows, I hear swords clashing, people shouting. I know I’m in my apartment, but there is still noise, chatter. The sound of people fighting. I have my phone in my hand, slowly I come to . . .

It’s 4.34 am. I have three missed calls from my wife; two messages.

What the hell just happened.

I don’t understand. I clearly set my alarm. I absolutely, vividly remember doing so. In a panic I head into the bedroom where my wife sleeps.

“Why did you call me?” I ask. Silently, I wonder why I didn’t pick up . . .

“I heard someone leaving the house,” she said, dozily. “I was worried.”

Did I leave the house without being aware of it? Or did Heizy hear me coming back from the gym. I have no idea. I’m frantic.

My wife falls back asleep. I walk in circles, blinking. Looking at my phone. Why are all the lights out? I distinctly remember leaving every single light in the living area on – I needed that light to stay awake, I would never have knowingly turned the lights off. I just wouldn’t do that.

My heart is pounding against my chest.

I have two whole hours I can’t account for. Did I leave the apartment in a sleep-induced trance? Ten minutes ago, I could remember walking around my living room in complete darkness, with the sounds of a battle ringing around my brain. I could clearly remember that terrifying mix of lucid dreaming and reality.

I am confused. I am worried. I’m really scared. Another human being, residing in my strained, exhausted subconscious seems intent on tricking me, sabotaging me at every turn. Did I really do all these things?

I can’t remember anything.

But I’ve got it covered, I can still do this. The uberman schedule is just like a prescription – if you miss one, you just keep on going. You keep on pushing until, eventually, you prevail. You stay strong until the transition — until this waking nightmare of sleep deprivation, phantom pains, and dead eyes in hollow sockets stops. Until it all stops.

I sit down to make a video blog, the one you see above. I stutter through, pause to try and make sense of what has just happened to me. I just don’t understand.

Then, all of a sudden, an alarm I absolutely don’t remember setting goes off. Piercingly loud.

Why is this alarm going off? Why now? At 4.45am, at this strange time.

Who set the alarm? Who set it?

Quickly, I turn off the liveblog. I look at my phone. The alarms have been changed.

This is too much. The lights, the movements in the middle of the night I don’t remember. The missed calls, the blurred distinction between dreams and reality. The changed alarms, the fact that I may have left the house in an unconscious state . . .

I hear a voice in my head

“This isn’t for you. You’re not good at this,” echoes the voice.

“You’re not Superman, you’re a sleepy man.”

At 5.04am on Friday morning Mark Serrels, afraid he would literally go insane, willingly gave up on his polyphasic sleep experiment, and clambered dizzily into his bed, next to his pregnant wife. He slept for 13 hours of the next day. He has no intention of attempting the uberman schedule in the future. He’s no Superman, but he will tell you what he has learned later this week as part of our Sleep Week coverage.


  • *backpat* Mark, good onya for giving it a go anyway. I’d love to try this, but I reckon I won’t jump in the deep end like you did! ^_^. Maybe start with 6 hours polyphasic, then work down from there.

  • Bravo Mark – Mate, well done! A valuable contribution to science. I enjoyed following along and I am certain your wife is glad to have you back 🙂

  • Huge kudos for even attempting this. As a man who loves his sleep perhaps a little too much, I KNOW I wouldn’t be able to get as far as you did. And, it made for some fascinating reading.

  • Well done with the experiment. Plenty of other sleeping patterns available too; biphasic and triphasic are each not so extreme (for me anyway). Might be worth a try.

  • Great read mate. I’m kind of glad you finished it up when you did, as that sounded like some pretty full on side effects. No experiment is ever worth your sanity. Welcome back, and thanks for fascinating read over the past week and a bit.

      • He will work off some of this sleep debt in the coming days. Unfortunately the current scientific research (proper controlled studies) indicates that the rest of the sleep debt will be manifested as reduced lifespan (luckily only a few days for Mark).

      • This not how the research suggets it works at all, I’m not sure how anyone could think this other than talking out their arse, the most elementary perusal of work on sleep deprivation suggests the amount you need to catch up on is far less than the amount missed, and after a few days of slightly extended sleep, patterns will return to normal, whether that be 8 hours a night or some other arbitrary amount.

  • I want to “second” Manfred’s sentiment. This experiment was a success, in my opinion too. I definitely appreciate the effort you’ve made on behalf of a huge number of your readers who have most likely heard about uberman cycles and the like and wanted to give it a light-hearted go one day, just to see for themselves how “do-able” it is.

    If you do decide to ever experiment again, I’d be interested in the less hardcore styles of sleep patterns. I can’t remember their names, and they’re not polyphasic, but they basically basically work on the idea of reducing your 168-hour week from 7x 24-hour days (8 hours asleep per day) to 6x 28-hour “days” (again, 8 hours asleep per “day”, meaning you gain 8 waking hours per week)

    • Yeah, I think in hindsight they (everyman schedules) would be far more achievable, especially in the long term. I thought the Uberman would be more fun to write about.

      The thing that really did me in was the psychological aspect of never having a full stop on a day. It’s something that never occurred to me until I was knee deep in the process.

  • I suppose you have to question success. If I have the question will I hurt if I set my hand on fire and then set my hand on fire I will have a result. A success if you will in that I will successfully answered that question. I will also have a burnt hand. Common sense and a lot of literature says that this is a bad idea. I wouldn’t classify that as a success. I’d classify this exercise as a boyhood fantasy which was pretty dumb. No kudos for you

      • and if he crashes his car? or stumbles onto the road?
        or how about when he is a useless husband to his pregnant wife?

        You can call me a d’bag but the reason that all of these people have never done it is either because
        a) you try and your body shuts it down
        b) deep down you know it is really stupid both because it renders your awake time useless and also because there is no point

        None of this experiment for experiment sake BS

        • I didn’t drive my car once.

          I didn’t go outside if I wasn’t fit to. Not once did I put myself, or anyone else in danger

          I actually had more time to things that needed to be done around the house. You don’t get to judge whether I was a ‘useless’ husband to my wife, my wife does — and she was completely happy, and full supported me going through the experiment, 100%.

          Back in your cave you tiny little troll with your silly little assumptions.

          • How can you say these things when you admit you have hours of your life you can’t account for??

          • 1. You didn’t refute that the literature does very much say this is a bad idea

            2. Your articles suggest your wife wasn’t the least bit happy with you, and that while not useless you certainly weren’t coping, what you’ve said here contradicts what you’ve previously written fairly completely.

            3. Multiple times you described yourself as in delusional states, barely aware of your surroundings and what was going on, assuming this like the above, was true, the claim you could reasonably even know whether you were putting yourself or anyone else in danger is blatantly false, it simply is, there’s no debating that.

            4. I like your Kotaku work, I really really do, but the way you’ve handled some of the criticism and difference of opinion on this ‘experiement’ is frankly as childish as a few think this whole exercise was (I don’t personally, maybe stupid, but you’re free to do whatever floats your boat), that you call someone a troll for simply pointing out that research, hell even a cursory thought suggests sleep deprivation is a bad thing only serves to make you look arrogant and unreasonable.

  • So now you know how Stalin’s purges worked – no need to torture anyone, just keep them awake for 3-5 days and they’d confess to anything, sign anything, dob in their whole family if told to, just to be allowed to sleep.

    Why anyone would subject themselves to this on purpose is a mystery, all this uberman stuff and polyphasic sleep nonsense is just a load of bollocks. Nothing on earth will improve your performance, increase your productivity, and keep you saner, than a decent night’s sleep. It really is that simple.

    • Load of bollocks indeed. There’s no such thing as human polyphasic sleep other than in the imaginations of a few self-improvement bloggers/conpeople. It’s just one of those scientifically-illiterate internet memes that spreads because people waste too much time feeding credulity by reading crap.

      • Whilst I have enjoyed following Mark’s adventure, I did a bit of research into the whole activity and those who specialize in this area tend to agree that it isn’t beneficial, despite being possible.

        Anyway, thanks for the entertaining reading Mark, get some rest!

  • Its been an interesting journey to observe… I live with bipolar 2 and many of the feelings and states of awareness you wrote about were very familiar. Amy you sleep be long and your days no longer daze

  • I have gone seven days without sleeping more than an hour a day, but you have to have a reason. Mine was a killer book project that if I worked non-stop all week would mean the book got announced on the day that the game won Game of the Year. If you’re totally focused on a goal, you can substitute food and showers for sleep to maintain some sanity. On the bright side, because I didn’t allow my brain its regular memory-forming sleep I have no bad memories of the week. I’ve also experimented with IQ tests after week-long presschecks with a maximum of 2 hours sleep per day with surprising results (<5% difference).

  • Much of your experience I can verify. I’ve done similar but less well documented (and less safe) experiments with my life. Also I’ve worked some _very_ demanding jobs that have done this sort of thing to me as well.
    Those blackouts I have experienced, hallucinating noises and lights I’ve seen and heard as well.

    I’m glad you’re finished now, it reminded me of some of my dumber younger years that I had forgotten about.

  • His doctor friend would very likely have known next to nothing about sleep medicine as they usually only get an hour or so on it during their degree. Prof. William Dement has been trying to provide better education to doctors for the last couple of decades.

    I’m glad Mark has come to his senses. In controlled experiments nobody has ever been able to undergo extreme sleep deprivation without simply ending up falling asleep. The urge is huge, possibly great than hunger urge due to the evolutionary need for sleep.

  • I’m so glad you have set this aside. As a health professional, I was reading in wonderment, but also with increasing concern for your well being. Kudos for trying. I look forward to reading about the recovery process 🙂

  • Jesus, I TOLD you not to do this, but noooo, you had to do it. Now you don’t know where you’ve been or what you’ve done, you could have gone out and killed someone for all you know. You think Fight Club was a work of fiction? Stupid man, really really stupid.

  • Failure is always an option, good on you for trying and knowing when to give up.

    Hopefully your sword fighting you heard was just dillusions from being tired, I was so tired once that everytime I closed my eyes I would see a sign much like the one in Morrowind telling me I can’t sleep here….

    No reports of accidents or a crazy man with a sword during your lost time?

  • Have you discussed your outcomes with a psych? You’ve kept some pretty good documentation here, albeit written in an audience friendly fashion. There’s been plenty of experimentation done on sleep, and it is still largely not understood. I can’t say your self experimentation has exactly contributed well to that, other than placing it in a real world context, rather than a controlled environment.

    But, your most recent post – even though I’m not surprised by the result – gives much more feedback on how mind deals with the world around you, and what happens when you deprive it of sleep. I’ve heard reports of an American DJ in the 70’s who tried deprive himself of sleep for 300 hours, and by 200 he was seeing tweed jackets come alive as though it was weaved with worms. Some of what you have experienced is similar, and you have clearly deprived yourself of sleep.

  • I’m still curious whether you allowed for the 14mins to get to sleep each time or just set your watch, laid down and got up 20 minutes later. If you did that, you made a mistake in how this works.

    I think a lot of mistakes were made here and the biggest one was not enough serious research before taking the plunge.

    Good effort just the same but I can’t actually say I have been convinced one way or the other.

  • At least Mark had the choice to cease his experiment.
    Those of us who suffer chronic severe insomnia don’t get that choice. We endure the effects Mark suffered as part of everyday of life.
    I have lived with very little sleep for over 20 years. Sleeping pills etc only made the whole thing much worse.
    Two years ago this disorder ended my 30 year career. I’m now on a disability support pension.

  • Your wife meant well but I think her comments of telling you to quit if it becomes too much, etc etc, implanted the idea and set a path for failure from day 1. As well as other factors, but I think if she was just plain supportive, you may haver been much more successful.

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