Sleeping Like Superman: Can I Survive For A Month Sleeping Two Hours A Day?

For one month Kotaku editor Mark Serrels intends to sleep using the Uberman Sleep Schedule. Instead of one eight-hour block of sleep, he will have six 20-minute naps spread evenly throughout the day. Madness, panic attacks, zombie sleep walks, catastrophic failure. These are all very real possibilities. This is Sleeping Like Superman.

"As a Doctor," said my friend, Clay, who is actually — believe it or not — a doctor, "you have my full permission and approval to try this."

"I just want to see what happens."

Hello, my name is Mark Serrels and it's very nice to meet you. I am 31 years old. I'm 5 feet 9 inches tall. I weigh 72 kgs. I am married to a beautiful girl, who is pregnant with our first child. I'm about to go on an adventure.

A sleepy adventure.

Most human beings on this planet, including myself until today, have a very specific way of sleeping. They go to bed, they get eight hours of rest and then they wake up. They stay awake for the following 16 hours and then start the entire cycle all over again.

I want to try something a little different.

That something is polyphasic sleep.

When a human being decides to divide their sleep schedule into more than one block, that is polyphasic sleep. It's also a strange form of madness. Some of you (especially parents) may already be in the midst of some form of amended sleep schedule. This also applies if you're partial to the odd nap.

The sleep schedule I intend to use is a little more extreme. It's called the Uberman schedule, and it looks like this.

For the next month I'll be sleeping for 20 minutes every four hours — if I can stay awake. 2am, 6am, 10am, 2pm, 6pm, 10pm; at these specific points in time, no matter what I am doing, I will stop and attempt to sleep for 20 minutes. Then I will continue on with my day, until the distinctions between my days become meaningless.

The Uberman Schedule

‘Uberman': the term comes from the German phrase Ubermensch, a word that — literally — means ‘Overman' or ‘Superman'. Introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Ubermeshch was intended to be a goal for humanity to set itself. The Superman: an inspired being willing to risk all for the enhancement of his own humanity. Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Staying awake during this experiment is the only goal I have set for myself, and most people I've spoken to, including my own wife, expect me to fail miserably. I am not a Superman, or an Overman. I wouldn't even make a decent Aquaman, yet for some strange reason, I truly believe I have the willpower to see this through.

But I am terrified. I'm scared of the consequences, both short term and long term. Will this experiment fry my brain to a frilly crisp? Will it negatively affect my health or mental well-being? Will I put on weight? Will I still be able to exercise? Will I be able to function correctly as a normal human being? Will I be able to stay up and watch Wimbledon if Andy Murray makes it to the final (he won't!)

It's difficult to say, and I'm getting mixed messages. One friend on Twitter told me his friend had to be hospitalised after attempting to transition into polyphasic sleep. Another, who has agreed to mentor me during the whole experience, miraculously managed to maintain the Uberman schedule for up for six months.

But everyone, everyone, says that the first week is the hardest.

The first week: the transition, the (deliberately) sleepless nights. One man stared at a wall for 90 minutes straight. Another found himself awake, but unconscious, strolling down the corridors of his apartment building, completely unaware of himself and his surroundings. Another baked many, many delicious pastries and consumed them. Others just feel the will to live slowly seep from the pores of their skin.

I've had multiple different types of advice for this initial breaking in period, to help shock my body from one large block of sleep to multiple tiny naps. Some examples:

  • Don't drink caffeine.
  • Drink caffeine.
  • Don't lie down. Ever.
  • Don't even sit down if you can help it
  • Do jumping jacks.
  • Dance in the middle of the night.
  • Eat small meals.
  • Find a project.
  • Eat spinach.
  • Avoid eating too many carbs.
  • Play video games standing up.
  • Play ping pong.
  • Go for long walks at night.
  • Be disciplined.
  • Don't miss naps.

Whatever you do, don't miss naps.

The fear

I'm afraid of madness. I'm afraid of hallucinations. I am afraid I'm jumping into this with too little preparation. I am afraid of having to go to hospital. I am afraid of permanent brain damage. I am afraid of setting the house on fire whilst attempting to bake many, many delicious pastries. I am afraid of not being able to function as a normal human in normal society.

But I am also afraid of failure, and I want to push on. I am curious. I want to know if I have the pure will power to make it through the difficult first week, I want to unlock the hours of extra time. I want to be more productive. I want more time for video games, for writing, for cooking, for... everything. Life is short, and I want more time on this planet. Picture by David Blaikie

I want to see what happens when I push my own limits. Will I crack under that pressure?

For the next month I will be writing about my experiences. Every day. I'll be writing about how I adjust, what I do to stay awake, what I do with the extra time.

Most likely I'll be writing about my inevitable, catastrophic failure.

Either way, I'm excited. And afraid.

Follow Mark's adventures over the next month in the Sleeping Like Superman series on Lifehacker.


Comments

    I hope you're not planning to drive at all during this period.

    Very interesting, good luck, will be keeping an eye on this.

    20 minutes? Mark, you've got my respect and my sympathy. I usually spend the first hour lying in bed staring at the roof when I try to sleep normally. There's no way I could even fall asleep in 20 minutes. :S

      its all about training your body to get by on what you give it.
      i'm no sleep doctor, but I was looking into this a while back, but apparently, of an eight hour sleep, your body only gets about 1-2 hours REM sleep (deep sleep), which is the type of sleep you need to recharge for the next day.

      however, if you limit your sleep to two hours a night, you'll be tired as hell for the first two weeks, then your body will start to learn this new pattern & jump straight into the REM sleep cycle when you doze off.

      as for long term side effects of 2 hours sleep per day.... I dunno. good luck with that though Mark.

        Not really. REM sleep isn't 'deep sleep'. If anything it's a shallower phase that alternates with periods of deep (slow wave) sleep. All sleep phases appear to be necessary, but the research is murky. So-called 'polyphasic' sleep, at least in humans, is more an invention of self-help crackpots of the internet than anything to do withscience. There are a few early papers on it, but little of substance. All the evidence is that, give or take an hour or two, 8 hours of sleep is a fixed requirement for the human brain. Mark's 'experiment' will fail unless he's a prodigy (which is possible).

        As Bob says, REM sleep is light sleep, slow wave sleep is deep sleep and that occurs in the middle of the sleep cycle. With 20 minutes a time, I doubt you'll get any decent slow wave sleep at all, which is simply not sustainable in a normal human.

      You should seek medical advice, as an hour a night trying to sleep could well indicate a sleep disorder. There are sleep labs in all the capital cities now (IIRC), and with treatment you may well be able to get that wasted hour back ...

        Didn't you read? He did get medical advice from his Dr friend.

        He said "Sounds like a bit of a laugh and if you die can I have your stuff"

    What's the point of this exercise? It is to be more productive? Get the brain to rest more? I simply don't get the point of this exercise. Thanks and best of luck! ^_^b

    why not wait till the baby is born, and have the blessed child regulate your sleep for you. any new parent will tell you whats thats like.

      Believe it or not, you're not the first person to say this!

        i hope you will be able to keep track of your productivity and mood too, i know that both of these were affected adversly by the arrival of our children.

        I think most of us thought this was you getting ready for the birth of your child.

        Out of curiosity, did any of the transition guides you've researched advocate starting with blocks of 30mins (ie total of 3 hours per 24, or even 40mins) and then trimming them down to 20? If the first week is so brutal and you are worried about the shock to your system/brain, perhaps this is a hedge? Sure, it's not the pure form, but a little practicality?

    GLHF Mark. Would love to try this myself, but I'm an office-monkey with nowhere quiet to take a regular midday nap. Although, there's that park a few minutes away from the office... hmmm...

    It didn't work for Kramer...

    An I Becoming more and more like Tyler Durdan?

      ...asks Tyler Durden.

    I'll send my new baby girl over, she'll keep you schedule!

    Seriously, if you want to try this, have a child. Then wish for normal sleep

    I sleep 4 hours every day .. its super important to be able to get into a deep sleep fast. If you smoke have a cig ... or a warm milo.. .or a bath.. something that changes your body into tired mode. Playing xbox late at night dosent help with this... watching crime documentaries does though.

    Seriously good luck Mark.

    http://gifsoup.com/view4/1317032/apu-as-a-hummingbird-o.gif

    The challenge will be getting to sleep, I imagine. How are you going to mange that? i.e. Will you time your 20 minutes from when you fall asleep or from when you lie down to try and sleep? If it is the former, you'd need someone to wake you but if it is the latter, you won't be getting 20 minutes sleep too often, at least initially.

    This is going to be awesome.
    Will there be a video diary as per the olives?

    Hey Mark, will you be monitoring/measuring your naps/sleeps ? You should get the Zeo from Amazon and see what amount of REM/light/deep sleeps. Or get the Axbo, which isn't as good (I own both).

    I've noticed that I tend to feel more rested the more deep sleep I get. And I get about 30~40min of it a day, so if you can get 5mins of deep sleep a nap, you can easily get 30mins over 6 naps.

    As a firm believer in the 15 minute power nap, and knowing how it can benefit one's mental state, I think you can do it.

    You'd have to have the right job / home life / whatever to do it. I work an 8 hour job where I have a near constant stream of people coming in to see me which is both mentally and physically exhausting, so it wouldn't work for me (but I'd be keen to try it..)

    Perhaps during the December break when I've seen the LH results!

    Seconding the video request. I want to see your sanity slipping away, in the name of science of course.

    Thank you for doing this, I'm very interested in the result. It will also be great training for when your child is born. Best of luck.

    Firstly congratulations on your pending child. This will be great training for when he/she is born if they are a non-sleeper.

    As somebody who experimented with polyphasic sleep in university, then went on to graduate and become a sleep scientist, and soon, a doctor... I think you will fail.

    But it sounds like you have done your research, and are prepared for the consequences. So I look forward to hearing about it. You're absolutely right that the first week is the worst (For me, it took two weeks). And that you should not drink caffeine under any circumstances. I found that the theobromine in cocoa was good substitute, but my schedule was a little more forgiving than yours (4 - 6 hours a night, 2 hours at a time).

    Anyway, I look forward to reading about your decent into madness :)

    Sounds like the one who can afford to do this experiment doesn't have a real job ;-)

    Latest medical advice has it that less than five and a half hours a night or greater than eight over a long period is hazardous to your health.

    Sleep is like shoe sizes: some people are born with a size 4; some people are born with a size 14; and just like your need for sleep, there's not a lot you can do to change your shoe size. Your ability to GET BY is not the same as your NEED for sleep. People have been known to survive without sleeping for up to 10 days, but with their mental and physical faculties dramatically compromised. Some people seem to be lucky and need less sleep than others -- sleep needs follow a normal population distribution, but there are limits. Your need for sleep is determined by how much you need to have and not be sleepy the next day. Not being sleepy generally means not feeling like you are fighting sleep during the daytime. For most people this is between 7 and 8 hours. Yet for people on either edge of the normal population distribution, it can also mean needs of only 3.5 hours or needs of 12 hours (only a VERY few people fall outside these limits) If you need 8 hours, yes, you can learn to "get by" on much less but your mental and physical capabilities will suffer. (slower reaction times, micro-sleeps, (BTW, there is no way you should be driving or operating any sort of machinery during such a debilitated state) compromised immune system function, inability to concentrate, poorer long-term memory consolidation, etc, etc.) Going indefinitely on 2 hours sleep a night is a great pipe-dream that many people have fantasized about, but in reality no one can do it without severe consequences. You are not the first to try -- and I suspect you will not be the last.

    Look forward to seeing how this works for you, I first read about this in 'The Twenty Four Hour Society' by Martin Moore. Sounds OK in principle, interesting to know how it works in practice.

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