Ben White

The Time I Tried Polyphasic Sleep and Lost My Mind

Messing with sleep is a dangerous game.

It's 3 a.m. I'm have no idea where I am. The last two hours have been a blank, unknowable darkness.

I hear noises like a medieval battleground. Swords clashing, horses galloping, men screaming. I stagger forward, trying to get my bearings. I'm so confused.

I'm in an apartment; my apartment, I think. Completely dazed, hallucinating. I want to vomit. I look down at my mobile phone: three missed calls, all from my wife, asleep in the bedroom.

I am exhausted. What the hell is going on. 

I stumble into the bedroom and wake up my wife. 

"Did you call me?"

"I heard you leaving the house. Where have you been for the last two hours?"

I pause. Internally, I freak out.

"I have no idea."

Sleeping like Superman

I set alarms. A lot of alarms.

Getty Images

It's been almost 10 years to the day since I attempted polyphasic sleep. It was an unmitigated disaster.

Most people, myself included these days, sleep in a "monophasic" pattern. Normal sleep. Seven- to eight-hour chunks, followed by 16 hours spent awake. 

Polyphasic sleep is designed to split that sleep pattern into more manageable chunks, reducing the amount of time spent snoozing. Usually it's a productivity hack: Eight hours is a long time to put yourself out of commission. If you can sleep less and be equally as effective, why not try?

There are different types of polyphasic sleep schedules.

The "Everyman" schedule is the simplest. It allows for one three-hour period of sleep, supplemented with three 20-minute naps throughout the day -- effectively cutting eight hours of sleep to around four hours total.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the brutal "Uberman" schedule. 

With the Uberman polyphasic sleep schedule, no large chunks of sleep are allowed -- only 20-minute naps. Days are broken down into four-hour periods. You stay awake for three hours and 40 minutes, then nap for 20 minutes. Then you do that again... and again... for as long as you can take it. It equates to two hours of sleep total a day -- if you sleep every single second of your naps, which you probably won't.

That's the one I tried. My plan: Do the Uberman polyphasic sleep schedule for one month total.

I lasted one week.

The crude puppeteer

When it comes to polyphasic sleep, mileage tends to vary. There are accounts of people pulling it off. After a transition period of around a week, they claim, your body adapts and you get into a rhythm. Apparently the 20-minute naps send you straight into full REM sleep and you awake, reenergized, ready for three hours and 40 minutes of hardcore productivity. 

That didn't happen to me. Not quite. 

Well, it did and it didn't. 

In the beginning, polyphasic sleep was relatively easy. Like making a huge overseas trip, grabbing small amounts of sleep on the plane. You know that spaced-out groggy feeling, stumbling from customs to the baggage claim like a zombie in search of brains? That's how I felt -- at least for the first few days. 

I'd regularly go to the basement gym and walk, just to stay awake.

Mark Serrels

It also felt just a little bit cool. To be awake, playing video games or working away at side projects in the early hours of morning, finding ways to fend off sleep, like a little kid allowed to stay up past bedtime. I quickly developed an obnoxious pride in what I was doing. These normies, dead asleep in their primitive patterns, couldn't comprehend what it felt like to have evolved past the need for regular sleep. 

I was tired, of course, but the naps seemed to sustain me. I had two little beds. One in the spare bedroom of my apartment and a setup in the storage closet at work. I remember co-workers laughing at me as I trudged to my strange little cupboard, clutching a lived-in brown sleeping bag. The whole production was a lot of fun.

Until it wasn't.

The first telltale signs of struggle occurred around two days in. I remember walking along the train platform en route to work when -- out of nowhere -- I completely lost my balance. I stumbled and almost fell onto the train line. I left the station shook. How did this happen? I thought I was cruising...

Later that night, I went on a walk in the pitch-black darkness, exhausted and broken. I walked laps around a local park in the middle of a closed-off road, bearing the heaviness of what felt like full-blown depression. It was a strange, oppressive pressure I'd never felt before or since. 

Everything felt endless, impossibly huge. Insurmountable.

It's tough to explain. When you sleep normally, days have endings and beginnings. If you have a bad day you climb into bed, pull the blankets over your head and write it off. "Tomorrow is another day," you tell yourself. With polyphasic sleep there is no other day. Days are endless. I dramatically underestimated the impact of that. 

I walked around the park, vacant and empty, a pair of dead eyeballs lodged inside a sunken, lagging brain. I walked without purpose in the darkness, trying to stop myself from sobbing.

For days I didn't laugh at jokes. 

I was aware that jokes were being told. I understood the punch lines. But the synapses connecting to the required physical output were broken. I'd tell my wife I loved her, out of obligation and instinct, but it would take seconds for those words to resonate. I'd look in the mirror and feel disconnected from my own features. My body didn't belong to me. I controlled it like a crude puppeteer. 

But then, around day five, I had a breakthrough.

I woke up. I felt... better. At work that day, I saw a joke on Twitter and laughed out loud. I went home, I hugged my wife and felt content. I was almost overwhelmed, euphoric to be connected to my body again. I started laughing. Tears streamed down my face.

"I feel normal again," I said. My wife shook her head.

"You've forgotten what normal is."

Falling apart

Just days later, it all fell apart.

I was having a rough night. Physically I was just very tired. The renewed energy I'd felt just a few days ago had evaporated. I wasn't necessarily struggling with the psychological pain of it all, I was just -- on a very primitive level -- finding it impossible to stay awake. 

My old apartment building had a crummy gym in the basement. Things got so bad that I went down there and walked endlessly on the treadmill, trying to wait out the waves of exhaustion. I had just one goal in mind: Make it to the next nap... make it to the next nap... make it to the next nap.

At 2 a.m. -- somehow -- I made it to the next nap.

I was supposed to sleep for only 20 minutes, but my next conscious thought occurred two hours later, at around 4:30 a.m.

I awoke with the energy of someone who knew -- without even checking a clock -- that they were late for work. Immediately, I stood up, disoriented. I looked at my phone. Three missed calls and two text messages from my wife: 

"Where are you?" 

"Did you leave the house?"

Both texts were received at a time when I wasn't consciously awake.

What the hell happened? Did I leave the house in a fugue state? 

I started hallucinating. I was in a panic, but quickly calmed myself down. I can get through this, I told myself. I can reset. I just need to get to my next scheduled nap. To distract myself I tried to record a video log. 

During my polyphasic sleep experiment, I'd been recording a video log each night, talking through my mental and physical state. The video I made that night is a tough watch. I stutter, I am clearly confused. I'm barely lucid, and I can see myself -- in real time -- trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

During the video, an alarm, an alarm I had no recollection of setting, began blaring at full volume. 

Who set that alarm? Who the hell set that alarm?

I shut off the video log and grabbed my phone. That's when I saw it. Someone -- most likely myself during the last two hours when I wasn't conscious -- had gone into my phone and changed all the alarms I'd painstakingly set in order to keep track of my sleep. The alarms were all completely different. 

Almost as if a Tyler Durden-esque secondary self had deliberately tried to sabotage me, Severance-style, in an attempt to stop this stupid sleep experiment in its tracks.

They were successful.

At that moment -- bleary, confused, sobbing -- I decided to call it quits. At 5:04 a.m., I stumbled into my bedroom, curled up next to my wife and collapsed into the most profound sleep of my life. I slept for more than 13 hours. The relief was like nothing I've ever experienced.

My sleep experiment was over.

Never again

In the weeks and months that followed, I often imagined myself trying polyphasic sleep again. It felt like unfinished business. 

I'd made a few glaring mistakes that, in hindsight, made it difficult for me to transition from a regular sleeping pattern to the Uberman schedule. Back then, I used to sink around six cans of Pepsi Max a day. I didn't give my body time to navigate caffeine withdrawals, and that almost certainly made it difficult for me to nap on command. 

But looking back, the whole thing seems ridiculous. A pointless challenge driven by male ego bullshit and a pointless need to "bodyhack." Weaponized toxic masculinity in its purest form. 

It made for a good story, though.

Around five years after my experiment, a TV producer stumbled across my liveblogs and invited me on TV to discuss my experiences. It was an Australian panel show. They invited people from all walks of life to discuss their strange experiences of sleep, alongside experts in the field. 

When it was my turn to tell my story, one doctor -- a 20-year veteran of sleep studies -- started shaking his head disapprovingly. When I started discussing my hallucinations, he put his head in his hands in complete disgust. 

There were men and women with real, genuine sleep issues on that panel. People with insomnia, teenagers who were dropping out of school because of abnormal sleep patterns they couldn't control. There were folks struggling with narcolepsy and night terrors. And then there was me: the LifeHack Bro who screwed around with sleep for laughs. I felt like an idiot and a fraud. 

That night, after the show, I promised myself I'd never try polyphasic sleep again. 

Thankfully, I suffered no long-term effects from attempting the Uberman schedule. Within a week, everything was back to normal. 

But I never, ever took sleep for granted again.