The Uberwomen Who Beat Sleep
Tired of sleeping, a pair of women ended up starting the Uberman movement.
"Sleeping Sunday Tea Demon Emma [Paradiso Posse]" Image: Marc-Anthony Macon
Marie Staver couldn't sleep. Always plagued by insomnia and other sleep disorders, in college she was struggling to get enough rest to keep up with her heavy workload. So in 1998 she made a drastic decision: she would stop trying. Instead of lying in bed all night, she would get her rest in catnaps evenly spaced throughout the day. Out of every 24 hours, she would sleep for only two.
Staver began the radical experiment with a friend, Psuke, and soon the pair felt superhuman. They named their schedule "Uberman" in honor of Nietzsche's Übermensch idea, because they were both philosophy majors—but also because they were accomplishing so much in a day that they were freaking people out. Their schoolwork was done, their dorms were clean, they held down jobs, they made appearances at social events.
Eventually the women's lives and careers forced them to leave Uberman behind. But an online community gelled around Staver's writings. Other people wanted to recreate what she'd done, to free themselves from the eight-hour night. Today Staver is back on a so-called polyphasic sleep schedule, getting a relatively luxurious four hours of sleep a day. And the movement she inspired is going strong, even though science suggests the polysleepers are playing with fire.
The two college students were hardly the first humans to try and cheat sleep. Leonardo da Vinci allegedly slept in short bursts. Thomas Edison claimed to sleep only four hours a day. Buckminster Fuller spent two years on a schedule of naps amounting to just two hours a day, as reported in a 1943 Time magazine article.
"I felt the best I've ever felt in my life"
It was that old Time article that first inspired Psuke to suggest the napping schedule. Staver didn't want to take the drugs doctors had suggested for her sleep problems, but she'd tried pretty much everything else: changing her environment, changing her habits, going without sleep for as long as possible to exhaust herself. The friends decided they'd both try sleeping like Bucky. Psuke, who didn't have any trouble with sleep, would act as a kind of control for their experiment.
They coordinated their schedules to make it easier, Staver says. They would wake each other up at 4 in the morning and drive to the all-night Denny's to study. Before their morning classes they'd take a nap. At lunch they'd meet up for another nap. So it went, napping for 20 minutes every four hours around the clock—for more than six months.
Adjusting to the Uberman schedule takes about two weeks of hell, Staver says. Writing in 2006, she called the adjustment period an "absolute unholy monstrous biyotch." But eventually the fog cleared for the college students. What remained was, according to Staver, "miraculous."
"It was the most amazing thing I had ever discovered and I felt the best I've ever felt in my life," Staver says today. Her sleep disorders seemed to be gone. She wasn't tired anymore. And although she had only intended to fix her sleep, not shorten it, she found herself with an incredible 22 hours every day to spend how she liked.
The women quit when the school year ended. Staver left school and got a job that wasn't compatible with round-the-clock napping. She returned reluctantly to "monophasic" sleep. But she wrote about her polyphasic experience in 2000 in an article for the website Everything2.com.
Then the emails started. People had questions about how to become polyphasic sleepers, and couldn't find other information online. Grudgingly, Staver says, she started a website and began blogging about polyphasic sleep. When the questions continued, she wrote a book and became an admin for some online forums. "I kind of fought it the whole way," she says. She had never expected that her little experiment would become a movement.
Despite the growth of a whole community of nappers around her, Staver was sleeping monophasically in 2008 and hating it as much as ever. She couldn't make an Uberman schedule fit with her tech career and her family. But her online contacts kept suggesting a more lenient schedule. What if a person slept in a "core" of a few hours at night, they asked, then sprinkled just a few naps throughout the day?
Staver didn't think it was possible. She believed the magic of Uberman came from all the naps being equal. But in desperation, she started experimenting. "To my shock, it worked," she says. She dubbed her new schedule the "Everyman."
The version Staver currently follows includes a three-hour sleep from 1:00 to 4:00 in the morning, and three 20-minute naps throughout the day. She doesn't think it's quite as miraculous as Uberman—she sometimes feels tired—but the Everyman schedule has more flexibility. After more than seven straight years of polyphasic sleeping, she's now able to skip a nap if she can't spare the time, or take an extra-long nighttime sleep to fight off a cold. Staver is a lifelong coffee drinker, but says the caffeine doesn't stop her from falling asleep when she wants to.
Crucially, Everyman is also compatible with a nine-to-five job, as long as your employer doesn't mind you taking a midday snooze. Staver is a manager with her own office, so she naps under her desk at lunchtime. Server rooms are great places to nap, too, she notes, because they're warm and have good white noise.
Staver, who's now a manager in the tech industry, says she's lost other jobs for wanting to nap. "I think I've just finally gotten promoted up to a level where you can afford to be a little weird," she says. "But we're still not at the point where it's considered a civil or a human right to be able to choose your sleep schedule."
Everyman has proven more accessible to aspiring polysleepers. Staver estimates that of people who start out trying Uberman, three-quarters end up on some version of Everyman. The online Polyphasic Society describes more than a dozen sleep schedules with varying numbers and lengths of naps, their details laid out in daily pie charts. In the diagrams for Uberman and "Dymaxion" (another schedule modeled after Buckminster Fuller's), sleep appears as vanishingly small slivers in the nearly pristine pastry of the day.
No one gets there easily, though. The Polyphasic Society's website warns of side effects people may experience while they're adapting. There's "metabolic panic," meaning either constant hunger or a total loss of appetite. There may be chills, moodiness, constipation, and eye strain from keeping your eyes open all the time. The ominous-sounding "zombie mode" is also a concern.
Dusan, a polyphasic sleeper in Toronto who didn't want to give his last name, got interested in the lifestyle after reading Staver's book. He used to get 8 or 9 hours of sleep at night but didn't feel rested. He thought going polyphasic might let him get better, deeper sleep.
He was never interested in being an Uberman, though. After some experimentation, Dusan settled on four-and-a-half or five hours of sleep at night, plus one or two naps during the day. With a total of five to six-and-a-half hours of sleep every day, he gets more than many polysleepers.
Like Staver, Dusan has a job that lets him nap in the middle of the day. He dozes in a nap-friendly area at work, or sometimes at home or in his car. He's been sleeping this way for about three and a half years, and says it's made him feel more rested, relaxed, and motivated. Other possible benefits of polysleeping, according to the Polyphasic Society, include improved decision making and lucid dreaming (the awareness that you're in a dream).
"It would never make sense" to return to a traditional sleep schedule, Dusan says. "I would be going backwards."
There's an interesting phenomenon in the very sleep-deprived brain: it stops feeling tired
Dusan recently took over administration of the Polyphasic Society website. The site hosted thriving community forums in the past, but when it went down for much of 2015, a lot of that discussion moved to a Reddit group that now has about 2,200 members. Recent discussion topics include caffeine (some commenters have used coffee to help them adapt to their schedules, but Dusan says most polysleepers avoid stimulants), how to plan naps around social events, and "Can I survive this?"
Scientists have studied people whose circumstances force them to sleep polyphasically, including crewmembers keeping watch on Navy ships, sailors in long solo races, and cloistered monks and nuns who get up at midnight to pray.
Greg Roach, who studies sleep and circadian rhythms at Central Queensland University, says there is very little data on people sleeping in three or more segments per day. But research on biphasic sleep hasn't shown much difference between sleeping in one long block and two shorter ones. "Whether you have one or more sleeps per day doesn't really matter, as long as you get your 7 to 8 hours of sleep," Roach says. Below that optimal amount, though, the brain will suffer. It functions worse and worse the less sleep you get per day, and the longer the deprivation lasts.
Washington State University psychologist Hans Van Dongen, who studies the effects of sleep loss on the mind, agrees. In a 2008 paper, he and coauthors studied a variety of split-sleep schedules. Subjects spent 10 days on some combination of a nighttime sleep and daytime nap adding up to between four and eight hours, while researchers gave them frequent cognitive tests.
They found that sleep-deprived subjects did worse and worse as the days went on. But the results were similar however their sleep was broken up. In other words, Van Dongen says, "an hour is an hour is an hour."
In other studies, he's found that there are individual differences in how much sleep people need, and how they respond to sleep deprivation. It's true that some of us just don't need as much shuteye. But that variance only goes down to about six hours a night, Van Dongen says. Below six hours, "virtually everybody starts to see significant decrements."
One thing that happens when your brain is starved of sleep is it begins to blink in and out of attention. Maybe you lose your train of thought mid-sentence, or suddenly realize you've missed your exit on the highway. There's another interesting phenomenon in the very sleep-deprived brain, Van Dongen says: it stops feeling tired.
Van Dongen isn't surprised that Staver and other polyphasic sleepers describe feeling like they've adapted to little sleep. During sleep deprivation, he says, "The brain, probably because it is so tired, starts to have difficulties gauging its own level of sleepiness." Eventually, an exhausted brain gives up on sending you signals that it needs rest. You feel OK precisely because you're not.
He first found this in a 2003 study of people who slept four or six hours a night for two weeks. Though their cognitive functioning got worse and worse, they reported feeling only slightly sleepy by the end.
Roach adds that after a long stretch of poor sleep, people may forget what normal sleep feels like. "This is what we are told by a lot of shift workers who take an extended holiday," he says.
It's hard for a sleep-deprived brain to see its own cognitive impairments. "People get away with being sleepy for quite some time before they notice anything happening," Van Dongen says. But eventually there could be consequences—"like, you have a driving accident." Sleepy people aren't only putting themselves at risk, Van Dongen adds. They're also endangering the other people on the road, and anyone they make decisions about.
That's not to mention how polyphasic sleep might affect the body in the long term. "If you start working against the biological clock, as anybody who's ever experienced jet lag can tell you, that throws the entire body off its rhythms," Van Dongen points out. Our hormone production, heart rate, metabolism, blood pressure, and other systems oscillate over 24-hour cycles. When we start blurring the difference between day and night, those rhythms can fade. Van Dongen saw this with men following a Navy watch schedule, who started to feel hungry all the time.
It's not clear what happens when those rhythms are disrupted for months or years on end. Disease research has suggested a link between overnight shift work and chronic conditions including obesity, heart disease, and breast cancer.
Dusan doesn't want polyphasic sleep to be associated only with the extremes, the Ubermen and zombie modes. Sleeping in segments is nothing new. Around the Mediterranean, siestas and midday naps divide sleep into a block at night and one in the afternoon. In earlier centuries, Europeans seem to have slept in two nighttime blocks. For Dusan, the lifestyle is about finding what's best for him.
After more than seven straight years of polysleeping, Staver says she still feels great. She uses her extra hours to write science fiction, blog, see friends, and exercise. She's also a martial arts instructor.
Polysleeping, whether as an Uberman or just an Everyman, has never been about squeezing more work hours into her day. "Mostly my goal is just to be able to sleep in a way that works for me," Staver says.
But she realizes that her schedule might appeal to a certain kind of corporate mindset. "That straight-up terrifies me," she says. Her biggest fear in sharing information about polyphasic sleeping has always been that the business world will adopt it as a way to squeeze more work out of people.
If Staver's nightmare is a world of unwilling, wakeful drones, her dream is that everyone will open their minds to nontraditional ways of sleeping. "One sleep schedule has never fit all," she says.
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