Segmented sleep
March 5, 2013 10:59 AM   Subscribe

How do I arrange things so that I get segmented sleep like a 15th-century sleeper?

Before the Industrial Revolution, sleep was segmented. You would sleep a bit, wake, putter about, go back to sleep. That sounds awesome. How do I do that, in modernity? Has anyone tried? Are there any guesses to how to do it, any resources?
posted by curuinor to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My hunch is that it's not so much a matter of "what resources will allow you to achieve this" so much as "which life circumstances will allow for this". If you don't mind training yourself to either go to bed earlier than usual (and thus forgoing a good deal of after-work socializing and/or late night TV), and/or sleeping in later than usual (and thus making you too late to get to work for a 9-to-5 job), then when you wake up in the middle of the night you'll still be able to stay up for a while and then go back to sleep without the total amount of time you spend asleep suffering a deficit.

That's the biggest obstacle to segmented sleep that the modern lifestyle affords; I mean, I wake up in the middle of the night frequently these days (between my radiator making an unholy racket when it kicks in or my roommate coming home at some unreal hour), which wouldn't be a problem if I could go back to sleep and then wake up a leisurely amount of time later. It's the fact that I have to wake up at 6 am to get to work by 8 am that makes waking up in the middle of the night suck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:07 AM on March 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

My little brother just started doing this by accident, but it's because he's hiking the Appalachian Trail and can't do much while it's dark. So, that's how it happens, I suppose: go to sleep when it gets dark (being asleep by 9 puts your interlude between 1 and 2, and then waking up at 6, which isn't terrible). I think it took him all of two weeks to transition to this, without intending too. It's also very, very dark out there, so black out your curtains and wear a sleep mask.

To help with going to sleep at 9, cut out all screens after 6 or so.

Also, your link's not working for me.
posted by punchtothehead at 11:09 AM on March 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have, from time to time, but only by mistake. It can be pretty cool if you have anything interesting to get up to during "the witching hour." Essentially, you should try to put yourself in pre-industrial circumstances, with respect to your daily rhythms: shut off the lights when the sun goes down, or use only very low (think candle) light, and only for like an hour or 90 minutes after dark; make your environment as quiet as possible; don't use any stimulants, at least not after morning; and get in a solid block of good, hard, physical WORK when it's light out.

Or do as many of those as you can. Eventually you will get tired and/or bored enough to sleep much earlier than you had been. Once you start consistently falling asleep between 8 and 9 pm, if you still sleep straight through to 5am, maybe consider setting a gentle alarm for ~4 hours after your normal fall-asleep time. Also, it should be obvious that this will work better in some seasons than others.

If this sounds like an awful large commitment, well... there are reasons we drifted away from this schedule in the post-industrial world.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 11:12 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is something that you'd have to eschew modernity for.

You would change your entire schedule to accomodate this. Also, people in the 15th century got a LOT of physical exercise. Farmwork, housework, walking miles and miles to have a conversation with a neighbor.

So, lots of physical exertion, no electric light, television, computers, etc. Reading by candlelight (or kerosene lamp) and early to bed, early to rise.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:14 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of people have written on the subject. There are some threads on Paleohacks from people who've experimented with this, some with fancy graph-producing sleep gadgets. As far as I can tell, giving yourself large blocks of nighttime free from artificial light is key. Reddit tackled this recently as well.

The other component is how to arrange your life to satisfy this arrangement. If going out in the evening is something you do often enough, it may just not be compatible with a segmented sleep schedule. Mucking around on MeFi after dinner might well be out. It might also be hard to achieve if your job doesn't involve regular heavy physical labor.

Your body may well not want to do this. There's no point in torturing yourself if it's just not what comes naturally.
posted by zachlipton at 11:23 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This happens to me all the time if I don't specifically try to avoid it. If I got to sleep with my wife around 10, I'll sleep until 2, be up til 4, and then sleep til 7 when I need to get up for work.
posted by Oktober at 11:32 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, to prevent it, I'll usually force myself to stay up until 12:30 or 1, then sleep through til 7.
posted by Oktober at 11:32 AM on March 5, 2013

Do you already wake naturally during the night? Do you know how much sleep you need for optimal function, and are you getting it already?

I thought I had insomnia for years but learning about segmented sleep allowed me to embrace my natural rythym. I wake naturally about four hours after I go to sleep and stay awake for an hour or two, then go back to sleep until morning. As long as I get 6-7 hours total sleep, I feel great. And getting up to read or putter (I try to avoid the computer or other lit screens) beats lying in bed trying to go back to sleep. Just don't make the mistake of playing with your cat, or he will start to wake you before you want to get up!

If you're not already naturally waking during the night, don't try an alarm clock. It probably won't sync with your schedule well enough to get you the rest you need. Start by getting up anytime you do wake in the night, and go back to bed when you are sleepy again. Or become a parent.

My schedule right now: bedtime around 9, wake at 1:30 for an hour, wake again at 6:30.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:38 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a blog about an experiment with polyphasic sleep. He's written several posts about it.
posted by waving at 11:42 AM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I followed Steve Pavlina's notes for polyphasic sleep (linked by waving, above) quite a few years ago. It did not work for me at all but I was at least able to try because I was:
- Running my own business from home
- With work that didn't need to be done at specific hours
- And with clients both overseas and in the US.

Without those specific circumstances, I would not have been able to even try. In fact, it was because I was under those circumstances that I was even interested -- I was looking for a way to be somewhat available to all customers at most times. In the end, I was just tired.
posted by Houstonian at 12:05 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Head Trip, the author, Jeff Warren, attempts it. (IIRC it wasn't a very successful experiment, but I don't have the book to hand.) What he was advised to do was go somewhere without electric lights so that he would get sleepy and go to bed when it got dark out—which would be tricky, unless you were, say, hiking the Appalachian Trail. :)
posted by BrashTech at 12:25 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

My father naturally ends up doing segmented sleep. His schedule is actually very similar to the polyphasic guy when he tried biphasic sleep. He sleeps from around 11 till around 4, and then from 5 till 7. He does this on vacations/weekends as well, though he usually sleeps a little bit past seven then.

I think there are several reasons he is able to do this so well.

1.) He has really bad insomnia and biphasic sleep is what he naturally resorts to. He just decided not to fight it anymore.

2.) He has admitted that as he's aged, he doesn't need as much sleep anymore (he's 52). On rare nights that he doesn't wake up in the middle of the night, he naturally sleeps from 11 till 6.

3.) He's very active during the day. He doesn't sit for very long periods of time and he works out several times a week.

4.) He used to be an emergency room physician and worked 48-hour shifts. I don't think that is a necessary experience though (unless you want to worsen preexisting insomnia!).

5.) He's paleo (I don't really know if that matters but hey it's a fact).

Now, he works a 9-6 schedule with the rest of the monophasic world. He sometimes takes naps in his office, but other than that has kept to this schedule for a couple of years.

Overall, it's very doable, even with a set schedule. Having a "chill" attitude about sleep helps--when I've tried to do it, I spend the second sleep worried that I won't fall back asleep--and not needing a lot of sleep to begin with is probably necessary.
posted by obviousresistance at 1:16 PM on March 5, 2013

I've got insomnia and I would really crave 6-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Anytime my sleep goes to crap I lose the ability to focus and concentrate. I certainly never find myself in great phyiscal or mental condition to take advantage of all the extra time this kind of sleep supposedly affords. I'm not sure I get the all the hoop-la myself.

But if you want to sleep like a 15th century person, live like one. I'd suggest wwoofing on a farm that has low electricity use or something. Electric lights and blue computer light really helps keep nights to 6-8 hours for most people today.

If you're in the northern hemisphere winter is ideally the best time to do this since night is longer.
posted by glip at 1:18 PM on March 5, 2013

The author Jerzy Kosinski famously slept in two equally-long segments. He undressed, and prepared for sleep in the same manner, twice a day (or night), not just a short night's slumber followed by a long daytime nap. I recall an essay he wrote about it while he was still alive, but can't remember where.
posted by citygirl at 1:24 PM on March 5, 2013

Do you work in an industry that allows non-normal hours? I'm doing night hours for my grad program right now (with my commute, it's 15hrs/day), and the first time I did this, I tried sleeping through the day; this time, I'm putting a two hour 'awake during the day' segment in and it's working much better for some reason.

Use blackout curtains in seasons when the light might interfere, and other environmental controls like earplugs if necessary. Having good sleep hygiene in general works, but it's possible to do it with strange working hours, so long as you can arrange your life to get major activities done early in the primary waking time; having a mini-task to do during the break has seemed to help me.
posted by cobaltnine at 1:58 PM on March 5, 2013

When my girls where babies, I'd fall asleep while tucking them in, at about 8-9, sleep till 2:30 or 3, and then sleep again from 4 - 4:30 till 7 or maybe 7:30. I was so healthy then! But I was always worried something was wrong with me.
posted by mumimor at 2:19 PM on March 5, 2013

The trick would be to remove all lightbulbs from your house.

During our two-week blackout after Hurricane Sandy, we fell into this pattern. Because we had basically nothing to do except burn batteries after dark, we wound up going to sleep very, very early -- as early as 8pm, as I recall. Because it was dark, our bodies were actually sleepy at that time, too.

I'd wake up routinely for an hour or two between 3 and 4am. Lucky for me this coincided with a brief period of mobile phone service, so I'd check my Twitters and email and eventually go back to sleep. I can't remember what time we all woke up for good -- maybe 7 or 8am?

It was very pleasant, actually, and I miss it a little bit. The pattern faded out as soon as power returned and we had lights and television and internet, thus allowing us to stay up later.
posted by Andrhia at 2:53 PM on March 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

My work schedule is totally off schedule from the sleep patterns my body prefers, so right now I naturally fall into a biphasic sleep pattern unless I really work at avoiding it. I'm a night owl but usually have to be online for work between 6 and 7AM. So, here's how my day goes:

Wake between 5 and 6AM
Hate the morning but do what I gotta do. I limit my caffeine intake to one cup of coffee or tea, and no caffeine after noon.
Afternoons are rock star time for me.
Get home between 5 and 6PM
Nap until 8 or 9 (3.5 hours of sleep)
wake and have dinner, do Stuff
Go to bed around midnight/1AM (4 hours of sleep)

If I'm able to follow my normal sleep cycle, I'd go to bed around 2AM and wake around 9-10AM. Obviously, that doesn't work if I need to be online at 6AM. So a biphasic sleep schedule is my body's secondary preferred schedule. The reason I often try to avoid it is that it makes socializing after work difficult.

So, if you don't want to make things totally dark at sunset, or live in the North and don't want to go to bed at 7PM during January, you could try working during hours that aren't in your body's preferred awake cycle, if that makes sense.
posted by RogueTech at 8:35 PM on March 5, 2013

I have tried polyphasic sleep when I was doing a lot of 9-hour jet-lag. It worked great for a week or so but I always fell back to my regular sleep schedule.

The first thing I would do is get one of those fancy alarms that wakes you up based on where it thinks you are in your sleep cycle. (There are also cheap versions for smartphones, though I have no idea how well they work.) That will bring you out of sleep when you're ready, and not when you're in the middle of something deep and hard to bring yourself out of.

The main difficulty is that you quickly become reliant on going to sleep after specific, shorter intervals. If you don't plan around it, or your life doesn't support it, you're not going to last. Figure out when you more important social engagements happen and plan to be awake at that time every day - including time to get ready, commute, whatever. Otherwise you'll be falling asleep at dinner or leaving the party before it becomes interesting, or whatever. This was the main thing that killed it for me. I basically couldn't go on a date longer than a few hours. Spending all day with my sweetheart was no-go. (So, if you can get your most significant other to go in with you on it, you might have a better chance.)

Also figure out what you're going to do at night. If you're not used to working in the middle of the night, it can be disorienting. If you live in an apartment you can cause trouble by being even slightly loud. Very few businesses are open and TV is lousy.

On the other side, keep from getting interruptions when you're trying to sleep. Turn off your phone ringer and if possible disconnect your doorbell when you're sleeping during the day. Don't expect others to know or respect sleeping at 3 in the afternoon. Again, apartment living can be tough because, again, no one will really respect your afternoon sleep.

Plan your eating. You'll have to eat at different times. Depending on the person this can have a dramatic effect on your health. I ended up feeling very unsettled unless I ate a whole extra meal during 24 hours.

Those are the main questions to answer for yourself. I tracked my time and with all the getting up and going to sleep I didn't really gain any extra useful time during the day or any other benefits, but it was fun to try when my sleep was already mucked up.
posted by Ookseer at 9:08 PM on March 5, 2013

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