But then we got factories, and light bulbs, and things just got a lot more busy. So we squeezed all our rest into one big mono-sleep. Of course, there are exceptions − shift workers and breastfeeding mothers come to mind − but largely, on a societal level, we’ve done away with segmented sleep.
While the modern style of monophasic sleep is convenient, it seems segmented sleep may be our default natural state. In 1992, a paper published in the Journal of Sleep Research details a month-long experiment conducted by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr that had a group of people kept in complete darkness for 14 hours every evening. By the fourth week, the participants had naturally fallen into a very distinct sleeping pattern of two blocks of around four hours, with a period of one to three hours of wakefulness in between. Sound familiar?
I’ve been interested in this way of sleeping for a while. I mean, surely what is most natural to us is most optimal, right? If I throw off my society-induced mono-sleep shackles and instead revert to the way of the ancients, well, who knows what I could accomplish? Da Vinci supposedly slept this way, and look how much he got done. Hell, maybe I could finally get that damn Duolingo owl off my back. The possibilities are endless.
With society essentially on pause during the pandemic, I find myself with the most free time and least commitments I’ve had in years. If there was ever a golden opportunity to see if biphasic sleep works, it’s now.
Night 1, Wednesday
Hours slept: 10pm–2am, 5am–7am (six hours)
I hate my alarm tone. It’s so intrusive. My first act every morning is silencing it, allowing me to start the day with a hint of triumphant aggression. Though at 2am, there is no triumph, no aggression, just … so … sleepy. This is dumb. Why am I doing this? What’s the point? We’ve evolved. We have light switches and Uber Eats and Teslas. And what the hell is that noise?
A disorientated moth, caught between the blinds and the window. A big one, by the sound of it. A big dumb one. Shut up. Shut up. I turn on a lamp and open the window so it can fly away, but the idiot flies the opposite way. Whatever. I don’t have time for this.
I’d love to tell you that I spent night one writing the first chapter of my debut novel, or drinking whisky underneath the stars. Something romantic. But no. I spent these wee hours catching up on emails and googling Thai green curry recipes. I know how to make green curry. I’m pretty good at it. But you can always be better.
Night 2, Thursday
Hours slept: 10pm–2am, 4.30am–7am (six hours, 30 minutes)
I’d spent day one of the experiment feeling positive, but sleep-deprived. So on night two, I get into bed early, read a book for a while, and drift off into serene slumber like I am the protagonist in a melatonin commercial.
I awaken once more at 2am, with the intention of going for a run. But the best-laid plans of mice and lazy journalists often go awry. Instead, in what is a questionable move for my mental health, I spend a solid two hours watching coronavirus videos on YouTube.
Night 3, Friday
11:30pm–2am, 5.30am–8.30am (five hours, 30 minutes)
The 2am alarm is as unwelcome as ever, but I wake up with the resolve of a man determined to try that new green curry recipe. Normally, cooking is one of my favourite things to do, but at 2am, it is a chore. Eventually though, once I had all the annoying parts out of the way and crack open a beer, I begin to feel really nice. Nice, but weird. I am filled with an almost overwhelming feeling of appreciation. Appreciation that I have this luxury while so many don’t, and guilt that I am not doing anything tangible to help. It’s surreal, in a way − the outside world is battling a rapidly spreading microscopic demon with no face, and meanwhile I’m making curry, at 2am, experimenting on myself because I have nothing to contribute in this fight besides not leaving the house. Guilty. Appreciative. Tired.
Eventually, with the curry all but done, I leave it to simmer on low heat while I step outside, crack another beer, light a cigarette, and look at the sky. I am hoping to find inspiration, but all I feel is cold. So after 10 or so minutes, I go inside, turn off the stove, and go to bed. The curry was terrible, by the way. Too much salt.
Night 4, Saturday
10pm–2am, 5am–7am (six hours)
I wake up the next morning feeling decrepit. I’d had high hopes for this experiment, but at the half-way mark, all I feel is sluggish and irritable, and my cravings for sugar and junk food throughout the week have been at an all-time high.
This is having a detrimental effect on my productivity. The main reason I became interested in this way of sleeping in the first place was because of its alleged positive effect on work output.
And yet, ever since embarking on this experiment I’ve gotten hardly any solid work done. Instead, I’d reverted to a teenager. Eating Tim Tams and playing PlayStation at 9am when I knew full well I have deadlines to meet.
It was time to call in an expert. Dr David Cunnington is a Melbourne-based specialist sleep physician and co-host of the Sleep Talk podcast. When it comes to segmented sleep, Dr Cunnington says it’s best not to force it.
“Some people naturally awaken four or five hours in, go to the bathroom, reset, go back to bed,” explains Dr Cunnington, “but if they’re not like that, and they force themselves to wake, they’ll be groggy, heavy headed, hard to get going. And if they were then to make themselves stay awake for one or two hours, they may then have trouble getting back to sleep.”
I was definitely in the latter camp. Dr Cunnington’s solution? Adapting a more siesta-style approach to biphasic sleep: a solid block of six to seven hours at night, with a nap in the early afternoon.
“If you wanted to do a comparison of monophasic sleep v biphasic sleep, in terms of productivity, quality of life, health − I’d go for the siesta style as my choice of biphasic sleep, rather than the two pieces overnight.”
Night 5, Sunday
12am–7am, 3pm–5.30pm (nine hours, 30 minutes)
That night, heeding Dr Cunnington’s advice, I sleep for a solid seven hours. It was glorious. Yet throughout the day, I still feel tired. I have accumulated so much sleep debt that my intended one-hour afternoon nap balloons into a two-and-a-half hour hibernation.
And of course I then jump straight on social media as soon as I open my eyes. Throughout the week, all the “extra” time I have gained is being wasted on near constant monitoring of my news feed, searching like a vulture for any scraps of new COVID-19 information. And it isn’t making me feel any better.
Night 6, Monday
12am–7am, 4pm-5.10pm (eight hours, 10 minutes)
Once again, I go to sleep at midnight, and awaken at 7am. For the first time in almost a week I feel adequately rested. But by now, I have already decided that biphasic sleep isn’t for me. Falling asleep after my first sleep is just too much of a struggle. I’d go to bed at 4am, but end up actually falling asleep one or two hours later.
Another factor I haven’t mentioned yet: physical recovery. Workouts that I’d usually recover from overnight are now leaving my muscles sore for days. I’m really not into that. You have to listen to your body.
Night 7, Tuesday
12.30am–7am, 1pm–1.50pm (seven hours, 20 minutes)
I persevered for one more night, but ultimately I am glad when it’s over. This time of COVID-19 is stressful enough without setting multiple alarms jarring me out of deep sleep at odd hours. I never used to give much thought to sleep, and always felt great. Yet in this week, during which I’ve most pondered sleep, I found myself feeling almost constantly tired. Perhaps when it comes to sleep, the best thing you can do is to simply not think about it.
Professor Dorothy Bruck, chair of the Sleep Health Foundation, seems to agree. “Good sleepers never think about their sleep, but poor sleepers can often over think about their sleep,” she says, adding that sleep is not necessarily one-size-fits-all.
“Sleep is very flexible. When you look cross-culturally − indigenous communities often have a very different approach to sleep, and will often move in and out of sleep a lot more than in western societies where we have this fixation of getting it all in a particular block,” she says.
Professor Bruck says consistency is the most important thing. “Your body really does like routine. Find what works for you, and keep that routine going − that optimises your sleep. Don’t think about it as a performance thing − ‘I have to do this, this, and this in order to get the best sleep’; that creates a whole lot of other problems.”
So with everyone harping on about how self-isolation can be an ideal opportunity for self-improvement, I think I’ll go back to something more calming: perfecting my curry.