The sleep schedule of the alpha student

Sleep. An increasingly rare commodity among university students nationwide, it’s that which is craved yet seldom fully enjoyed. It’s that feeling of blissful nothingness, a time during which papers and exams cannot dominate your life. What if, instead of being reserved as a seemingly short-lived prize at the end of a painfully long school day, sleep was integrated into our lives on an hour-by-hour basis?

Perhaps it can be so. Behold: the Überman sleep schedule, also referred to as polyphasic sleeping. This is the new frontier in the world of getting proper rest for those overworked souls populating our restless, fast-paced society. First there was the eight-hour period called nighttime, then came the five-hour nighttime supplemented by the midday nap, and now there is this myth-turned-reality: It’s napping — all day long.

But how does it work?

Ask Leonardo da Vinci. Or maybe Albert Einstein. Perhaps even the cast of Seinfeld. Or, for the purposes of accessibility — and, well, reality — turn to a handful of brothers of Carnegie Mellon’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity chapter. It is these five brothers that came up with the idea to, upon returning to CMU two weeks ago for the spring semester, begin implementing a plan of alternating brief sleeping cycles with normal daily activity. According to the guys themselves, these “elitist members maximize their life fulfillment and productivity by sleeping only three hours per day — for mere 20- to 30-minute durations every four hours.” From midnight to 12:30 am, 4 to 4:30 am, 8 to 8:30 am, noon to 12:30 pm, 4 to 4:30 pm, and 8 to 8:30 pm, they should be asleep. For the rest of the day, then, the goal is to be awake — and not just to be awake, but to be alert and fully functional, as much as Carnegie Mellon students can be.

So how are they faring? Brother Helder Rocha, the only remaining member employing the sleep experiment to its fullest extent, commented that polyphasic sleep is “not that bad.” Having started immediately upon beginning his spring classes, Rocha seems perfectly rested and vigilant, as if he just awoke from a solid eight-hour sleep. “The first week is really key,” he added, implying that once you get into the rhythm of sleeping on such a stringent, choppy cycle, it becomes second nature. But is it healthy? Will it last?

According to Dana Sullivan’s recent article titled “How to Nap” in Real Simple magazine, napping in general “provides many of the restorative benefits that a full night’s sleep does, including ... feeling refreshed and alert.” The website of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Sleep Medicine Center supports the statement, saying that the ideal nap is “anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. It should be long enough to benefit from sleep, but not so long as to send you into deep sleep.”
Perhaps, then, napping is fine, but what about the SAE brothers’ plan to rely on only napping? So far, the long-term effects of polyphasic sleeping are unknown. What is known, though, is that once one is disciplined enough to commit to the strange cycle, falling immediately into deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep becomes automatic. Steve Pavlina, a chronic personal-development blogger from Nevada, has kept perhaps the most detailed log of his own polyphasic sleep experiment and has said that “this experiment did in fact succeed in a big way and [led me to decide] to adopt this method of sleep indefinitely.”

So polyphasic sleeping deters lethargy, and perhaps insomnia. You can sleep for fewer hours a day, and feel just as well-rested and satisfied. Rocha calls it “intriguing,” and Sullivan calls napping necessary and relaxing. Whether the half-hour-every-four-hours schedule will work for you is yet to be determined. In the meantime, consider daily naps as an alternative.

Check back next week for more on napping in college and improving your napping skills. (Hint: Practice makes perfect.)

Jessica Thurston | Staffwriter