Like most people, my sleeping habits are inextricably tied to my mental health. I’m often depressed and always exhausted, never feeling like I’ve had enough sleep and never of a quality high enough to refresh me. At my lowest point I spent a whole week in bed; even when in good mental health, I still take a lot of naps. I’ve been called lazy and wasteful for my sleeping habits and I feel like I’m always chasing those elusive eight hours with their siren song of clear skin, boundless energy and a brighter future. So when I heard about biphasic sleep, I was immediately curious.
What Is Biphasic Sleep?
Biphasic sleep is when you take your sleep in two intervals rather than one; polyphasic sleep is where you take your sleep in multiple intervals. The recommended single stretch of eight hours sleep is known as monophasic sleep and is a relatively modern invention. There are references throughout history to a second block of sleep, with writers like Homer, Cervantes and Dickens talking about biphasic sleep as a part of normal daily life. In his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, historian A. Roger Ekirch states that before the Industrial Revolution, biphasic sleep was the norm. He describes how people would go to bed when the sun went down, sleep for several hours, wake up for a few hours to make love, say their prayers or do chores before going back to bed until dawn. In modern times, many biphasic sleepers use a different model. Checking in with the surprisingly popular r/polyphasic community on Reddit, most favour a bedtime of midnight, a rising time of 6am and a post-lunch second sleep. Considering afternoons are often when I’m most tired, this second pattern appealed more to me.
Does Biphasic Sleep Stop Tiredness?
Biphasic sleep seems to contradict every piece of advice I’d ever read, which always emphasised the importance of one unbroken stretch of sleep. But I was working from home, I had nowhere to be, and there were countless posts about people finding new reaches of physical energy and mental clarity with biphasic sleep. So I set my alarm and went to bed with high hopes.
Getting up on the first day was terrible.
The smug excitement over making an interesting life decision kept me going through the first few hours but by mid-morning I was too exhausted to do anything except stare at the clock and wish for time to speed up so I could finally go back to sleep. I ate a perfunctory lunch and collapsed into bed for possibly the most glorious nap of my life. I’d planned to sleep from 1pm to 3pm and my body responded perfectly; I woke up on time without needing to set an alarm. Afterwards I felt very refreshed and the rest of my day was pretty productive.
The rest of the week progressed in a similar fashion. My mornings did get easier, as did eating breakfast three hours earlier than normal. I managed to do some yoga on one day and start writing before lunch on another, although I didn’t hit my working rhythm until about 5pm. Waking up early left me with a feeling of unreality and the whole week felt like it existed in a separate liminal space. I don’t think I’d realised how heavily I’d sunk into my lockdown routine until this moment; the whole day stretching out unceasingly from the moment of waking, the hours slipping unnoticed and unmarked into each other. Implementing a structure broke the previously uninterrupted day into strict sections, each with their own purpose which, while a shock to the system, meant I was forced to organise my day more effectively than before.
Halfway through the week I arranged to meet a friend for a socially distanced walk, which posed an unexpected problem. Either I would have to meet her at the unsociable hour of 8am in order to get back home in time for work and then my second sleep, or I could meet her after I woke from my nap at 3pm but with only a few hours of daylight left. Eventually we decided to meet in the afternoon and I took my nap an hour earlier but knowing that I would have to go out as soon as I woke up made it very difficult to relax and I barely slept at all. I enjoyed my socialising but I was wiped out when I got home.
My friend knew about my experiment and wasn’t working that day; it would have been much harder if we were both on a tight schedule. The biggest problem facing anyone considering biphasic sleep is scheduling. If you’re in charge of your own hours, you’ll probably be fine but our world runs on the assumption that its inhabitants sleep at night, not in the middle of the day. For those whose work schedules haven't shifted over lockdown or who now face going back to a regular nine-to-five working day, or people with kids, anything but monophasic sleep will be impossible.
Eight hours of unbroken sleep might be the modern ideal but that’s not because it’s human nature. There are various reasons for the decline of the second sleep but Ekirch links it to progress, saying: "People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th century, but the Industrial Revolution intensified that attitude by leaps and bounds." Once there were more factories requiring a greater number of workers, all of whom needed to follow the same routine in order for the business to work smoothly, stricter sleep schedules became more common. The first mechanical alarm clock was created in 1787 by Levi Hutchins specifically to wake him at 4am for his job. In World War Two, alarm clocks were one of the first non-military items to resume production in 1944 to ensure workers would turn up on time for their shifts in jobs vital to the war effort.
I’m not sure that following a strict biphasic pattern is for me. I enjoyed the early mornings but I found following the schedule too stressful for a habit that was meant to be better for my mental health. It also confirmed to me that I’m more creative later in the day, rather than earlier. But with the magic of the unbroken eight hours shown to be little more than a capitalist story designed to improve efficiency, I definitely feel better about my napping habit. Going forward, I’m going to try to be kinder to my body when it tells me that its needs are more complicated than the schedule ordained by business owners a hundred years ago.