We’re constantly being told we need more sleep, meet the people who think it’s a myth
Some are forcibly deprived of it. New Age gurus claim they don’t need it. This is what life without a single full-night’s sleep actually feels like.
Books, trackers, TED talks, advice articles, op-eds, “how to” listicles – the list of ephemera dedicated to “helping” us get a good night’s sleep feels as endless as a sleepless night at 4:12am.
Sleep boosts concentration and memory, levels our moods and nourishes healthzzzzzzz, sorry, drifted off there. Can everyone just sit-the-f-down for a second – because if ever there was news that no one needs to hear, it’s that sleep is good for us.
Like every nightmare in modern society we have free market capitalism to blame for the fact that people actually wear strange, dystopian snooze trackers to bed. As the market slowly expands into every area of our lives, a sleep-health industry with an estimated worth of $40bn has bubbled-up with myriad brands desperate to help us feel rested, for a price.
Admittedly, for most of us, not sleeping is miserable (especially when we’re constantly being bombarded with the message that missing a night of sleep is likely to end in early death), so it makes sense that we’re all clamouring to get a bit of shut-eye. But given that most of the advice can be chalked up to “make sure it’s dark” and “don’t start a marathon session of The Stranger at 11pm”, it all just feels a bit like The Man is repackaging common sense and selling it back to us for a premium.
And actually, if we look back through history, there’s a well-worn narrative of the sleepless genius. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have slept in short bursts. According to his biographer, Nikola Tesla rarely slept for more than two hours at a time. And it’s fitting that the OG of artificial light, Thomas Edison, claimed to doze only four hours a day.
Notorious uber-perfectionist Tom Ford claims to sleep only three hours a night – and keeps post-it notes by his bed in case of dream-powered ideas. Notoriously small-handed president, Donald Trump attributes his rise to power to the fact that he only sleeps for four hours at a time. Then, there’s supposed two-hours-a-night Bikram Choudhury, the man responsible for popularising hot yoga in the Western world – now a fugitive hiding in Mexico.
Every living creature sleeps; many argue that the golden number for humans is eight hours. But the truth is, how much sleep is enough massively varies with each person. Take Marie Staver, for instance – the woman behind the Uberman Sleep Schedule. This is a schedule which consists entirely of 20-minute naps, spaced equidistantly throughout a 24-hour period. Since its inception it has developed a cultish following.
Suffering from insomnia, Staver devised the plan in college in the late 1990s in order to get some rest without having to attempt one long block of sleep. “It took a few weeks of absolute misery to adapt to,” she recalls. “And a few more weeks of putting in a ton of work to keep the habit up. But after that, it became much easier.”
And it worked. Staver no longer felt tired despite the fact that, all added up she was only sleeping for two hours in every 24. And with 22 hours to play with, she could really get shit done. “Every single thing that you could think of doing, it would be done. My dorm room would be crazy clean, my socks would be organised, I could work a few hours at night fixing computers for extra cash.” The minimal amount of time in bed meant she could combine studies and work with new hobbies. “I volunteered for theatre and wound up as the lighting lead for several Shakespeare productions. I found time to play huge Dungeons & Dragons games every weekend. I always had time for any party or event I wanted to go to. People thought I’d hired a body double, or must have had a secret twin.”
Admittedly a student’s schedule allows for napping. But what about when she graduated to the working world, and had to be anchored to a nine-to-five daily routine? Well, Staver now follows the Everyman schedule. Another polyphasic (meaning done in multiple stints) sleeping pattern which, much like the Uberman, she developed herself. Unlike the Uberman, the Everyman allows for a three or four hour block of sleep, buttressed by three 20-minute daily naps.
It is more flexible than the Uberman, and works with an office job. On top of her three or four hours nightly, Staver, a manager in the tech industry, takes a lunchtime doze under her desk. “It’s the second-best thing I’ve found,” she says. “I have four hours in the morning before leaving for work and it’s magical. Sometimes I go for a swim, do some writing, or simply take solid chill-out time for myself. And I can still stay up until midnight without a problem.”
And her boss doesn’t mind? “This is my first job where I actually got my daily nap put in my employment contract, and I almost never miss it,” says Staver, who has written a book about polyphasic sleep. “I work with [software] engineers, and the value of a nap is well-understood among people who have to think their pants off all day.”
In fact, Staver may well have a genetic mutation which means that she can sleep for less than six hours and suffer no adverse effects. Although, as Dr Dimitri Gavriloff, a sleep medicine specialist who works for the likes of Oxford University, the NHS and slumber app Sleepio explains: “It’s rarer than you think.” (In fact, that mutation is thought to apply to less than one per cent of people.)
Could it be, though, that those who have the gene are more successful, in that they have more waking hours to achieve what they want to in life? Is that why so many high-powered businessmen and entrepreneurs – hailed as the “sleepless elite” – snooze less than the average person? Gavriloff isn’t sure. “The research on short sleepers is in its infancy. But whatever the case, if you’re getting your sleep needs met in under six hours – you don’t need an alarm, your functioning is fine and you’re not tired during the day – that’s a good indicator of you being a short sleeper.”
One self-proclaimed “short sleeper” is 17-year-old George. A high school student, he follows a triphasic schedule which means he’s asleep for only an hour-and-a-half at night. “Right now I sleep in three 90-minute bursts, each six-and-a-half hours apart from one another,” he explains. Given that he’s awake for nearly 20 hours a day, every day, what does he do with the extra time? “Reading. I always feel fresh, productive and my schedule is always flexible.”
A legion of Uberman and short sleep disciples exists across subreddits and online communities. “I can only seem to hit five hours of sleep a night,” says one Reddit user, who’s ironically named Sl33p. “I get loads of natural daylight, and have tried winding down for two hours at night by reading and meditation, without blue light. I’ve tried not drinking water a few hours before bed so I don’t have to wake up to pee. My stress is under control, and I never drink coffee. But no matter what I try, I still only sleep for five hours and feel fine.”
Short sleeper or not, dozing in smaller bursts isn’t as odd as it might first sound. Humans may have evolved over billions of years under a natural day-night cycle. But one long stretch of sleep is a relatively new development. There are historical accounts of Europeans splitting their slumber into two night-time chunks. We also have a natural dip in the early afternoon – the post-lunch fug – which is why siestas exist. The modern world, however, has deprived us of satisfying our in-built napping needs – ironic, since science shows that dozing boosts productivity. “Considering how many struggle with sleep and wind up taking harmful drugs, prescribing some naps, or trying a different schedule, seems pretty reasonable,” Staver argues.
Instead, for most of us, our nap time is postponed for when we’re home, out of company hours, packaged in one big lump. Then, it’s at the mercy of street lights, screen glow and everyday psychoactives (caffeine and alcohol). Meanwhile, supplanting that, is a multibillion-dollar sleep gadget industry: many resort to wearing trackers like Fitbits and Oura rings in bed, fit their mattresses with cutting-edge snooze sensors and assign themselves sleep scores out of a hundred.
And that obsession with bedtime can, paradoxically, cause a spike in anxiety which stops us from sleeping. “The harder we try and the more effort we put into falling asleep, the less likely it is that we’ll fall asleep,” says Gavriloff.
Perhaps we should be comforting ourselves in the knowledge that there are plenty out there who can skip a night’s sleep and still flourish.
The world of endurance sport runs on caffeine, adrenaline and heavy eyelids. The jewel in motorsport’s crown is 24 Hours of Le Mans. Drivers share 200mph stints in the cockpit, with nothing but a midnight siesta here and there. Engineers, however, aren’t so lucky: they have to work literally around-the-clock, managing the cars and pit stop over the 24-hour race. “I had to manage the teams in the build-up and race day, and work for 24 hours straight,” Porsche race engineer Stephen Mitas told me in 2015. “We’d do 30-hour simulations. You have to be fit and make sure you get plenty of sleep before, because there’s no resting – apart from a minute or two for the loo.”
And others are forcibly deprived of their slumber. Stew Smith is a former US Navy Seal. He once had to stay awake for five days straight as part of “Hell Week”: the final phase of the selection process, infamous for pushing those on the verge of quitting over the edge. “By day three, your mind is fried,” he remembers. “You have hallucinations – mine were really weird. I saw cartoon-like characters in place of structures: a Pez dispenser with a cartoon head was a bridge pylon; a miniature bodybuilder doing the double bicep flex pose was a fire hydrant; I saw a brick wall in the middle of the ocean.”
It’s when you starve yourself of sleep that your dreams can become reality – inevitably, as nightmarish hallucinations. “It was like sleeping with my eyes open, my dreams were superimposed over reality,” adds Smith, who is now a strength and conditioning specialist. Despite the noxious nature of sleep deprivation, Smith says that the training did prove useful. “It gave us the confidence to know that our bodies were ten times stronger than our mind would normally allow. Since my time in the Navy, I’ve easily made work deadlines that meant staying awake deep into the night and early morning.”
It’s not just the military who sometimes skip their zzzs to become more “on it”. In a sleep-themed podcast episode, Joe Rogan revealed that the writers of critically-adored sitcom NewsRadio would use sleep deprivation as a tool for creativity. “They wouldn’t start writing until 2 or 3am. They’d just play video games and fuck around and then, late at night, they would really start writing,” he said. “They’d stumble onto the set barefoot, delirious, hair all over their faces with hilarious scripts.”
Alright, fine. We’re not saying don’t sleep. While there are some success stories, it’s scientifically impossible that pulling an all-nighter will cause no harm. “There might be those who manage relatively well, and others who struggle – even with the stress hormones,” explains Gavriloff. “But we know that the longer you delay sleep, even in someone who is relatively well slept, the worse they perform on physical and cognitive performance tests.”
Rafi was 22 when he began experiencing disordered sleep, which meant he was only able to snooze once every two nights. “On the sleepless night my whole body would itch,” he recalls. “Yawning was the best feeling – it’d give me a tiny energy boost.” He’d spend the extra hours awake reading, playing video games and Skyping friends in different time zones. The worst, however, would come the following day. “I’d want to die during the day at work. I’d be on autopilot. I’d sometimes catch myself staring at something for a period of time, and then come back and think, ‘What am I doing?’”
Thankfully, Rafi now has a regular sleep pattern. But the neuroscience backs up his experience. Sleep deprived, the prefrontal cortex – the rational, decision-making part of the brain – shuts down. In its place, the emotional centres take the controls, swaying the wrecking ball of a tired mind from one extreme to another. Sometimes you feel doom, sometimes you feel euphoria the point is, you’re so sleep-starved, you can’t control it.
The longest anyone has stayed awake is 11 days straight. By the end, they experienced paranoia, hallucinations and the inability to identify objects by touch.
Still, the next time you’re tossing and turning, cursing yourself for being awake hours before your alarm? Relax. Great things have been achieved without eight hours of sleep behind them.