Sleep is for Wimps . . . Or Is It? Part 2

In part 1, we discussed the development of a perceived correlation between reduced sleep and success, or at least increased productivity. Stories abound of people we regard as geniuses sleeping very little. These stories then distorted themselves into the belief that “fewer unproductive hours” was the reason that these people succeeded. So, of course, the next conclusion was that to succeed people needed to train themselves to sleep less.

But are “short sleepers” actually more productive or more successful? If so, can we train ourselves to be short sleepers?

Let’s look at some of the evidence supporting theories of achieving productivity through short sleep.

“You Must Sleep Sometime Between Lunch and Dinner, And No Halfway Measures.

Take Off Your Clothes and Get into Bed. That’s What I Always Do.” – Winston Churchill

Sleep in LeavesIn part 1 it was mentioned that the reported sleeping habits of Winston Churchill would be revisited. This is because perceptions of the amount of time people sleep become clouded by other factors.

Over the years, a lot has become known about Churchill’s sleeping habits, and it seems that his lack of sleep has been exaggerated, possibly by assistants who were driven to distraction by having to work until 3 a.m.

It’s true that Churchill worked until the early hours of the morning on a regular basis, but lost in this is a rigid schedule. Sleep until 8 a.m. work until 5 p.m. when he would take a 2-hour nap (not a quick nap in a chair, he would get undressed and go to bed) then work until 2 or 3 a.m.

Depending on how long it took him to fall asleep this means he could sleep anywhere from 6 to 8 hours per day. He just did it in two blocks. In other words, he was a classic biphasic sleeper.

Sleep patterns are generally described as belonging to one of three groups:

  • Monophasic – we imagine that sleep should happen in a single block to allow for all those different phases that we’ve heard of such as REM sleep, delta wave sleep, etc. If you sleep in a single block like this, you have a monophasic sleep pattern.
  • Biphasic – If you regularly wake up once, say in the middle of the night, and then fall back to sleep–i.e. your typical sleep pattern consists of two distinct blocks—this is biphasic sleep. It doesn’t mean you sleep anymore or any less; it just means your sleep is broken into two parts. It is surprising to many people that evidence indicates that biphasic rather than monophasic is the “normal” sleep pattern.
  • Polyphasic – sleeping only for short periods several times throughout a 24-hour period is known as polyphasic sleep, a term attributed to an Italian chronobiologist, Dr. Claudio Stampi. This polyphasic pattern is a commonly observed sleep pattern in many animals. Probably, for this reason, it seemed natural that humans could train themselves to sleep this way and cut down on the total number of hours slept because they refresh themselves during these frequent naps, and thus gain several more productive hours per day.

“The Amount of Sleep Required by The Average Person Is Five Minutes More” – Wilson Mizener

Sleeping TigerIn his 2005 article, Polyphasic Sleep: Facts and Myths, Dr Piotr Wozniak describes how he can find little factual evidence to support claims of short sleep in many of the most famous cases. Almost without fail these cases revolved around people who are dead, therefore lacking verifiable evidence, AND who can be said to have achieved legendary status regarding everything they did.

Dr Wozniak proposes that there is, however, evidence to indicate that many of these “legends” were actually polyphasic sleepers, people who frequently napped throughout the wake/sleep cycle, thus giving the impression of sleeping much less than they actually did.

Another blow to the idea of short sleep equaling success is that enough information exists to reliably state that people, especially insomniacs and short sleepers, tend to underestimate wildly how much they actually sleep. This fact necessarily casts doubt on the accuracy regarding reports from short sleepers.

Okay, so legends of short sleepers may be unreliable. But do short sleepers exist?

“I Can’t Get to Sleep, I Think About the Implications” – Overkill, Men At Work

There appears to be some evidence that short sleepers do exist, making up about 1% of the population, but findings surrounding this topic suggest that much more research is needed on these subjects. As previously mentioned, short sleepers are those individuals who, without intentionally forcing themselves to stay awake, regularly sleep six or fewer hours and show no detrimental effects.

Studies of short sleepers have identified 3 different genetic mutations can be associated with this trait. Behaviorally, they have also tended to be optimistic and energetic, but why this is connected with short sleepers isn’t clear. Some researchers have even suggested that this behaviour is a sub-clinical level of hypomania, an element in bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterised in its manic form by a reduced need for sleep (among other things). Other scientists suggest that these short sleepers are sleep-deprived but don’t experience it or show it in the same way as most people. Put another way, some people react to stress in an opposite fashion to the one expected, so is it possible that this optimism and energy is, in fact, a result of sleep deprivation.

“Sleep Is That Golden Chain That Ties Health and Our Bodies Together” – Thomas Dekker

Many theories have been proposed about why we sleep, and what happens when we do. In part 1 of this article, we referred to an excellent talk entitled Why Do We Sleep given by Dr Russell Foster in 2013, and we return to it here for some clues.

Dr Foster points out that, rather than shutting down when we sleep, certain areas increase their activity, and this is not confined to a single area. Additionally, he states that many of the genes turned on only during sleep are genes connected to restorative and repair processes.

Neuroscientist Jeff Iliff went further in the 2014 talk entitled One More Reason to Get a Good Night’s Sleep and described some of the actual activities. These include a fascinating process by which the brain clears itself of the waste products created by cell activity.

All the cells of the body produce waste products like any engine and, in other areas of the body, we get rid of this through the lymphatic system, a system not found in the interior of the brain. But MRI’s have shown a process in which the fluid surrounding the brain and the spinal column is pumped through the brain to collect waste products and then transfer them into blood vessels to be transported to the lymphatic system.

It is almost as if the brain is giving itself a shower


One of the waste products this process seems to focus on is a protein, amyloid-beta, the build-up of which is associated with conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Iliff stresses that it is too early to prove a connection between lack of sleep and such disorders, but is it such a leap to think that not letting the brain perform its housekeeping chores may result in some dangerous outcomes?

Another proposal of Dr Foster is that sleep is necessary for information and memory processing along with creativity in problem-solving. Studies have shown that if you try to learn and new task, and then prevent sleep that new skill is lost.

“Think in The Morning. Act in The Noon. Eat in The Evening. Sleep in The Night.” –  William Blake

There are other theories regarding our need to sleep, but even from the information here it is evident that sleep is a vital process for efficient functioning.

But can we train ourselves to sleep polyphasically if we are not naturally so inclined? Dr Wozniak has some very definite views on this. He bases his theories on the natural chemical and biological processes occurring in the body related to the sleep/wake cycle. And so antagonistic is he toward people that think they can train themselves into a polyphasic sleep pattern that he couches his objections in simple terms such as “sleepy potion” that depict his opinion of their intellectual ability.

He believes the use of alarm clocks, especially in trying to achieve a polyphasic sleep pattern, interrupts natural processes. You are awake when your body is trying to put you to sleep, or you are seeking sleep when body chemicals are activating you physically. The result of these actions, he believes–and this is a belief that science seems to be supporting—is reduced intellectual and physical ability.


Sleep and its functions remain a mystery in many ways. However, as we learn more, it is increasingly apparent that previous conclusions about the benefits of altering sleep patterns are questionable at best. Not only are they based on unverifiable information and social mythology, but science is also now showing that the effects of altering natural sleep patterns could be much more severe than simply feeling tired. Short sleep may even be considered a sleep disorder.

Thankfully, even famous coaches and self-help gurus are beginning to abandon the idea that success comes from sleeping less and working more. They are starting to focus on the benefits of a full night’s sleep.

So if you are asked to work late or if you are thinking of suggesting it to subordinates, perhaps you should take a moment to consider that allowing adequate rest may result in higher productivity and efficiency.



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