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Podcast: Are We Heading To A Future In Which We Can Survive On Less Sleep?

07/09/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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For anyone who leads a hectic, urban life, the sheer lack of time is a common complaint. Meeting deadlines at work, everyday commuting and domestic chores often take a toll on our social lives and interests. "If only I had a few more hours in a day," is a sentiment that most of us can identify with. And some of us, who really ponder about how we can add more hours to our day, may start to wonder whether it's really worth spending a huge chunk of our day on sleep. This episode of The Intersection investigates that very idea - is it possible for us to sleep less and well?

Akshat Rathi, a journalist with Quartz, while pursuing a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Oxford University, wanted to find out whether he could survive on less sleep while being fully functional. He has written a brilliant piece, detailing his attempts at cheating sleep, which can be found here. The crux of his story is that he tried different models of sleep, starting from American inventor Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion sleeping schedule to the Everyman schedule.

Fuller's method involved taking 30-minute naps four times a day, every six hours. The idea behind this is to break monophasic sleep (sleeping once, at night) into smaller chunks. But, the problem with this model is that you seldom enter REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, which is believed to be biologically crucial. The US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has this to say about REM sleep in its section on Understanding Sleep, "One study found that REM sleep affects learning of certain mental skills. People taught a skill and then deprived of non-REM sleep could recall what they had learned after sleeping, while people deprived of REM sleep could not."

Finding Fuller's method too difficult to follow, Akshat switched to the Everyman schedule, which entailed sleeping for three and a half hours at night and then taking three, 20-minute naps through the day. He managed to stick to the routine, adding almost four hours to his day compared to the time when he slept for the standard eight hours every night.

Science writer Jessa Gamble, the author of Siesta and the Midnight Sun: How Our Bodies Experience Time, has also researched sleeping patterns. She found that until a century or so back, people slept in a biphasic cycle - twice a day, for 3-4 hours each. She also tells Padma & Samanth about both the many studies as well as anecdotal stories where people were astounded about how rested they felt after following a biphasic sleep model.

Akshat's experiment couldn't last more than a year probably because, as Samanth points out, it wasn't natural, placing the onus on Akshat to find the motivation to wake up every day after sleeping for just three and a half hours. But, do some of these efforts point to a future in which we might be able to survive on less sleep?

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