What I Learned from Five Years of ‘Biphasic’ Sleeping
When I landed a dream client five years ago, there was just one hitch: I would have to work a two and a half hour shift, starting at 4:30 am. It was well paid, interesting work, and so I ended up accepting, pushing aside my worries of sleep deprivation.
It took me a while before working out a new sleep pattern that made sense for me. Initially, I tried going to bed at 9 pm, but this made it hard to maintain a social life, as most of my friends wouldn’t get off work until 7 or 8 pm. So instead, I started going to bed around midnight and sleeping again from 7 am once I finished work.
The Natural Way of Sleeping
I had, unknowingly, fallen into a routine of biphasic sleeping, or sleeping in two phases. It’s a rhythm that some experts and amateur bio-hackers vigorously defend as being great for health. Research shows that biphasic sleeping improves the quality of your sleep and increases your energy and productivity levels throughout the day.
Today, there is a general assumption that the eight-hour night is the most “natural” way of sleeping, but evidence points to the opposite. Most animals sleep not in one solid block but in multiple periods throughout the day, and psychiatrist Thomas Wehr showed in a study in 1992 that it could be the same for humans. He conducted an experiment in which people spent 14 hours every day in the dark. After four weeks, their sleep schedules had developed a distinct pattern: they slept for four hours, woke for around three, and slept again for four.
In fact, up until the Industrial Revolution, biphasic sleep was the norm. Medical texts, court records and diaries all point to nights divided into “first” and “second” sleep, with a period of several hours in between, sometimes called the “watching.” Historian A. Roger Ekirch discovered this by digging through over 500 references dating back to Homer’s Odyssey. What stood out was not only “the number of references (to biphasic sleep) — it is the way they refer to it as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch told BBC.