We all spend a lot of time in bed. If an average Canadian gets seven hours of sleep per night and is lucky enough to live the full 80.1 years of his or her life expectancy, he or she will have spent about 23.4 years in dreamland. To me, this has always seemed like a colossal waste of time. It’s not that I hate sleep; it’s just that, like everyone else, I’m addicted to wakefulness. That we squander all that time drooling and dreaming is repulsive to me—and I’m not the only one to have thought so.
The “überman” or “polyphasic ultrashort” sleep method is based on a theory developed—and possibly practised—by Leonardo da Vinci. He claimed that he could maintain 22.5 hours of wakefulness each day by breaking his sleep into six fifteen-minute naps, occurring once every four hours. Comparing himself to his fellow man, da Vinci not only perceived an advantage in the amount of productive time he enjoyed, but he also claimed to have been thus bestowed with advanced powers of creativity and inspiration.
For hundreds of years, da Vinci’s strategy has been tested by doctors, researchers and members of the public. Who can blame them? It’s an attractive prospect: being reborn as an überman capable of incredible feats of creativity and awareness—one who does rather than one who dreams.
What follows is my account of trying to reach this utopia. The experiment was not executed merely for the sake of writing this (or its companion piece, “The Science of Shut-Eye,” which appears in Maisonneuve’s current “Pop” issue); I genuinely wished to leave you all in my wake, to flip society the bird as I transformed into a man and a half. I wanted to do something that would change my life. My goal was not as lofty as da Vinci’s. He claimed his total daily sleep amounted to a total of one and a half hours, and that he went without any core (consolidated) sleep. I began my experiment with five hours of core sleep and two twenty-minute naps, then gradually worked toward three hours of core sleep with three twenty-minute naps (for a grand total of four hours of daily sleep).
Here are excerpts from my journal during this experiment.
Day 1 (total sleep = 4 hours)
I had no trouble waking up this morning, after four hours of core sleep. I did little more than occasionally skim the surface of slumber last night, oscillating between semi-lucidity and toe-wiggling excitement about my new experience. I entertained myself with visions of the nocturnal activities I would soon have the freedom to pursue, like reading, practising the guitar, studying Latin and curing bacon. Though I had only scheduled four hours of core sleep, it seemed long. My pillow stunk. I tossed and turned. I look forward to leaving this waste of time behind, to enjoying a life of productivity and advantage.
One thing is clear, though: my strategy appears to violate the laws of the “normal” social routine. This is less evident at night, but the two naps I had scheduled this afternoon were impossible to achieve. I’ve never been a napper, so I don’t really understand the concept. The construction occurring on the railway bridge near St. Denis and Rosemont, right outside my window, does not help me understand the siesta appeal, either. I had turned off my phone before trying to nap but forgot about my e-mail, so the dung-doong sound of incoming messages further derailed my efforts. The guy downstairs works weird hours and he was banging around, demonstrating his familiarity with the lyrics of “Gimme Shelter.” I stayed in bed during both nap periods, motionless and awake, while the sounds of a world in full operation continued around me.
Day 4 (total sleep = 4.25 hours)
So far, so good. Today was the first time I’ve been able to nap, and it was like I’d been doing it my whole life. I’m tired, I find writing difficult and I have the attention span of a drunken ten-year-old, but considering how little sleep I have under my belt these last three days, I think I’m holding up admirably. I trust that I will soon come out the other side of this adjustment phase a new man—an überman.
I have a lot of time now. I made a salad, for instance—I even cut extra stuff up and throw it in there. Last night, I cleaned my bathtub. I’ve polished off an entire Werner Herzog box set that a friend lent me in early 2004. The extra morning hour I now have is precious too—I get my editing work done by 7 or 8 AM, and have time to go to the coffee shop and read the paper. How wretched the echoes of my former life seem to me as I sip a dark roast and feel how strongly connected I now am to the world I’m reading about. When something happened in China yesterday, I was awake. When it’s winter in Australia, I’m awake.
Day 8 (total sleep = 5 hours)
The mornings are becoming difficult. I’m dependent on my alarm clock to shock me out of the four-hour embrace of my core sleep, but both yesterday and today, I hit the snooze button repeatedly. It’s a long and hazy journey to wakefulness.
But now it’s midnight and I’m wide awake—I mean awake. I could assemble IKEA furniture. Comatose in the morning and bike-courier-alert at night; between these two states of being lies the volatile territory of my daily life. The day is all about my naps—they are the key to the whole experiment. When it’s nap time, it’s nap time, and my body knows it. I was in the library at 2 PM yesterday when nap time struck. It was like being slammed in the head—I started reeling around like a moron, went out through the “In” gate, set off an alarm. Like a roach who’s been sprayed, I embarked upon a desperate, clamouring attempt to get home; one that ended with me passing out at the Champ-de-Mars metro station. I don’t remember getting home to my apartment.
It’s been harder to pull out of these scheduled naps too—they drag along behind me like a smell. After my 3:30 PM nap this afternoon, I was able to do little more than stare open-mouthed at my screen saver and belch up my breakfast corn dogs for an hour. I get those dopey stares too, where my eyes lock on somebody’s shoe and I just ... can’t ... move ... my ... head.
Still, it’s not as bad as a week ago—the lucid landscape of the Promised Land is emerging.
Day 13 (total sleep = 4 hours)
Clear-headed, no befuddlement. I’ve hit my stride now. I’m certainly not stressed about getting things done or not having enough “me” time—Jesus, time is all about me! I haven’t used a clock these past two days. I wake up naturally from both my core sleep and my naps, as though it’s what I’ve done all my life.
It’s 2 AM right now and I’m alert, healthy and in good spirits. The carnival of productivity I experienced last week seems to have packed up its tents and moved on, but that’s likely my personality shining through. It’s been graphic novels and Magnum PI DVDs the last three nights. I really don’t care that I’m not using my time wisely—I wasn’t exactly da Vinci to begin with—I’m just happy that I’m not spending thirty percent of my life farting under a comforter.
Oh yeah, I’m also really, really hungry—all day, all night. I’ve been eating corn dogs, have I told you? I’ve been eating a lot of them.
Day 17 (total sleep = 3.25 hours)
I’ve had a bad couple of days. It’s hard to concentrate, so excuse me if this seems muddled. Something is wrong. I did an interview this morning that went very poorly. I asked the interviewee if I had asked a question that I thought I had already asked, but I hadn’t. Does that make sense? Whatever. I’m fucking tired.
I met my friends at Nyk°s for beers at 6 PM. I was excited to talk about the experiment and show everybody what suckers they were for not living in Wakefulnessville. While we were chatting, this fucking guy at the next table made a rude comment about how we were being too loud (we weren’t) and I turned to him to verbally eviscerate him like I knew I could. Then I blanked. He looked at me looking at him, and all I could come up with was “Hi, my name’s Dylan.” I tried to spin it a bit as it came out, so it might sound all threatening and creepy, but really it was just awkward and lame. I went to the bathroom and when I returned, my friends informed me that in my absence he had apparently been mocking me. “Hi, my name’s Dylan,” he had said sneeringly to his ugly girlfriend, and the two of them had laughed.
And my conversation with my friends was skewed too. I kept starting one story and ending in another. I recognized that I was sinking and tried to interject something funny into an existing conversation but I forgot what the point was. I walked home feeling like I had indeed left the social norm behind me, but not in a good way. Where was the überman inside me? Is this how crazy bums are born? Through ill-advised sleep experiments?
It’s 11 PM now and I am so tired. I close my eyes and it feels like Canada’s Wonderland, but sleep itself has become a slippery thing. I tried to grab a quick nap, but no dice. I just lay there, eyes wide shut.
Day 19 (total sleep = 3.75 hours)
I was in a bad mood when I woke up today, and it descended from there. My tongue feels thick, and a number of times I’ve seen shroom-tracers and little black flies in my periphery. I’m stupid now too. It’s difficult to write. Maybe I’m not performing the experiment correctly. Twice this afternoon I had massive dizzy spells. I had to move away from the subway rail out of fear that I would fall in. And my mood—Jesus. My mailbox key gets stuck in the goddamned box every time I open it. It got stuck again yesterday and I started swearing and banging the little door open and closed and finally, grimacing, I twisted the key really hard and it snapped off. I looked up the stairwell to see the cute girl from across the hall, her mouth open in an O of bewilderment at all the animal noises I’d been making.
There was a point today when I got into considering that everyone on the subway was a photograph—it seemed really interesting at the time, but now I don’t remember what that was all about. Oh yeah, and I told my friend on the phone that “I’m having thoughts stringing all my troubles together.” Sleep deprivation or Freudian tell?
Day 23 (total sleep = 4.25 hours)
Sat staring at my journal for twenty minutes. Fuck it.
Day 26 (total sleep = 10 hours)
It is so hot out. I thought I was going to puke when I woke up. The same stagnant air has been hanging over Montreal for four goddamned days—we’re all just breathing each other’s odours now. My head was buzzing when I woke, from the heat or this sleep schedule, I don’t know. I shuffled around for fifteen minutes, and decided I’d grab another half-hour of sleep. I lay down and closed my eyes. A few minutes later, I looked at the clock. Seven hours, gone. I had crashed. I slept from 7 AM until 2 PM. Now, I’m sitting here in my yellowing underwear, wondering what to do. I could take this as a bump in the road, a minor transgression. I could get back on the horse and try and resynchronize my cycles. Except, I don’t want to. I am so tired. I could just crawl back into the little sphere of coolness wafting out from my little air conditioner and close my eyes ...
Day 27 (total sleep = 9.5 hours)
It’s over. The experiment is over. I’ve done some extra research on the Internet. I looked up da Vinci’s claims in a bit more detail: not only does no supporting documentation of his method exist, but there are reports that da Vinci actually enjoyed spending long periods of time in bed, sometimes up to thirteen hours. There is no shortage of blogs out there documenting people’s experimentation with the strategy. Most of them seem to just ... end. The posts get more exciting as the self-experimenters approach some kind of event horizon, and then suddenly they just seem to disappear into the yawning black hole of sleep.
I searched around a bit more and found Italian dramatist Giancarlo Sbragia, who had attempted the schedule in a well-documented experiment but who became psychologically unhinged after six months. He gave up, complaining that his creativity and quality of work were suffering and, upon returning to his regular schedule, claimed that normal functioning resumed.
Normal functioning—nice ring to it. There were, even in recent days, periods of lucidity—exciting moments of great potential, when I believed I had stabilized and left behind the dull, dozing world I came from. But those days are over. I was a man who once had a dream of wakefulness. But that dream is over too. Tonight, I sleep.