Can you survive without ever really sleeping longer than 20 minutes?
It’s pretty much considered universal knowledge you can’t.
A little more than a year ago though, I decided to do something dangerous and put that idea to the test. I read reports from Steve Pavlina -one of my favorite writers- about his experiences with sleeping on an "uberman" schedule and I got so attracted to the idea that I wanted to try it out.
In case you’ve never heard of “uberman”, the theory behind it (and I’ll massively oversimplify this one, if you want scientific explanations, go here) is that you deprive your body of REM sleep long enough so that you train it to fall asleep and go to REM phase instantly.
Once that’s accomplished you can theoretically transition to a schedule where you never really “sleep” in the traditional sense but only take a short 15-20 minute nap every four hours. It might be important to mention that almost every doctor or scientists opposes the idea and warns people not to try it.
Still it sounds rather attractive, doesn’t it? Being able to function perfectly without ever sleeping. All those extra hours in your life to have fun or be productive. Imagine what you could do with all those. And what you could accomplish in a year. Or in a decade.
The catch apparently is that most people who try it never seem to get past the “gruesome transition period” where you become a total zombie for up to 2 weeks according to several students and bloggers who tried it and failed miserably.
Still, there were 3 reasons that convinced me I would probably be able to do it, unlike most people:
#1: I was used to not sleeping. I had been a severe insomniac for my entire life, so not sleeping for a few days on end wouldn’t be hard.
#2. I was job-free, so nothing to lose in case I didn’t function well or had to take a nap when four hours passed.
#3. I was definitely crazy enough to try it and I liked the rebellious aspect of it. Or I might have simply been cocky enough to believe I would succeed.
It's important to mention that I didn’t use any alcohol, caffeine or medication during this period because I didn’t want it to mess up my nap quality.
I smoked weed one time, expecting it would make my nap better but it actually made it worse. My guess is that anyone who tried doing this while still drinking coffee would fail. But then again, that’s another limiting belief, so don’t let my words get to your head in case you want to try it.
Just remember that I’m not responsible for your actions and you should think twice before trying. Sleep is of crucial importance, and messing with it can have severe consequences, so if anything bad would happen to you I wouldn’t want to be the guy who influenced you into doing that.
The thing is that in my case, I had nothing to lose (didn’t sleep anyway) and everything to gain (all those extra hours).
Since I write in my journal almost daily I was able to read my notes from that time and share with you everything I experienced living like this as it happened (I don’t believe memories would be dependable enough for intense experiences like this). Here’s what happened:
Journal Entries from That Period
During my first naps, I didn’t sleep for a second. I was just lying down and getting up after 20 minutes of still being awake. They were relaxing while they lasted, but afterwards I always felt way worse than before and got really dizzy. Sometimes they also gave me a mild headache.
I was mentally prepared for the fact that this transitional period would feel bad, but I had no idea that what would make me feel bad was actually the sleep I WAS getting, and not the sleep I abstained from.
On the second day already, it suddenly happened. During my morning naps (6AM and 10AM) I fell asleep instantly and when I woke up it was as if no time had passed at all. As if I never slept and the clock just jumped 20 minutes in one second. I couldn’t remember falling asleep it all. It was like a machine being shut off and turned on again. I closed my eyes and when they opened I was “recharged”.
On day two I started to realize how crazy this was. I felt a little “weird” both mentally and physically, but at the same time I was perfectly fine. Definitely not the zombie I expected to become based on Steve Pavlina’s experience. I actually felt more well-rested then I usually was. (Damn, that really says something about the health of my usual sleeping habits.)
When I looked in the mirror I looked pretty well-rested in my opinion. I was also able to do cardio and power training on day two, which I’m normally not able to do after a sleepless night.
During later days I noticed that for some reason the day-time naps never seemed to work as well. They were less refreshing, and often less deep. Sometimes it took 5 minutes to fall asleep during the day and I woke up in the middle of a dream. They still gave me enough rest though.
The first few days I sometimes “overslept”. This mostly happened when I awoke after a nap, saw my girlfriend being way too sexy and irresistible and all, and went up to cuddle with her. Every time I did this I fell asleep again and woke up miserably because my sleep cycles were out of whack.
All in all, it took me just two days to adjust to this schedule. Apparently I was right about the advantage of being a life-long insomniac when it came to trying this out. Finally it was good for something 🙂
So I succeeded. End of story.
More Journal Entries
...not at all! The story's just starting here.
The idea of transitioning to this sort of sleep might already seem crazy to you, but unless you actually lived like that for a while there is no way you could imagine the general weirdness of being in a reality like this.
Before I started it, I looked at it in a pretty simple way:
sleep less = 22 extra hours a day = epic win
But it wasn’t. There was a “shitload” (my favorite measuring unit of quantity) of things I didn’t consider up front that made this experience really interesting and weird:
Because I was awake all the time I was also burning calories constantly. That created the unlucky side-effect of being literally hungry all the time. And whenever I didn’t eat I became nauseous.
The concept of “being tired” also didn’t exist any longer. Really. You’d think it would because you’re used to sleeping like normal people but that feeling was just completely gone. Instead after 4 hours I simply got a short “signal” from my body that it was about time to lay down again. The best way to describe it is as if all energy leaves your body through your feet without it having an impact on your mental capacity, and that you instinctively know that it will return if you lie down for 20 minutes.
If I ignored the feeling however, I got some really creepy symptoms like pain in my chest and eyes, my face turning white and my heartbeat slowing down rapidly. So while I was never ever tired in the traditional sense I really needed these “recharge moments” or I felt like a laptop saying “automatically restarting in 5… 4… 3…”.
While that may sound like a really bad feeling, it was worth it because in general I was feeling super relaxed every single moment. (Which was quite an accomplishment, considering that I still suffered from chronic hyperventilation syndrome at that time in my life.)
Those things were already a small trip to experiment, but I was in no way prepared for the biggest mindfuck of all:
I find it almost impossible to put this feeling into words (as if trying to tell someone how it feels to be on psychedelics), but the concept of “days” ceased to exist as well. I still had an agenda and everything but it was very hard to stick to that since it never felt as if a new day had begun. It was as if time stood still and my life would be in that twilight zone for eternity. Always morning and evening at the same time.
Sometimes I saw the sun rise or set but it didn’t mean anything except for a brief reminder that this planet was still turning. Sometimes it seemed like a year had passed since the last sunrise, sometimes only a few hours. This was because I was now sleeping so deep out of necessity during those 20 minute naps that they felt more like 2-10 hour naps, depending on how deep I went.
There were also times when I went to sleep in the daytime and woke up 20 minutes later in the darkness. This confused me like nothing else. It just felt so unreal.
My original plan was to do the more "mental" tasks at night. Reading, writing, sending e-mails, etc. and be social or active every moment the sun was out. That proved to be practically impossible. Since I couldn’t grasp the concept of “days” anymore, I could no longer plan them effectively. I also had to keep in mind that I couldn’t disturb my girlfriend too much at night with loud typing noises or too much light in the room. (If you’re reading this: Sorry for that and thank you for the open-mindedness 😉 )
I made a new “weekly calendar” for myself to adjust to this in which I always had “blocks” of 4 hours instead of days and I just did one thing every “block”. Play guitar, work out, be social, write a song. But even that didn’t really work. It was impossible to track whether I was consistent in my habits anymore.
My energy levels also fluctuated depending on the depth of the nap that came before it so I had to go with the flow and feel what would be the best way to spend the “block” I woke up in. This kinda sucked since my deepest naps were always in the nighttime. For this reason I had most energy to do loud, active stuff at night when I didn’t want to disturb people and during the daytime I just wanted to lay in the park and read or write.
Also because timed seemed to stay still for eternity, things often seemed pointless. It was really hard to work towards any goal for me. There was no sense of urgency since it always felt like I had all the time in the world to do anything. And if I procrastinated on something I wouldn’t even be able to know for how many days since I didn’t think in “days” anymore.
It was suddenly very hard to participate in a world full of people who had no idea that there was a completely different concept of reality out there and I was living it when they were unconscious for 8 hours while I in turn could never stay conscious for longer than 4 hours to do the stuff they were doing.
I vividly remember one time when I was partying with some friends from the UK who I hadn’t seen in ages and I had to leave mid conversation to take a nap in the car for 20 minutes before joining them again. That wasn’t very convenient so I started to plan my social occasions in a way that they would last precisely 4 hours and fit in right between 2 naps and not get interrupted.
That kind of beat the point of living this way though. I started doing it to have more time to be social and more time to work, but because my reality had changed so much I actually felt very disconnected from the people who slept normal and found it hard to do any goal-oriented work. Lots of quantity but a serious loss of quality.
So yes I got like 42 extra hours every week, which would be more than 2.000 every year . Definitely sounds worth it, but I wasn’t really able to actually use them as effectively as when I slept like other people. Or perhaps I just needed to take a few more months to really get a grasp on that reality. I don’t know.
After a while I started to get annoyed by the lack of flexibility. What’s the value in having 22 hours of wake-time every day if you can never make spontaneous decisions anymore? Every time I woke up I couldn’t go very far because I needed to know how to fit in my next nap. Since freedom is one of the things I value most in this life (if not the one thing) the idea started to slowly lose its attractiveness.
For this reason I decided to “travel back to the reality of normal sleepers” and take the memory of this interesting experience with me.
Oddly enough, transitioning back to regular sleep didn’t go as easy as transitioning to “uberman”. It really wasn’t a fun period. I lost a lot of weight and was easily irritated. I became very socially awkward.
I remember running into 2 of my best friends asking me 2 questions after each other. This amount of input was enough to short-circuit my brain. I was physically too worn out to do any kind of sports. My days were hazy and confusing. I tried to write about them in my journal before I went to sleep but I simply had no recollection of what had happened. I had a hard time feeling my mind-muscle connection and I had no energy to do anything.
This lasted about a full week, and after that it still took me another week to fully grasp the fact that I was no longer living in the reality I had lived in the past weeks.
The interesting thing is that after having done this, it seemed to have cured my insomnia permanently. Maybe because I literally “reset” my sleep-patterns? I don’t know. But suddenly I slept 6 to 7 hours a night after more than a decade of not sleeping more than 3 or 4 hours, if I slept at all.
Since the start of 2016 I’ve even been able to get 8 hours of sleep consistently, sometimes even more. If I sleep less it is simply my own fault now.
(Side warning: Don’t take this as a sign that you should sleep on uberman to cure your insomnia. Maybe mine was cured in spite of what I did and not because of. We can’t know for sure. Instead, take it as a warning that fucking with your sleep can have permanent consequences.)
Can a man survive without any real sleep? Yes he can. Or at the very least some can, since I did it and I'm not the only one.
It was really frikkin’ weird but I didn’t die, I didn’t get sick and I didn’t become crazy (though a lot of people would disagree with that last statement 😉 )
Does that mean we should all do it? No. And I would recommend it for practical reasons, but here’s something to think about:
If this is possible, how much else of what we consider “absolute truth” is not as absolute or even as true as we think?
Growing up I never questioned the idea that we need 7-10 hours of sleep to function. Why would I have? It’s considered basic knowledge. Or is it?
I actually recently found out that up until 90 years ago, that wasn’t “common knowledge” at all. In fact, a lot of research suggests that during most of our history as a species we slept in 2 or more separate phases.
Doesn’t that make you wonder how many other things we never even question are simply not as set in stone as we all think they are?
Never forget, the world was once flat. And there’s a rapper out there who still thinks it is.
Just like nationalist have the ridiculous idea that their country somehow is better just because they were born in it, a lot of people have the incorrect idea that the conventional theories of the time they live in are "the final truth".
Perhaps if we’re willing to look past that and test these beliefs, just as me or other people did with conventional knowledge about sleep, in a few decades we can spend our history classes looking back at our current era and have a good laugh at the ignorance of our times like we do now when we hear about witchhunters, bloodletting or lambs growing on trees.
We’ll laugh when we look back at how stupid we were to have all these amazing rapid technological advancements but spent most of our tax money using it for military purposes instead of improving the well-being of our people and the planet we live(d?) on.
Or when we look at how we all did our best to live up to the expectations of "society" not realizing that society was actually made up of millions of other people struggling with the same thing.
And when someday we learn about how we were living in a time when it was easier than ever to be social and stay connected with each other, but how instead we rarely talked to strangers, objectified women, and did our best to make sure struggling refugees would never be able to find a place to stay, we will shake our heads in disbelief and think:
“My god, people in the early digital ages were so incredibly stupid. I'm glad we evolved past that.”
I must say that I for one, have my hopes up 😉
What else do you think we'll reconsider in the near future?
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