Sleeping Like Superman: I Witnessed One Man's Journey Into Madness

Last week, Kotaku Australia editor Mark Serrels set out to accomplish something massive: to adjust his sleep schedule from a solid eight hours per night into what's know as a polyphasic sleep schedule. That is, to go from sleeping eight hours a night, to having 20-minute naps every four hours. It took a week before the the experiment was called off, and what I witnessed during that time was one man's slow descent into madness.

The schedule that Mark would be keeping is known as the Uberman schedule. It comes from the German word Ubermensch and means "overman", hence the sleeping like Superman experiment.

Day One: Smiles All Round

After consulting his doctor, his friends and his wife, Serrels brought his sleeping bag and pillow into the office, set himself up a little nap area in our test lab (very apt) and started on his schedule.

From the very first night, though, Serrels found himself demoralised, and it showed the next day. This was the start of a worrying trend that would quickly accelerate. A trend that would bottom out in four days time and leave the once-buoyant Mark Serrels a tired, demoralised husk of his former self.

Day Two to Four: The Hurdles

Mark posted video diaries between days two and four, and watching them in quick succession, it's terrifying to see what a lack of sleep does to a person.

He describes a difficulty stringing sentences together, unsettling dreams during sleep, symptoms that can be likened to drunkenness and, of course, the intense exhaustion that goes along with sleeping for two hours a day.

Watching an exhausted person go to sleep for 20 minutes, only to wake up almost as exhausted as they were before they went to bed is really disheartening. You just want to help them out with a coffee.

As the days went on, Mark became distant and he said that micro sleeps were a constant problem.

Day Five: The Crash

Serrels crashed out of his sleeping like Superman experiment in spectacular fashion at the end of the week. To this day, there are still two whole hours of Mark's life that he can't remember. Was he asleep or awake? Did he go outside? Was he moving around his house? Nobody will know.

The scariest development was how he had started doing things without even knowing it. That's how exhausted he was. At the end of the day five video blog, an alarm goes off on Mark's iPhone. He doesn't know if he set it and why a week later.

Can It Be Done?

Mark Serrels is a determined guy. If he wants to get something done, he's in both the mental state and the physical shape to achieve his goals. He's got mental willpower like Iron Men have strength on a kneeboard, and he still failed.

The experiment was too dangerous to continue, and it was a relief to know he had stopped.

This isn't to say that a successful polyphaisic sleep state can't be achieved. Mark over the course of his experiment spoke to a few people who achieved a Superman-like schedule and stuck to it, so it can be done.

But should it be done? In my (non-medical) opinion, it's something that needs intense thought before undertaking. Definitely consult a doctor before doing it.

Polyphaisic sleep is a noble idea, but it seems like something that would only suit those needing to do it for a short amount of time. University students cramming for exams or assessments, shift workers looking to pull a double or someone with no signifiant other who will spend the night waiting for you to come to bed.

Have you tried polyphaisic sleep? Did you succeed?

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Comments

    Management would never allow anyone to pull a double shift as it would expose the company to liability. Mind you I have stayed awake for 30 hours for fun (lan gaming) driving afterwards was a nightmare. Won't be doing that again. Next time I'm having a nap between the matches.

      24 hours with no sleep slows your reactions to the equivalent of a .08 BAC, so probably best not to drive after staying up for 30

    It can work but the first weeks are the most difficult. After that, you should be fine.

    All I know is what I read from 4 hour body.

    30 ish hours is the max I have done. Also at a Lan. I remember walking around and having a microsleep. Thought I saw 2 people I knew, looked again and it was an empty corner, next thing I know I was on my ass. I can only assume I fell asleep while walking around.

    I wouldn't recommend it

    I've done 30 to 40 hour stints on a few occasions, generally either pull a all nighter drinking, then just keep going into the next day or something like that. All motor skill goes out the window after about 20 to 30, anything above 30 & severe over-tired sets in & I'd say feels like being mildly drunk.

    Back in my late teens I did about 4 to 5 days straight without sleeping properly, ended up hospitalized, hallucinating & generally totally tripping balls - no drugs required. As Serrels said, the dreams & mind becomes totally warped with that level of mental exhaustion.

    Kudos to Mark for attempting it. Apparently easing into it helps a little - so starting off with 2 shorter sleeps a day, then 3 even shorter naps, then 4, 5 and so on until you're doing 6 x 20min.

    I studied architecture and did 36 hours a few times. Worst. I fell asleep standing on the train and did this really awkward twitch like I had just been tasered.

    None of you took enough speed.

      A challenger appears

    He spoke to several people who claimed to have done it successfully. Talk is cheap.

    Sounds like madness to start with.....

    Not having done this experiment I can't talk about The sleep of Der Ubermencsh.... however..

    I know that no sleep for a couple of days can lead to erratic behaviour....

    I drove all the way across Europe one time in around 32 hours.....
    Starting in Tallinn at ~3pm one day, I drove to Germany, around 2pm (that is 23 hours) I had a sleep for 2 hours (in a macdonalds car park around Hanover =1750 km) then drove to Calais....

    2 hours on a ferry (boarding etc) with no sleep, then driving right across england, arriving at my destination at around 8.30pm (1000 km)

    2750 km plus a car ferry with 4 hours sleep..... in ~30 hours.... Concentrating the whole time..

    I arrived at my GF place, and while getting my stuff out of the car I passed out....

    That is exhaustion..... Before passing out, I was noted to be a little more incoherent than usual.

    Prior to that I had done dumb things like drive from Adelaide to Brisbane non stop.... that included several near misses with sleep attempting to intervene..... (I had been used to driving 1500km non stop, so what is another 500 km.... it could be the death of you....)

    Since then on any long trips I have deliberately ensured that I got 6-8 hours sleek in every 24 hours, avoiding the perils of over tiredness.. (Sydney to Perth a couple of times, take 3 days with decent rest breaks.. Non stop driving takes around 40 hours (not done this solo))

    Studying for exams is one thing, I have worked all night, (only sleeping the next night) many times, or . but then you have the option of having a break for a few minutes at any time.. Driving or doing other hazardous activities it is a bit harder...... for example.. driving all night and then going to work (a couple of times) just don't tell the boss that you have just Driven from Adelaide to Canberra before work.

    So yes I can relate to this guy having trouble with only 2 hours broken sleep per day for a week....
    This is why Truck Drivers must have 12 hours not driving, with 7 hours continuous.. and one day (24 hours continuous) off a week... (NSW regulations)
    Fatigue adds up, but you cant build up a surplus of sleep.

      This one time I crossed Europe, took 7 hours, and I slept through it

      Aeroplane?

      You crazy bastard

    Try the Everyman schedule! 3 hour core sleep at night plus 3 twenty minute naps spread out the rest of the day. It's a lot more manageable. Or, 4.5 hours at night with 2 twenty minute naps works nice too.

      If I was to do it again, just for personal reasons, I would probably try the Everyman schedule.

    I once went on a 4 day bender
    after the 3rd day the insomnia really starts kicking in I could only imagine that without assistance of drugs it would be far worse

    For the last 10-15 years by sleep schedule has mostly been 1-3am sleep. 6:30am wake. I'm a champiozzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    I went through infantry training about 15 years ago. Towards the end you do a 2 week exercise where you 'dig in'. You build an entrenched position from which you do patrols. So you are patrolling all day and then digging and sandbagging at night.
    At the end of the exercice you get attacked and have to perform a retreat from the position.

    I remember standing in a trench on lookout on the night that we were expecting the attack.
    It was quiet and still.

    I started swaying around and hearing noises and seeing shapes in the dark bush around me. I was totally tripping balls. After a few minutes I just kind of shook myself out of it and was back to normal.
    Can't imagine how terrifying this would be in an actual combat situation.
    Sleep = awesome

    I did this.
    http://www.jdiscrazy.com/2011/09/42.html
    It was relatively easy. I did 7am to 5pm at my office. 5.30pm to midnight at a cinema, showered and got back to the office around 1am, worked until 5pm, then 5.30 to midnight at the cinema again. I went home and watched telly for a couple of hours before feeling tired.

    When I was in college, this was my routine for months:

    Weekdays:
    6:00 AM --- get up
    8:00 AM - 2:00 AM --- Be alive/awake/whatever

    Weekends:
    Sleep a lot.

    My point is that 4 hours per night is possible when you're younger, or even 'not very busy'.

    Kudos for having a crack at it, Mr Serrels!

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