Findings From a Prematurely Terminated Experiment

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This is more or less how I see myself. Except my hair is darker and less red. Also, my ears are smaller and lower down.

This is more or less how I see myself. Except my hair is darker and less red. Also, my ears are smaller and lower down.

One of the drawbacks of being a weirdo and a nerd who compulsively keeps records of everything is that you have an irresistible tendency to use yourself as your own guinea pig. However, one of the fun parts of being a weirdo and a nerd who compulsively keeps records of everything is that you can use yourself as your own guinea pig.

For example, I have been fascinated by a hypothesis I have frequently seen on the internet which states that a person can decrease the amount of sleep they need by splitting up their sleep time into several small intervals throughout the day. This is called a polyphasic sleep cycle, as opposed to the more normal monophasic sleep cycle, in which a person sleeps once a day for several consecutive hours. On the one hand, this idea seems ludicrous because everyone knows that people are supposed to sleep during the night and be awake during the day, right? (That is to say, humans are diurnal, which is the opposite of nocturnal.) On the other hand, though, there is some logic behind it. The explanation that is usually given points out that the benefits of sleep- that is, rest and memory organization- occur mainly in the kind of sleep known as “REM sleep”, “stage 5 sleep”, or, if you talk like a normal person, “deep sleep”. (Incidentally, this is also the type of sleep in which the majority of dreaming occurs, although not all of it.) It has been well documented that people who don’t get a lot of sleep will go through the lighter four phases of sleep quickly and spend most of their sleep time in REM sleep. Therefore, as long as someone’s sleep schedule is fairly consistent from day to day, they can function on a much lesser amount of sleep than the eight hours that is considered optimal. Fatigue and decreased cognitive ability are not so much a result of not getting enough sleep as they are a result of getting less sleep than what the individual in question has come to treat as normal. However, this doesn’t mean that someone could get away with just sleeping for a couple hours a night. Sleep patterns follow a repeating cycle. Once you’ve been in REM sleep for a little while, you temporarily revert back to a lighter sleep before returning to deep sleep. The length of these sleep cycles vary upon several factors, the most notable of which is how long you’ve already been asleep.  If you sleep according to a “normal” monophasic schedule, you will spend more time in deep sleep in the second half of the night than the first half. It can be demonstrated that the way to maximize the proportion of REM sleep to total sleep, and thereby to reduce the total amount of needed sleep, is to spread your sleep-time up into several short naps throughout the day. At first, your brain will react as if it is sleep-deprived and will practically dispense with the sleep cycle entirely in order to spend most of its sleep-time in REM sleep. Once you get used to that schedule, you will no longer feel sleep-deprived and will be able to function normally with as little as two total hours of sleep a day. That, at least, is the theory.

A helpful diagram illustrating different types of sleep schedules

A helpful diagram illustrating different types of sleep schedules

I first read about this shortly after I started college, and I thought that it was a fascinating idea, but too impractical to try. I have always been fascinating by the scientific aspect of dreams, and had gone through a phase where I had read every book I could find on the topic, so I was very familiar with the terminology of REM sleep. As far as I could tell, polyphasic sleep had some logical basis to it, even though it seems weird. Still, it is hard to find time to try out a bizarre and potentially useless experiment when it requires that you spend at least several days, if not a couple weeks, feeling like a zombie. This, I have heard, is what generally happens while you are adjusting to the schedule. Besides that, all of the information I could find was purely anecdotal. Many bloggers have tried polyphasic sleeping and have proclaimed to the world that it works well, saves a lot of time, and actually makes them feel more energetic and rested than normal sleep. I haven’t found genuine scientific studies verifying the validity of this system, though, and it is generally understood that one can’t cheat sleep, even based on the testimony of a few people on the internet.

A normal person might have either written this off as a silly idea or forgotten about it, but I’m not normal, and scientific curiosity (as well as a desire to learn to cheat sleep) compelled me to give it a try. This month seemed like the best opportunity. For the time being, my schedule is somewhat more flexible than usual, but I have a lot of stuff to do and could really use the extra time that could be saved by sleeping less. A couple weeks ago, I wrote out a detailed half-hour-by-half-hour schedule and figured out when I would have time to sleep, and determined that the best schedule would be to take a one-hour nap four times a day. If this worked, I could later cut down on sleep, maybe eventually leading down to the two-hours-a-day schedule that is apparently possible. (For the record, that schedule requires six twenty-minute naps to work, and is highly impractical because it will fail if you aren’t able to commit to taking a nap exactly every four hours.) This four-hour schedule actually didn’t seem that outrageous to me; I’m accustomed to getting about five or six hours of sleep a night, and it isn’t unusual for me to only get three or four hours. If I can make it work monophasically, it should work even better polyphasically.

Before I explain why I ended the experiment, I want to make it clear that it actually seemed to be working, and I do not by any means feel that my experience offers evidence against the hypothesis. In fact, I think it rather supports it. I was surprised by how little affect the change had on me; I didn’t feel tired and I didn’t have a hard time with any day-to-day activities, even including schoolwork and dance class. Due to other forms of compulsive record-keeping that were originally unrelated to this experiment, I can also verify that the change in sleep schedule had no measurable effect on my mood or my ability to memorize random strings of numbers in a short time-frame. (That is my method for keeping a record of the efficiency and effectiveness of my brain at any particular moment) In fact, one of only two problems I had was that I found it difficult to fall asleep at 11:00 in the morning, because that’s such a weird time to sleep. Although my experiment didn’t last long enough to produce a definite conclusion, it did suggest to me that polyphasic sleeping is at least more feasible than could be expected. Also, the part about feeling like a zombie was either an exaggeration or an effect that doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone.

The reason I stopped was basically because of the second of my two problems, which is that I didn’t like waking up from my 11:30 PM nap at 12:30 AM. 12:30 AM is a lousy time of day to wake up. I probably could have pushed through if it wasn’t for a couple statistics-skewing instances of oversleeping. This wasn’t a surprise because I hadn’t fully adjusted to the schedule. Until a couple days ago, it didn’t even add enough time to my net amount of sleep to mess up my data, but I was a bit annoyed by it. I was rather amused one time to wake up and find that my alarm clock was missing. My subconscious self, not wanting to wake up, had been unwilling to settle for merely turning the clock off, and had simply picked it up and concealed it by neatly wrapping it up in my blanket. I had been deeply enough asleep at the time that I had no memory of doing this and didn’t know where the clock was until I had spent a few minutes searching for it. Then a couple evenings ago, I was under a lot of stress and very depressed and accidentally turned a one-hour nap into an eleven-hour night of sleep, during which I dreamed up a novel experimenting with the idea that a person could escape from Life without actually dying and without actually losing one’s access to the internet. This, of course, would be the ideal state of existence. Upon waking up from this dream yesterday morning, I considered the possibility of starting my experiment over with new sets of numbers instead of ending it, or even counting those eleven hours into my data and continuing as planned. But my plans for the day were already completely disrupted, and I was starting to come to the conclusion that my brain was better wired for monophasic sleep than polyphasic. When I had thought that polyphasic sleep was the way to go, I was forgetting three things.

The first is that I hate naps and always have. I remember when my family moved during the summer when I was four, and people from the church came to babysit me and my siblings so that my parents could unpack without disturbances. These babysitters were shocked to discover that I didn’t take naps anymore, and I didn’t understand why that was a big deal.  I hadn’t taken naps since I was about two. Even then, I hated them, and my parents had a hard time getting me to sleep. My feelings towards naps are not quite as hostile as they once were, but I still find it difficult and even unpleasant to fall asleep when it’s not night, unless I’m extremely tired. In fact, I have long since come to associate daytime sleeping with being sick. This association is so strong that I sometimes feel slightly feverish and quite disoriented upon waking up after a daytime nap, even if I’m completely healthy.

The second thing I forgot is that, in my life right now, the point of sleep isn’t to get rest; it’s to hide from Life. In fact, the reason that I forgot the thing mentioned above is that I did get into the habit of taking naps last semester, but that had nothing to do with being tired. It was just that I didn’t feel like being awake because to be awake is to be conscious of the world around oneself and the world around oneself is often mean to one and deserves to be ignored disdainfully. As far as I have been able to tell, sleep is the most effective way of doing so. The most obvious alternative, which is to permanently hide in a closet somewhere, has several drawbacks. You’d get hungry and bored fairly quickly, there’d be a risk that someone would find you and make you come out, and if you were too insistent upon staying in your closet, people would come to the conclusion that you were completely nuts. For some reason, it’s easier to justify sleeping twice as much as necessary than it is to justify hiding for long stretches of time. Besides, if you live on a college campus, you have to pay for it whether you’re hiding from Life or not, so you may as well hide from Life in the comfort of your own bed.

It’s actually really strange that I forgot the third thing, because I have always felt that the third thing is pretty obvious. (I have not always referred to it as “the third thing”, though.)Although it’s true that insufficient rest leads to fatigue, the bigger problem is that waking up is hard. It’s an ordeal that requires a good deal of willpower and can only be pleasant on the very best of wonderful days. These types of days, by definition, do not occur frequently. On every other day, waking up is a great feat of endurance, and everyone who achieves it deserves congratulations. I don’t know if this is a universal rule or just something weird about me, but I personally feel that waking up is even more difficult and tiring than pulling an all-nighter. In fact, maybe I would do better to sleep for a really long time every couple days so that I can get away with waking up less often. Hmm, now that’s an idea…

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a novel to write.


More Numbers


I just finished the second phase of the experiment which I began in early June and wrote about again here after finishing the first phase. (Making links to my earlier blog posts is really fun. I have no idea why, but it is.) For the last twenty days, I have been attempting to memorize a string of twenty digits in a minute twice each day, thereby attaining forty data points. For twenty of these, I put my hand on my face while I was trying to remember the numbers, and for the other twenty, I kept my hands away from my face. The point of this experiment was to discover whether or not I think better when my hands are on my face, and I was really hoping that the answer would be yes. It would be very convenient if I could instantly make myself smarter just by putting my hand on my face.

Actually, the real reason for this experiment was to give me a reason to tape stuff like this to my walls. The important thing here is interior design. My room looks very elegant decorated like this.

Unfortunately, just like in the first phase of this experiment, my results were inconclusive. Although there did seem to be trends in the results, the actual calculations revealed that the trends weren’t large enough to actually prove anything. The differences could conceivably have been due to random chance. I think it’s worth noting, though, that this time the results were almost good enough to be statistically significant. The trends probably mean something, even though I don’t have good enough evidence to insist that they definitely do. And what the trends show is that I remember stuff better when my hands are on my face. I definitely intend to make use of this information when I’m taking the GRE in two weeks.

Now I just have to decide what the next phase of this experiment is, because I don’t want to give up this delightfully fun game.

Statistical Stuff

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Three weeks ago today, I wrote this blog post in which I described an experiment that I was about to start. The first phase of the experiment was to take twenty days, and it has recently been completed. In case you didn’t see the first post about this experiment and don’t feel like reading it now, I will briefly summarize. Over the course of twenty days, I have collected sixty data points measuring how well I was able to memorize a string of twenty digits, acquired from an online random number generator. I collected these data samples three times a day (early morning, late morning, and late afternoon) and memorized the numbers using three different methods. (sitting at a desk without my hands on my face, sitting at a desk with my hands on my face, and pacing in a circle around my room)To reduce the effects of confounding variables, the time of day and the method used did not correspond. I used the online random number generator to determine the order in which I would use the three methods each day.

My scores ranged from two to twenty, but most of them were in between eleven and fifteen, and the later ones seemed to be higher on average. Apparently, my number-memorizing skills are improving. I have just now determined that the average was 13.60 and the standard deviation was 4.25. (I am very curious to know if that’s a ‘good’ score or not, but since nobody else has done an identical experiment, as far as I know, there’s no standard for comparison) For most of the last twenty days, I have been coming to the disappointing conclusion that there is no statistically significant difference between the three different methods, but I was still curious about what I would find when I added up the scores and did the math.

At first, it looked promising. The averages for the three different methods were 12.68, 14.10, and 13.24, which seems to be different enough to actually mean something. Out of curiosity, I also calculated the individual averages for the three different times of day and got 14.95, 14.48, and 11.23 respectively, which verifies my assumption that I tend to kind of be a morning person. But since I already knew that, the data that I was really looking at was the difference between the three memorization methods.  At that point in my statistical analysis, I thought I had actually discovered something interesting.

Unfortunately, the thing with the standard deviation messed that up. 4.25 is a pretty large standard deviation for something with a 20-point scale. The definition of ‘statistically significant’ depends upon where you want to set the margin of error, but 4.25 is a pretty reasonable number to use for that, and it makes the math really easy if margin of error is equal to one standard deviation. That means that the differences in my data are not significant unless they fall outside of the range from 9.35 to 17.85, which they do not.

Now, I suppose I could calculate the within standard deviations rather than using the overall standard deviation, but I’m pretty sure that my results wouldn’t be any different. Each method had approximately the same range, and since I already know they had similar averages, their standard deviations are probably going to be pretty close also, and I’ll have to reach the same anticlimactic conclusion, which is that there wasn’t a significant difference.

In case anyone is still interested in that slight little insignificant difference, I can inform you that the best score came from memorizing the numbers while sitting at the desk with my hands on my face, and the worst score came from memorizing the numbers while sitting at the desk without my hands on my face. I’m not entirely convinced that there isn’t something to my hypothesis that having one’s hands on one’s face somehow improves cognitive ability.

This calls for some further tests.