Do We Really Need 8 Hours Sleep?

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Nikola Tesla – the man that astounded the world with his alternating current patents claimed to only need between 2 and 3 hours of sleep in one night.

Tesla was able to cope without having a lot of sleep. It was noted in his biography “Prodigal Genius” that he once spent 84 consecutive hours within a laboratory without any form of rest.

Whilst this might be unheard of for many people, there are apparent ways in which any person can adjust their sleep cycles to need far less sleep than usual.


This is where a method known as polyphasic sleep can help. Polyphasic sleep is when a person sleeps multiple times during the day as opposed to the monophasic sleep pattern we’re all accustomed to, which involves one long sleep per day. It may not be as extreme as Tesla’s methods, but it’s certainly a start.

Pie charts showing potential polyphasic sleep patterns. The blue segments represent sleep time and the yellow segments represent wake time. Image source: Imgur
Pie charts showing potential polyphasic sleep patterns. The blue segments represent sleep time and the yellow segments represent wake time. Image source: Imgur

Sleep can be split into two different categories: Rapid-eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM). There are three stages of NREM sleep:

Stage 1: Also known as “relaxed wakefulness”. This stage of sleep happens at the beginning of sleep where most people don’t realise they’re asleep. People in this first stage of sleep generally exhibit a slow rate of eye movement.

Stage 2: In the second stage of sleep, there is short bursts of brain activity and no eye movement.

Stage 3: The third stage of sleep is a deep sleep known as a “slow wave sleep”. This stage used to be split into two separate stages, however it is now widely accepted to be a singular stage.

After these three cycles have been completed, that’s when REM sleep starts. Also known as paradoxical sleep, this sleep cycle involves a lot of eye movement and a lot of brain energy. The amount of brain energy used is the same or even greater than when a person is awake.

Polyphasic sleep works off the principle of “REM Rebound” – the idea that if a person has been deprived of an adequate amount of REM sleep, it takes them less time to enter the REM phase after falling asleep.

This, in theory, means that the overall amount of sleep needed is reduced, as the person would spend less amount of time in the non-refreshing stages 1, 2 and 3 of sleeping, and more time in the REM stage.

If this sounds too good to be true, then that might actually be the case. Despite a lot of information surrounding polyphasic sleep and how it can be beneficial, there is some evidence arguing against how well it can actually work.


In 2005, NASA carried out a study to see if polyphasic sleep garnered noticeable differences from a regular sleeping pattern. The results showed that polyphasic sleep patterns that involve longer sleep cycles were overall better than shorter sleep cycles. A rather surprising result was that it also seemed to improve memory.

“To our amazement, working memory performance benefited from the naps, [but] vigilance and basic alertness did not benefit very much,” explained David Dinges, the leader of this study.

As mentioned on the NASA news site, “For vigilance and alertness, which involve the ability to maintain sustained attention and to notice important details, they found that the total amount of sleep during 24 hours remained the most important factor.” This doesn’t bode well for the polyphasic sleep theory.


A method known has biphasic sleep seems to be a lot more beneficial and practical. Biphasic sleep involves having two sleep cycles per day as opposed to many sleep cycles. A lot of Mediterranean and Southern European countries have been doing this for a while in what’s known as a siesta.

Adopting a biphasic sleep cycle has been proven through studies to increase cardiovascular health. This method has been proven to work and comes along with much more evidence than polyphasic sleep patterns.

However, it generally varies from person to person as to what works. Many people believe in polyphasic methods they’ve tried and tested. For some, biphasic patterns work the best and some people just can’t cope with either and require a monophasic cycle – sleeping for one large duration throughout each day.

A Dreams infographic explaining the benefits of biphasic sleep. Image source: Pinterest
A Dreams infographic explaining the benefits of biphasic sleep. Image source: Pinterest

Nikola Tesla may have been able to easily cope off a very limited sleeping schedule, but it appears that the average person cannot do the same. Instead of attempting to adjust to a shorter sleeping time or adopt a polyphasic sleep pattern, it’s probably best to just get the recommended 6-8 hours a night.


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