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Counting Sleep | Annie Lu

Counting Sleep

by Annie Lu

According to TIME Magazine, about one third of Americans do not sleep enough every night. For teenagers in particular, those z’s can become very hard to come by in addition to cycling through school, homework, and extracurriculars each day. Despite the fact that teenagers are generally recommended to get about eight to ten hours of sleep nightly, a study reported by the National Sleep Foundation found that only 15% reported sleeping even eight and a half hours on a school night. And this is no surprise—there are only so many hours in each day, so how can people possibly maximize their productivity when seemingly wasting so much valuable time lying catatonic on a rumpled mattress?

That’s not to make the assumption that sleep is biologically useless; in fact, that sleep is required for us to solidify memories and filter junk out of our brains is the reason the dilemma between sleep and work exists. Humans tend to sleep in one uninterrupted period (monophasic) over 24 hours, though the amount each person sleeps varies, of course. In contrast, the manner in which many other animals sleep is called polyphasic, or sleeping multiple times (usually more than two) throughout the day. In humans, polyphasic sleep can be found in those with irregular sleep-wake syndrome, which is a sleep disorder usually caused by neurological damage. Infants and the elderly may also suffer from interrupted sleep. However, a more common instance of polyphasic sleep is biphasic, where an individual sleeps twice in one day. This can occur in the form of a short nap during the perceived daytime, and is still quite common in countries such as Spain (and other countries under Spanish influence), where the nap is called a siesta, and China.

Why is this relevant? Cases have been made that scientifically scheduled napping can maximize the energy replenished by sleeping while also decreasing the total necessary time spent asleep. This would leave more time in the day to engage in other activities, while supposedly keeping you well-rested. In advocacy of polyphasic sleeping, American Renaissance man Buckminster Fuller reported sleeping in 30-minute intervals every six hours, which he claimed improved his daily performance in life. But while many self-experimenters report positive experiences with polyphasic sleep, scientific research on the empirical benefits are ambiguous.

A 2016 article by Roger Ekirch, published in the Oxford Sleep Research Society, provided evidence that segmented sleep was beneficial. He also took a more historical, anthropological approach in examining why it is we seem to have evolved into the monophasic tradition. Ekirch contended that the monophasic sleep culture prevalent today was brought on by the modern work day. The industrial era with its factory clock and full-day jobs, along with the “artificial illumination technology” of today’s digital age, force us to sleep one solid block at night. Prior to the industrial revolution, he argues, polyphasic sleep patterns were the norm—another way in which technology has forever altered human life. Other empirical studies posit that napping can detriment cognitive development in young children, along with increasing the probability of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes in adults.

It is evident that the validity of biphasic sleep is under fire—there is not enough solid research to back either side of the debate more than the other. Do we sleep once a day, twice a day, or more? The question of how humans, and teenagers especially, can tackle the issue of chronic sleep deprivation remains. For us to channel our sharpest productivity, it seems necessary to sacrifice some z’s; but for us to remain healthy in the long run, it seems that further solutions need to be explored.


  1. Ekirch, A. Rober, PhD. “Segmented Sleep in Preindustrial Societies,” Sleep, Volume 39, Issue 3, Oxford Academic. 1 March 2016.

  2. White, Adrian; medically reviewed by Marcin, Judith, MD. “What Is Biphasic Sleep?” healthline. 8 September 2017.

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