This Saturday marked the completion of our sleep experiment.
For the past four weeks we have been going to bed at 8pm, and not getting up again until after 7am the following morning. Our aim was to reproduce Wehr’s results from a remarkable experiment during the 90s, which markedly changed current understanding of human sleep patterns. Wehr’s subjects were forced to sleep according to the winter-night hours, which meant retiring to bed at 5.30, and not rising until 9.30am the following day. They were forced to spend 14 hours in bed for four weeks.
In our case 14 hours wasn’t entirely practical, and I suspect my employer would not have been amenable in allowing me to reduce my hours so I could go home and sleep. So, we modified our experiment to 11 hours sleep. We woke, went to work, came home, ate hurriedly prepared dinners, and went to bed. For four weeks.
The first two weeks we mostly slept through the night, as we paid off our sleep debt. Wehr observed the same in his subjects. It took them a couple of hours to fall asleep, but once asleep, they slept through the night until morning.
It was after the second week that we started experiencing segmented sleep. We started feeling sleepy as our new bedtime neared, and once bedded sleep came more easily. Usually I don’t go to bed until well after 10.30pm, and then rise with the alarm around 6am. Consequently, I’m usually exhausted, and barely have the opportunity to collect my thoughts for the day before falling asleep in what seems to be minutes. Going to bed without a chronic sleep debt suddenly became a relaxing experience, allowing me to fully process my thoughts from the current day, think about the next, and have them all mashed together in a fictitious wonderland as they interacted with my hypnagogic sleep fairy keen to entice me into the unconscious world.
Once asleep, both of us would awaken some six hours later around 2 am, often feeling completely awake. This too is what Wehr found. His subjects would have a bout slow-wave sleep. This is what keeps you alert, and its absence is what causes that hung-over feeling the following day. After the slow-wave sleep, Wehr’s subjects reported a lucid trance-like wakeful period, deeply pleasant, lasting a couple of hours, before they eventually fell into REM sleep.
This is where our results deviated. The trance-like, much anticipated deeply pleasant state, never arrived. Instead, I found myself busily occupied with work-related issues, while beau was determined to prove various mathematical formulas such as the golden ratio.
Following, our rather wakeful period, we would both eventually fall back asleep until morning. This second bout of sleep was more interesting, and was where I began experiencing deeply vivid dreams, not something I normally do (or if I do, do not remember). They’d start off gently enough. Maybe I’d meet a few databases with the personalities vaguely matching some of my colleagues, before I’d then embark on fantastic journeys with the Terminator, a couple of rebellious corbels, a dog named Walter, a herd of dairy cows, some which resembled partially evolved lizards, and the occasional friendly spaceship. And, more curiously, even now I still remember most of the details.
I never knew my brain had capacity for such creativity.
Whether there were more noticeable affects of 11 hours sleep during the day, is a little more difficult to ascertain. What I can report though, is that I don’t think I have yawned for four weeks. While, somewhat disappointingly, I did not experience the hyperactive energy of a child, I also never felt tired. Work was a breeze.
Another curious side-effect, was our heightened sensitivity to caffeine. And, as beau discovered, drinking three cups of coffee after having paid off his sleep debit, will be accompanied by some lonely morning hours perusing reddit.
Perhaps normally we are in a chronic sleep-deprived daze, and need the caffeine to temporarily experience full consciousness, if only briefly?
In conclusion our experiment was an overall pleasant and enjoyable one, though not always practical. For the past two days I have gone to bed 1 – 2 hours later, and I have appreciated having the extra hours in the evening, whether they be spent blogging or having a beer with friends. However, experiencing life without sleep debt, without feeling chronically fatigued, and having the opportunity to really experience dreaming, I’m now more committed to go to bed early when time allows, particularly if that time would otherwise be spent ingesting Internet trash.
Sleep. Often neglected, but one of the three joys of life. Comes highly recommend.