Question asked by Neal:

Are Rich’s sleeping patterns OK? asked by Neal


Answered by Prof. Dava Newman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow

The sleep pattern represented by Rich’s Actiwatch data is what sleep scientists refer to as a polyphasic sleep pattern. This occurs when an individual sleeps for several, usually short, periods of time during a 24-hour period. These periods can range from 10-20 minutes up to 3-4 hours. Advocates of polyphasic sleep claim it allows them to get less than the suggested 7-9 hours of sleep a day and still feel rested.

In Rich’s case he has been forced into a polyphasic sleep pattern due to the conditions he is in. The need to constantly monitor and pilot his boat keeps him from sleeping 7-9 hours at a time. Instead, the Actiwatch data suggests that Rich is sleeping for 1-3 hours at a time to get a total of about 5-6 hours a day, but this might be really optimistic.

Dr. Claudio Stampi, one of the leading experts on polyphasic sleep patterns, and also an avid sailor, has studied polyphasic sleep patterns in individuals who have to operate under continuous work environments such as soldiers or long distance sailors. His research suggests that during polyphasic sleep it is still possible to experience the sleep stages in the same relative amounts as one would in normal sleep, and that physical and mental performance only slightly to moderately decreases when compared to normal sleep.

So the simple answer is yes Rich’s sleep patterns are probably OK given the conditions that he is in although he is most likely not operating at peak performance. The more complicated answer is something we still don’t completely understand, and that more research still needs to be performed on sleep cycles. (thanks to Matt Gildner for his contribution)

[Editor’s note: In his 2004 solo trans-Atlantic sail, Rich Wilson had his sleep monitored by Dr. Claudio Stampi, the doctor referred to in the above answer. Click here to see the sleep information from the 2004 voyage.]