Should you "hack" your sleep pattern?
Living like a genius and finding ways to "optimize" sleep is not necessarily good for your health. Here's why.
Vanessa Hill is a video host and speaker who has won acclaim as the creator and host of the popular PBS web series, BrainCraft, which educates viewers on psychology, neuroscience and more. She has also hosted the podcast LaunchPod and had her work featured in publications like TIME, Scientific American and The Huffington Post. She earned her Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of New South Wales in 2008 before earning her Master of Science in communication from The Australian National University in 2013.
VANESSA HILL: Sleep is essential for our bodily functions, for our learning and memory, to keep our brain and body healthy. So, that is one reason to remember that sleep is super important. We have been doing it since the dawn of time. So there are different types of sleep patterns and what you normally engage in every single night is called monophasic sleep. That's when you just sleep in one chunk whether it be six hours or eight hours. I hope that you are sleeping more than seven hours a night because that's the scientific recommendation. That's called monophasic sleep. But, we haven't always been this way. There is some evidence to suggest that people in pre-industrialized societies used to sleep in what's called biphasic sleep patterns, which is when they have two chunks of sleep over a 24 hour period. And there's also something called polyphasic sleep which is a pattern where you sleep in three or more phases over the course of a 24 hour period.
So you do vary in this pattern throughout your life. Newborn babies, for example, are great polyphasic sleepers. They sleep for two hours and then awake for an hour and then asleep for two hours. They're asleep most of the time except it's in three or more periods over a 24 hour cycle and then that kind of changes into a monophasic sleep by the time they're five or six years old and they stop napping during the day. Sometimes when elderly people can't sleep in one chunk they do engage in a biphasic sleep pattern where you have two sleeps throughout the day.
For you when you fall asleep it seems like you're unconscious. You don't really know what's going on but there is a lot that is happening in your brain. So, there's four different stages of sleep. Two are light sleep and then there's deep sleep and REM sleep. You cycle through these different stages roughly every 90 minutes on average over the night, but your sleep cycle can vary from 60 minutes to 120 minutes depending on the person. When you fall asleep you cycle through these two stages of light sleep, then deep sleep and REM sleep and over the course of the night you'll go through a number of these sleep cycles. Now, something that is really interesting is people sometimes think that you're getting the same amount of sleep when you're in each of these different stages of sleep, but you actually get more deep sleep in the first half of the night and then more REM sleep in the second half of the night. You do change how much time you're spending in these different sleep stages over the course of the night.
It's natural for us to vary in these patterns across the course of the lifespan but monophasic sleep is the most beneficial for adults where you're sleeping in one chunk throughout the night. That way you can progress the most naturally through all of your sleep stages and spend the best amount of time for your body in all of those different sleep stages though there is kind of a rising fad, almost like a fad diet but for sleep. You could call it, I don't know, a fad sleep diet where a lot of adults who should probably be sleeping in monophasic sleep want to try out biphasic or polyphasic sleep to try to hack sleep to get the best out of sleep in a smaller amount of time which is actually quite concerning because you can't really do this with sleep. Something that is different is that our ancestors did have some different sleep patterns so biphasic sleep is one I mentioned before is when you actually sleep in two periods instead of one eight hour chunk. It's thought that this was really common in hunter-gatherer societies for reasons of protection. If you have one person asleep and another person awake they can watch out for any potential threats. Also, in pre-industrialized society there wasn't an emphasis on the eight hour workday or then what was probably the 10 or 12 hour workday where people only had a certain amount of time to get all of their sleep, particularly in areas that were quite warm and agriculture heavy people would have a siesta and nap for one or two hours in the middle of the day and then have a shorter sleep at night. It thought that biphasic sleep was a lot more popular in pre-industrialized societies. It doesn't mean that everyone did it but there are a lot of records of a first sleep and a second sleep and people doing a lot of creative work in between those in the middle of the night as well.
Now with a lot of us working nine to five jobs, perhaps pre-2020 we were working nine to five jobs. That really encourages people to have a monophasic sleep schedule where they're sleeping in one big chunk. So some people who do creative work may sleep in a shorter chunk throughout the night and then have naps during the day. I have tried this a little bit and find that I am just really groggy throughout the day if I am napping and then waking up. It is recommended that you get seven hours of sleep at once throughout the night. So if you are going to try this please make sure you are getting your seven hours and then you could supplement that with a nap throughout the day as well. Sleep is very personal and there are some weird and wonderful stories of historical figures adopting some pretty wild sleep patterns. One of the most famous ones is Nikola Tesla who is reported to have only slept for two hours a night. It is I will say very difficult to find out how much sleep historical figures were getting because there's not a lot of sources that actually tell us scientifically what was gong on with them. But there is one biography that says Tesla would get four to five hours of rest a day but he would only sleep for two hours of that time that he was resting. So he engaged in this pretty extreme form of polyphasic sleep called the Uberman sleep schedule where he would actually sleep in 20 minutes naps over the course of the day so he would get two hours sleep by the end of the day.
Another person who followed this very strict polyphasic sleep pattern was Leonardo da Vinci who reportedly did 20 minutes naps every three to four hours so I think it's tempting to say I want to sleep like a genius. I'm only going to get two or three hours sleep and what that will do is wreak havoc on your brain. I think there are these fads that a lot of celebrities or geniuses follow. An example that I love to give is that Steve Jobs was a fruitarian but it doesn't mean we should all go away and only eat fruit because that would be really bad for our digestive system and our diet and no nutritionist or dietitian would ever recommend just eating fruit. So the kind of same thing applies to sleep. No one would recommend that you try to get two hours sleep a night because it can be really damaging for your health. It's reported that Winston Churchill also slept for five or six hours a night and then he would take a nap after having a glass of whiskey. This is a good time to talk about alcohol because alcohol can help you fall asleep really quickly as was the case with Churchill, but it can actually limit how restful and restorative your sleep is so you don't get as much deep sleep after you've had alcohol which is really good quality sleep where your heart rate slows down, your breathing is really slow and your brain is really cleaning up a lot of plaque and other more toxic things that get produced during the day doing a big waste removal.
So, when you do have alcohol you probably know from when you hang up and have that nasty little thing called a hangover that the sleep you get isn't as restorative as when you don't drink alcohol. I think something that's really important to think about when we're looking at these sleep patterns of historical figures is that Nikola Tesla, Leonardo da Vinci, they never had to drive a car. They never had to operate heavy machinery. They never had to do a lot of the things that we do in our modern world. And when you get less than six hours of sleep a night your risk for having a car accident increases by a lot. So please take that into consideration as a general safety message that if you're thinking about doing one of these things it really puts you and other people at a lot of risk which is something that Tesla didn't have to think about. I think it's where educating more people about the importance of sleep and sleep health and people start to think about how they can make changes to it kind of like having a fad diet or something like that. How can we optimize sleep? How can we get more out of sleep in a shorter amount of time?
And putting a lot of emphasis on this hustle culture that we need to be productive all of the time. Sleep is the one thing that you do not need to optimize other than making sure you don't have light in your bedroom, it's a nice, cool temperature for you to sleep in and that you're comfortable and getting good quality sleep. Please don't feel like you actually need to hack your sleep or make it better. If you're sleeping well, keep doing what you're doing.
If you enjoyed this video please check out my video on my channel BrainCraft on lucid dreaming. There will be a link down in the description.
- A seemingly common trait of geniuses like Nikola Tesla and Leonardo da Vinci is that they operated (and excelled) on very few hours of sleep per night. BrainCraft's Vanessa Hill explains that while unorthodox sleep patterns may have worked for them, your mileage may vary. Attempting to sleep like a genius could "wreak havoc" on your brain and be detrimental to your health.
- There are three different types of sleep patterns: monophasic sleep (one chunk at night for a recommended 6-8 hours), biphasic sleep (two chunks in a 24-hour period), and polyphasic sleep (three or more chunks in a 24-hour period). While sleeping, you cycle through four stages: two light, one deep, and one REM.
- Switching sleep patterns can disrupt these stages, as can consuming alcohol. So while attempting to maximize your creative time, you may be denying your brain and body the time it needs to recover, which can be dangerous.
- Comparing Sleep Habits Across The World - Big Think ›
- How you sleep predicts your personality, new study finds - Big Think ›
- With Polyphasic Sleep, You Can Thrive on as Little as Two Hours ... ›
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Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.