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It’s well-documented that, as society has changed over the last centuries, so too have our sleeping patterns. Biphasic sleep, taking two shorter rests in the day, used to be the norm and, well before that, our caveman ancestors would take short naps interspersed with hunting and gathering.
The point is, if we were not constrained by rigid work schedules, then it wouldn't necessarily be harmful to tinker with the “standard” formula for sleep. In fact, some of history’s most famous characters have slept in unusual ways. Here we take a look at five who have defied conventional logic and succeeded regardless!
Dali was a Spanish surrealist artist, whose bizarre paintings of molten landscapes, titanic creatures and religious scenes were meant to portray a “dream reality”. But, for a man who was obsessed with the subconscious and the world of dreams, Dali didn't visit very often.
The famously egotistical artist believed sleep was a waste of time and avoided it as much as possible. To explore the dream state, Dali would stay awake for days, and allow himself to drop off for a second or two to explore the boundary between dream and reality. He would do this by sitting in a chair holding a heavy key. If he slept the key would drop onto an upturned bowl, instantly waking him!
Most of us require somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night - a non-negotiable amount. But there are a few exceptions, including “The Iron Lady”, who was UK Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990. Thatcher was known for never sleeping more than 4 hours a night, and had little tolerance for those who couldn't keep up with her non-stop work schedule.
Thatcher would keep officials working until 2am on a speech, before waking them at 6am fresh as a daisy. Her outstanding work ethic meant she was always “the most informed person in the room”, according to biographers.
Nikola Tesla/Leonardo da Vinci
Both da Vinci (1452-1519) and Tesla (1856 - 1943) were visionary inventors, whose contributions were overlooked in their own lifetimes, but they shared something else in common. Both men adhered to an “Uberman” sleep cycle; taking a 20 minute nap every four hours (a total of two hours sleep per day).
To put it mildly, Tesla was quite mad and da Vinci an eccentric; but they both made revolutionary contributions to science. At one point Tesla claimed to have worked non-stop for 84 hours, but his relentless work and sleep deprivation contributed to a mental breakdown at age 25.
The Uberman sleep cycle, a form of polyphasic sleep, still has adherents today, but most experts agree it isn’t particularly healthy.
Winston Churchill regularly tops polls of “Greatest Britons” and it's not difficult to see why. At various times a soldier, reporter, escaped POW and (of course) war leader, Churchill was also known for his dazzling wit and fondness for whisky.
But this British icon adopted a rather continental practice in his sleeping habits - taking a 2 hour “siesta” each day at 5pm. This nap, Churchill claimed, allowed him to get a 1.5 day’s work out of every 24 hours. We've discussed the power of napping in a previous post, and Churchill used it to work deep into the night.
Michael Phelps, “The Flying Fish”, is the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals, including 18 Golds. Now retired from competition, Phelps was always known for not taking himself too seriously, which led to a string of tabloid headlines.
Phelps, like many performance athletes, knows that healthy sleep is a crucial performance advantage. It is especially important for athletes, because it isn't until the deepest phases of sleep that “procedural memory”, our almost subconscious ability to perform motor tasks, is replenished.
While training, Phelps would sleep in a pressurised chamber which simulates air pressure at around 10,000 ft. At high altitudes, oxygen is scarcer and the body acclimatises by producing more red blood cells. Back at ground level, this translates to a measurable boost in performance.