Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Polyphasic on the Road? 10 Lessons

I've closely followed the topic of polyphasic sleep on the Yahoo Uberman mailing list for some time, and for a few months last year, was practicing a variant of it -- naps (or attempts thereof) throughout the day, with a four-hour "core" sleep period at night. I'm convinced I can do four-hour-core polyphasic, and have been intrigued about whether that schedule makes for much easier transition to uberman sleep. I've also been curious about how polyphasic sleep might help manage (or even, in the case of uberman sleep, even eliminate) bad jet lag, and about how to manage polyphasic sleep while on travel.

My interest in polyphasic sleep and long-distance travel is far from theoretical. I live in Tokyo, and I fly once or twice a year to California. This is a hell of a timezone difference, at least for me -- 7 or 8 hours, depending on daylight savings time, and in the wrong direction: eastward. I'm perhaps worse than most when it comes to recovering from jet lag. Also, I seldom get more than a few hours of sleep before I travel, and have trouble sleeping on long flights if I don't get a chance to lie down. I usually arrive in California with not only jet lag, but with about 12 hours of sleep-debt. Throw the stresses of travel on top of that, bad airline food, the air inside a 747 on a long flight (too dry, too warm for me) and change of diet upon arrival, and I often get sick -- I get a cold, or some GI tract disturbance, or both. I've been on some two-week "vacations" to California where I've only started enjoying myself a few days before having to return to Tokyo. What a waste! If there were, on these trips, some way to get less (and reasonably high-quality) sleep, and more waking time, and suffer less stress, and .... well, you get the picture. Maybe polyphasic, and particularly uberman, solves more of these problems than it creates.

On my current trip to California -- I've been in Berkeley now for about a day and a half -- I have more to report about errors and pitfalls in the experiment than about successes, though I still imagine I'll ultimately reap some benefits. This is the first of a series (?) of postings here about how things are going. Not many of the likely readers of this blog live in East Asia, but probably many have taken a trip or two to Europe from a western state in the U.S., or from Europe to East/Pacific Asia. Consider the following entry as a kind of bug list. You might laugh at the kinds of errors I make, but there may be others that didn't occur to you. It could prove useful to more than just me.

I had planned to return to four-hour-core polyphasic before I traveled, perhaps even attempting a transition to uberman if that went well. Ah, the best-laid plans of insomniac mice and ambitious men .... I felt I was enjoying some success with the transition to four-hour-core when I stupidly went out early Saturday evening into the first snow of the season in Tokyo, in search of a tri-band phone to use during my trip. That errand could have waited. It should have. I slipped on an icy sidewalk, causing minor trauma to my right wrist and shoulder. That night, I felt I deserved some serious sack-time. And took it. I slept monophasic on Sunday as well. But this was while I was on a schedule to fly out Wednesday evening. Not an auspicious start.

Lesson 1: if you know you'll be traveling weeks before you travel -- even if you don't have a precise travel date set -- and if you aren't polyphasic yet, get onto your polyphasic schedule and stick with it. If you're on four-hour core, try to go to uberman if you think it will be manageable on your trip.

Lesson 2: be careful about anything that might throw you off -- use the added time in your life to avoid doing anything that could derail you.

The injuries slowed me down in some of my travel preparations (yes, I seem to be healing quite nicely, thank you for your concern), but I must admit I wasn't very organized in those preparations anyway. I've never been Mr. Planning. There were a few items on my long to-do list that I crossed off simply because I didn't get around to them. There are others that I'll have to do in California because I didn't finish them in Tokyo. I get bad "travel fever" -- I can't settle my mind easily, and often run off to do the fun things instead of the top-priority tasks. Or (as with the injury) I'll set my mind to a high-priority task and inflexibly carry it out, without regard for risks.

Lesson 3: be very organized about how you approach travel preparations. Even with all that can be done over the phone 24x7, and on the Web, there will be added real-time constraints in your life -- such as when certain shops are open, etc., -- that can conflict with your ordinary nap schedule if you aren't careful. Get a daily planner (if you don't already have one -- this is still on my to-do list) and attend to it anal-retentively. Make entries in pencil, so that it's easy to reschedule the errand and do some other task instead if something comes up.

Lesson 4: if you're prone to "travel fever", schedule some time for meditation and relaxation.

The night before I traveled, I was headed out of the house, neglected to turn the hallway light on in the corridor leading to the front door, and in the darkness, slammed into a bathroom door that had been left ajar. It didn't hurt, not much anyway (though my wrist/shoulder injuries didn't either at first), but like that earlier incident (when I heard a snapping that seemed to come from my shoulder), there was an ominous sound. Something tinkled on the floor. When I got the lights on, I saw it: a lens had popped out of the frame of my glasses. The underwire holding the lens had snapped. Oh no. Time enough to get it repaired? Probably not. Luckily I found an old pair that was about as good, for the time being, and I could get a repair after my arrival. Even if repairs would have to wait, this incident was nothing compared to the disaster of a major laptop crash, for which I'm still not prepared.

Lesson 4: go through everything you really need, and ask yourself: do I have a backup, in case something goes wrong with this? This is a good travel-prep idea anyway, of course, but being polyphasic on the road makes it even more important. Everything that can go wrong can be a source of uncontrollable real-time conflicts with your nap schedule.

When I got to the airport -- well ahead of time, as is my one good travel habit -- I found a lounge area apparently suitable for napping. Big, comfortable chair, a table I could put my feet up on, seemingly away from the hubbub. In my first nap attempt, however, I put on my sleepmask, shoved in my earplugs, settled in, and made an unpleasant discovery: airports can be really noisy places. The ear is deceptively akin to the eye, in terms of adjusting for intensity of stimuli. In airports, there are frequent PA blasts, planes are taking off not far away, there are crowds, and if anybody is talking nearyby, they are (unconsciously?) raising their voices to compensate. The noise (on top of my travel fever -- my body temperature literally goes up), was a major impediment to napping. I don't think I succeeded on either of my attempts, though polyphasics know that your memory can play tricks on you. I don't have a car in Japan -- I would have been better off retreating to the parking garage and napping in the back seat, if I had a car.

Lesson 5: if you'll be spending an amount of time at the airport that spans one or more of your scheduled naps, make it a priority to check out the quietest place -- not necessarily the most comfortable place -- to nap. Even if that's on the floor in some weird utility corridor, and you have to bring one of those self-inflating foam mats, it's better than contending with the noise.

Lesson 6: earplugs that usually work in your choice home-base nap locations may not be up to the job in other places. It might be worth investing in a set of headphones that block noise well, an added layer over your earplugs. (These kinds of headphones are probably less likely to damage your hearing that the less bulky kind, hence probably a good investment anyway.)

When I got to the airport, all I had for purposes of either supplementing or substituting for airline food was some dried blueberries, some almonds, and a croissant. This was not nearly enough. Stupidly, I didn't buy anything else when I could have. Successful polyphasic sleepers end up saying it over and over: diet is important. Besides, your overall intake tends to be higher, but do airlines know that? And if your GI tract doesn't take well to travel, it's doubly important -- stomach pain and diarrhea are yet more "real-time constraints" on your nap schedule. Besides, they're a bummer. I have both, right now.

Lesson 6: figure out how you're going to maintain the diet that has worked for you -- on the day of the flight, on the flight, afterward. If you can see well in advance that you're likely to need substitutes, get adjusted to those substitutes well before you fly.

When I got out of SFO via BART, the SF Bay Area's miserable excuse for a commuter train network (sorry, I'm spoiled, living in Tokyo), I discovered that a seat on BART isn't a really great place to nap -- it's about like an airport lounge, really. Visitors to Tokyo ofen marvel at how so many seem to be fast asleep, then wake up and dash off the train at their appointed stop. I could never do that. I might have been better off looking around SFO for a good place to get my next nap. I cleared customs at SFO at about 11 AM. I didn't need to be at my hotel, a few hours away, any time soon.

Lesson 7: plan for your naps on arrival -- before you arrive. Make several contingency plans. Some airports have rental facilities suitable for (if not intended for) naps. SFO does, in the form of private, lockable "business center" cubicles, so the solution might be near at hand, if you can be a little creative. If your budget permits, and the lay of the land is hazy at your destination, book a room at a hotel near the airport, for your first day. Or rent a car and try to find some place nearby where you could nap in the backseat and not have to worry about noise or snooping cops.

I got into Berkeley around noon, checked into my hotel, then did some errands. Berkeley (besides being my original hometown) is very good in some respects: it's very pedestrian-friendly, has a fair number of healthy eating establishments closely concentrated, has a lot to do and see in a small area. If your hotel is downtown, you can get a lot done and have fun, without being very far from the best place to nap: your hotel room. As evening fell, however, I noticed I made one mistake: on my current nap schedule, I was in the position of King Tantalus with regard to seeing movies. There are four multi-screen theaters withing five minutes of each other, I was spoiled for choice, but all of the running times overlapped my scheduled naps!

Lesson 8: If you want to have fun at your destination, check typical schedules even before you fly, and adjust your nap schedule accordingly, if you can.

Damn: no movies tonight. I went back to my hotel room, and looked at the bottle of melatonin I'd bought earlier. (Unavailable in Japan, right on the shelves in the U.S.) Hm, maybe time for an experiment. I felt sleepy anyway. At this point, I wasn't sure whether I was even still synchronized with the remaining shreds of my poorly-established Tokyo sleep cycle. I split a 1 mg pill and swallowed the half. It put me out. Or I went out as I would have anyway. I woke after about 4 hours.

Lesson 9: save your melatonin experiments for later, or conduct them well before you fly. Figure out how this substance might fit into your plans.

When I went out after waking up, I discovered what I knew all along: Berkeley, a campus town, really doesn't have much going on very late at night. Even meals are a problem in this gourmet mecca. Restaurants aren't open all that late. I ended up getting a hot-dog, not a great choice, at almost 2AM, last call. I could have gone grocery shopping earlier, but from where I was at that point, it was a slightly scary bus ride to the nearest all-night grocery store I knew about, and the one place I could buy food nearby was an all-night service station, where the quality of the food was predictably low. Tokyo has spoiled me -- even outside the immediate core of Tokyo, there are places open all night.

Figuring (I hope rationally) that sleep-debt was an infirm platform for any further polyphasic progression, I ate another half-gram of melatonin around 4 AM. Luckily I didn't sleep all that long on it, maybe 4 hours.

Lesson 10: either choose a place to stay that has some all-night services, or plan for how you'll feed yourself and keep yourself busy at night.

I've napped twice today, more or less as I've felt like it. Both times I set alarms. Neither time was I still sleeping when the alarm went off. However, I haven't felt like it for over four hours, as of this writing. I haven't been keeping careful records, for purposes of establishing what my ultradian cycle might be here. I still have a chance, I think, at something like success. However, in this experiment in seeing whether polyphasic helps with jet lag, I made the mistake of not being -- much less staying -- polyphasic on the trip over. What's left is to see is whether frequent regular naps help, if my circadian rhythm is easily shifted by relying on frequent naps, and whether I can easily ditch four-hour-core and become fully uberman-adjusted fairly soon. In some sense, the timezone shift can help with that last -- it's daytime here when I would ordinarily be getting my four continuous hours in Tokyo.

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