Non Sequitur Fridays

A Waking Gene?

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistian's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Meryl Ayres is a writer at Wistia. This is her first Non Sequitur!

Phil is a family friend. He sleeps for less than four hours a day.

He also happens to be one of the most accomplished scholars I know (JD, MBA, MD, PhD), not to mention a compassionate father and husband, a prolific author, and a patient teacher.

I had a vague sense of his sleep habits when I was younger, although it wasn't until recently that I became curious about the details. His daughter, a good friend of mine, has alluded to it over the years. "Yeah, he barely sleeps," she'd joke. I guess I always wondered what she meant, but for some reason I never asked.

A few weeks ago, I wandered down some rabbit hole of sleep studies and their findings, and ultimately ended up e-mailing Phil to ask some questions.

The following is our email exchange.

M: How many hours of sleep do you average a night?
P:  I sleep about three and one-half to four hours at a stretch. It is rare for me to have any uninterrupted sleep beyond that amount. Usually, it only happens if I have barely slept the night before.

M: Do you nap during the day?
P:  I do not nap. However at about 1:30 PM or so for about 20-30 minutes I am a walking Zombie. I really struggle to stay awake! But, if I do nap for even ten minutes, I awake refreshed and have great trouble falling asleep at 11 PM that evening.

M: When did you first notice this about yourself?
P:  My dear mother said I was up at dawn from early childhood and rarely napped. She did not sleep much, but said I was much worse.

M: Have your sleep patterns changed throughout your life?
P:  Yes. In college and in my twenties, I often stayed up until 3 AM and arose at 7 AM. As I grew older, I tended to sleep from 11 PM until 3 AM.

M: What’s the longest amount of time you’ve gone without sleep?
P:  About 36 hours. As a medical resident, I often went this long without too much pain. My sleep problem was an advantage!

M: Do you have any routines before bed?
P:  Read. I sometimes listen to classical music.

M: Do you dream? Do you remember your dreams?
P:  Rarely. But the few I remember are pretty dramatic!

M: Do you use an alarm clock, or do you wake up naturally?
P:  I have never needed an alarm clock and can usually tell myself to wake up at almost any hour I want…and do so within ten minutes of the plan. I have overslept perhaps five times in my life. At least one of these was after being up for 30 hours due to travel to England.

M: What do you think causes/enables you to sleep less?
P:  I strongly believe that needing little sleep is in my case caused by an autosomal dominant single gene variant. My mother and my maternal grandfather slept little. Scientists have described a genetic condition called Familial Advanced Phase Sleep syndrome which fits my experience.

M: How do you feel your sleep habits have affected your life?
P:  I am really glad I sleep so little. I read a great deal and sometimes I write. My wife is not so happy with my sleep patterns, but my cat and dog are. They often get extra treats.

About a week after I received Phil's responses, a second email arrived in my inbox. The timestamp read 2:06 AM.

A real time report: I went to sleep at 10:30 and awoke at 1:30. I am now reading a book on the history of the banana. After that I will work on my French (I am plodding through Proust). At 5 I will work on an article I am writing for a journal.

Unfortunately, I need at least eight hours of sleep a day (and sometimes an afternoon nap), but I find it fascinating that Phil and others can operate so well on so much less.

This is where it starts to hurt. Phil's extra four hours every day add up to...

  • 28 hours every week
  • 1,460 hours (60 days) every year
  • 1 year every 6 years
  • 10 years every 60 years

It's also interesting to note that those extra hours take place when most of us are fast asleep. In other words, those hours are most likely spent alone. No interruptions. Just peace and quiet, and in Phil's case, learning.

So, the question stands: What would you do with all that time, if you only needed four hours of sleep a day?

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