Polyphasing Experiment: Day 1

Today is the day it all begins. Or ends. No more bed for a week. I have just got up from a very relaxing 8 hour sleep. I feel fully rested, but a little fuzzy in the head. I haven’t had a full 8 hours for a few days.

Alertness rating: 7

I shall be taking my naps at 11am, 3pm, 7pm and 11pm as scheduled.

10:00am: Testing

Cognitive tests:
I shall be taking three different types of cognitive tests every day. These are:

  • Typing test: The score is words per minute adjusted for errors over a two minute test. Test here.
  • Simon game: Test memory of colours and sounds. The score is the number of consecutive colours I can recall. Test here.
  • Reactions: The score is a weighted speed. Test here.

  • Typing: 56 WPM
  • Simon: 10
  • Reactions: 71.47

Physical tests:
I shall be taking three physical measurements every day as well. These are:

  • Weight (kilograms)
  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate (beats per minute)

  • Weight: 63.8 kg
  • Blood pressure: 112/56
  • Heart rate: 60 BPM

11am: Nap time!

Well, not surprisingly I didn’t sleep, but I did get two interruptions. Someone rang the door bell about 8 minutes in (no one ever rings the door bell here), and the National Blood Service sent me a text message asking me to give blood (which I can’t do for medical reasons). So never mind, I wasn’t expecting to sleep anyway. I feel slightly groggy from lying down in the dark for 20 minutes, but otherwise fine.

Alertness rating: 6.5

12:15pm: I Lost A Bed!



15:00: Afternoon Kip

Half an hour before hand: feeling pretty tired. There is no reason for that. I slept a full night last night, but my head feels like cotton wool. Quite looking forward to a little lie down.

Alertness rating: 5

Had a little pseudo-sleep. Not sure if I was entirely under or not, but there were what I can only describe as para-dreams. Now rather foggy in my head.

Alertness rating: 5

19:00: Evening doze

I’m definitely resting more and more as the day goes on. No para-dreaming, but a heavier 20 winks.

Alertness rating: 4.5

Bleurgh. I’m tired and cold. And this is day 1? I shouldn’t even be sleep deprived yet! I feel as you feel when you have overslept perhaps. The next sleep will be the test: I normally go to bed around 11pm, so my body will be expecting something good, something like 8 hours. It’s gonna be in for a surprise.

23:00: Night nap

Well I survived. I didn’t sleep, just some imaginative drifting. Now I am tired, properly tired like you are after a long day’s travelling just before you sink into bed. I’m not going to bed for another 30 days. At least I’ve tidied up my desk.

Alertness rating: 4

23:59pm: Testing

Cognitive tests:

  • Typing: 60 WPM
  • Simon: 13
  • Reactions: 76.69

So I improved in all areas of mental acuity. I can only conclude that my performance hasn’t been affected by being awake for 17 hours straight. I can believe that. I guess the improvement is simply down to being used to the exercises and standard variation in performance.

Physical tests:

  • Weight: 65.1kg
  • Blood pressure: 123/68
  • Heart rate: 48 BPM

Everything pretty normal here still. The blood pressure is raised, but still within my normal daily range. The weight is higher, as you would expect after a meal and full hydration.

Alertness rating: 6

Actually I’m feeling alright! I wonder if doing the cognitive tests woke me up a bit.

Polyphasing Experiment: Testing, testing

Today I was analysed by my psychologist. One hour of intensive testing at the Starbucks in Covent Garden (Peppermint tea please). I’m not sure if I am normal, but at least we’ve put down a marker for the end of the experiment.

These tests assess attention, concentration, memory and my executive functions, i.e. problem solving and decision making. The theory is that sleep deprivation will make these processes sloooower.

The tests were:

  1. Visual memory: copy a complicated geometric drawing, then draw it from memory immediately, then draw it from memory again 30 minutes later.
  2. Trail making: point to numbers on a piece of paper in numerical order, then with the letters of the alphabet and numbers in alternation (1, A, 2, B etc)
  3. Zoo map: trace a route through the zoo following various rules and injunctions.
  4. Wechster memory scale: listen to a story and then repeat it back, marked for story details and themes. Then retell 20 minutes later.
  5. Verbal fluency: name as many animals as possible, then as many words beginning with ‘F’ in one minute.
  6. Verbal paired associates: given pairs of nouns, e.g. Elephant, Glasses, then have to produce the pair when given its other half immediately and then again after 45 minutes.
  7. Letter number sequencing: given numbers and letter jumbled up, then have to sort them and repeat back in numerical and alphabetical order.
  8. Digit span: given sequences of numbers, then have to repeat them back in the same order as given. Then more sequences of numbers, but repeated backwards.

My results were:

  1. Immediate reproduction with no mistakes; 30 minute delay with 4 mistakes.
  2. Numerical order: 16.24s; Numerical and alphabetical order: 33.65s
  3. Successfully completed in: 1:46.29s
  4. Logical memory test 1a: 13/25 story units; 6/7 thematic units. After a delay: 10/25 story units; 6/7 thematic units. Logical memory test 1b: 14/25 story units; 7/8 thematic units. With a second reading of the story: 19/25 story units; 7/8 thematic units. After a delay: 19/25 story units; 8/8 thematic units
  5. Animals: 40; F words: 23
  6. 100% recall immediately and after 45 minutes
  7. 13/21 sequences correct.
  8. 8/16 sequences correct; 7/14 backward sequences correct.

We will test these again at the end of the experiment to see how many of my brain cells have died.

Polyphasing Experiment: The Challenge

It was midnight and we were totally exhausted. We were sitting up late again, relaxing in the office at Makan, a cultural centre in Cairo. We’d spent the last two weeks working long days on my friend’s PhD fieldwork and now you couldn’t have kept our eyes open with matchsticks. Our heads were drooping into our beers and our metabolism was crashing after the sugar high that had fuelled the last few hours of frantic archaeology.

We wanted to celebrate finishing her research which had been a succession of progressively more intractable problems one after another. Our necks were stiff from bending over the microscope and our arms were aching from sieving endless archaeological samples. We just felt like we deserved to relax and enjoy ourselves, but with only hours to spare before our flight home our bodies weren’t willing.

Opposite us was Ahmed al-Maghrabi, the tireless manager of Makan. He was boasting that he hadn’t slept the previous night. Just what we needed to hear, this man in his fifties casually telling us that he’d spent all night at a film première and hadn’t slept a wink. We sat there, supposedly in the peak condition of our lives, flagging horribly and feeling rather pathetic opposite this insomniac. It didn’t seem fair and I told him so. What he said was to change my life. ‘Well you know Leonardo Da Vinci only slept 2 hours a day. Not that I’m comparing myself with him, but you know…’

That woke me up. I’m interested in what you might call lifestyle design. Last year I spent forty consecutive days getting up at dawn in an attempt to become less of a lazy bones. Turned out the reason I was so ‘lazy’ and sleeping an awful lot was because I had an underactive thyroid, but the experience was a real eye opener and great fun. I have been looking for something else to do ever since and here, with the warm night air of Cairo blowing through the curtains, I sensed an opportunity.

‘Really? Two hours a day? That’s impossible, surely?’
‘No, no. It’s all documented. Two hours a day, that’s all. He just slept for 20 minutes every four hours.’
‘That’s incredible. Just imagine – you’d have six more hours a day awake. That’s a quarter of a day! You could squeeze an extra 3 months into every year! No wonder Leonardo Da Vinci got so much work done.’

At this point my companion interjected, somewhat brusquely, that I was still an inveterate lazy bones and wouldn’t be able to find anything productive to do for that extra six hours anyway, so what was the point? Ah ha. A dual challenge: sort out my life so that I need six extra hours of work/play time a day and therefore need a sleep schedule to match the greatest genius that has ever lived. ‘I’m gonna do it!’

Grande Ecole

She kept looking for the answer. The little girl was running from shop front to shop front, shouting her question: ‘When will I die? When will I die?’ She had long blonde curls and a fierce look in her eye that made the shop keepers laugh.
‘In a very long time!’
‘Ten minutes if you keep up that racket!’
The answers were always different and the little girl started to get confused. She ran to the shop of her favourite grocer, Pierre. Pierre was an old man; surely he would know the answer to her question. Pierre laughed softly, not like the others, and hoisted her onto his knee and began to tell her a story:

‘A long time ago there was a little girl just like you who always questioned everything. She always asked ‘Why?’, ‘When?’ and ‘How?’ This little girl, who had lovely blonde hair just like you, cherie, learnt so much that she grew up to be very clever. She quickly learnt everything that anyone in her small village could tell her, but still found she had questions. She started to get frustrated with the villagers who could no longer answer her. The old people of the village looked on with sadness in their eyes because they knew that soon they would lose this beautiful little girl who asked all the questions.

‘She grew up fast and soon she was a beautiful young woman, impatiently counting the days until she would be allowed to leave the small village and go to Paris to study at the Grande Ecole there. That day arrived and all the old men of the village wept as she boarded her carriage, knowing that they would not see her beautiful face again, that they would die before she returned – if she ever returned. The old women of the village wept also, knowing that this curious young woman was going to learn secrets that had evaded them all their lives. Everybody wept because they knew that the young woman would not return for many years and that the village would not see the benefit of her great intellect and curiosity.

‘Well, the young woman, whose name was Therese, left that day by carriage and arrived two days later in Paris. This beautiful young woman had never been in such a huge city and knew nothing of the ways of the townspeople. So she started asking her questions: ‘Where can I stay the night?’, ‘How do I operate the trolley-bus?’, ‘Where can I take a carriage to the Sorbonne?’ She learnt the ways of Paris very quickly and soon settled into city life.

‘One day she decided to move from her room in the Hotel Cosmopolitan and so she asked a young man, ‘Where can I rent lodgings?’ The young man led her to a house where an old man sat outside, whittling a piece of wood. He stopped when he saw her and looked her up and looked her down. She started to feel uncomfortable, for she was very beautiful, so she asked, ‘Why do you look at me like that?’ The old man replied, ‘Because you are beautiful, I will give you good clean lodgings.’
‘Thank you. But how much will it cost me?’
‘Oh very cheap,’ the old man’s mouth cracked into a smile, ‘very cheap for a face like that.’
The young woman felt uncomfortable, but followed the old man into the house. He showed her a room, which was satisfactory and she paid a deposit of 15 francs.

‘The old man was a very attentive landlord and Therese would often find him waiting outside her door when she went to bathe. This made her uncomfortable so she asked, ‘Why do you wait outside my door when I bathe?’
He replied, ‘Because you are beautiful. I am an old man and it gives me great peace to see such a beautiful young woman.’
Therese couldn’t find the words to deny this old man his pleasure so lowered her head and didn’t say anything.

‘All this time Therese was studying at the Grande Ecole, asking her questions and getting her answers from her very intelligent tutors. One tutor, whose name was Jean, took a particular interest in her development and took it upon himself to ensure that she had full access to whatever materials she needed and also to his personal library. One day, after she mentioned that she was struggling to find money for tuition as well as food and even her very cheap lodgings, Jean offered to help pay for her room in the old man’s house. Therese thought this very kind and, because he was very intelligent, she trusted him and confided that the old man with whom she was staying made her feel uncomfortable. Upon hearing this, the tutor immediately offered her a room in his house until she could find more appropriate lodgings. Therese accepted with relief and immediately hired a carriage to move her few bags across town.

‘Jean’s house was much more convenient for the Grande Ecole and Jean himself was a very convivial host. They would spend the evenings talking in great depth about her interests and he would spend hours and hours answering her questions, sometimes even before she asked them. They would have long, relaxing dinners with wine and cheese. He had a taste that was delicately refined and he reveled in teaching Therese the subtleties of society. She had many questions about this of course, coming as she did from a small country village. She had scarcely thought about the village since being in Paris: the old villagers had been right to cry.

‘After two weeks of wine and intellectual lodging with Jean, Therese suddenly realized that she was supposed to find her own lodgings. When she told Jean of her intention, however, he grew offended and insisted that she remain with him. This made her puzzled and so she asked, ‘Why do you insist on me staying here?’ He did not reply, but left the room.

‘This was the first time that somebody had given her no answer at all and it made her think. He had not said, ‘I do not know.’ He had not said, ‘Please ask someone else.’ He had not said, ‘You can find the answer in this book.’ He had not said ‘I shall try to find out for you.’ He had not said ‘Examine the evidence and you will find out for yourself.’ He had not said anything. He had simply left the room. This confused Therese deeply and she went to bed that night with her mind in a frantic state. She could not sleep and tossed and turned until midnight. Jean’s house overlooked a church square and Therese could see from her bedroom window the tower of the church. The moon was high and shone its light over the clock face. The two hands of the clock were pointing straight up to the stars, as if pointing to the answer for her question. She stared out of her window as the clock struck midnight. She opened the window wide; perhaps the air would help her sleep.

‘As the twelfth note sounded there was a commotion of wings and, to Therese’s astonishment, a white barn owl landed on the eaves of the house just in front of her. She didn’t dare breathe as the owl surveyed the square below, seeking a mouse for prey. She was close enough to reach out and touch the soft down of the owl’s wings, but she didn’t dare move a muscle. The owl stood there, alert, its head rotating as its eyes penetrated the gloom. Its claws gripped the straw of the roof thatching and Therese felt like she was in a dream. The beauty of the owl in the moonlight haunted her and she grew bolder, inching her head closer to the owl’s. The owl caught her movement in his wide eyes, but stayed calm and rotated his head all around to consider her. The two stared at each other in the moonlight as the last echoes of the church bells drifted over the sleeping city roofs. Time seemed to stand still; the two creatures staring deep into each others eyes. Therese realised this was the moment she would find her answer. So she whispered, very faintly, ‘Why did he run away from my question, Owl?’
The owl looked deep into her eyes, his claws twitched on the thatch. He had her question and Therese waited breathless for the answer. But the owl batted his wings and, with one last look, took to the skies. Therese sighed and watched him disappear over the sleeping rooftops.’

There was a pause as Pierre stopped talking and smiled at the little girl.
‘Well what was the answer to her question?!’ The little girl almost screamed. ‘That’s not fair! Tell me the answer!’
Pierre looked down at the furrowed brow underneath the blonde curls of the little girl on his knee, ‘Sometimes, cherie, there are no answers; just moments.’

6th October

The streets would not forgive him. Cairo revealed herself, but at a price. Bert could feel their eyes, pricking his conscience, taking him apart limb by limb. The hawkers carried on their shouting match, but he knew their eyes were on him, the foreign. What were they selling? Was it the piles of plastic combs at their feet or was it something more precious? This man had all manner of plastic toys. Where had they come from? China probably. The new colonialism. We shall conquer the world by exporting plastic toys. First plastic toys, then… The business model worked, incredibly. In this world it worked.

A few others sold sweets wrapped in lurid plastic wrappers. Here and there were traditional food sellers. A man with a rough wooden cart was roasting sweet potatoes. An old woman, fat and wrapped in black was crouched beside a pile of tissues. All their eyes were upon him. Overhead the bridge flew over and down below micro-buses hurled past screaming their destinations. Even the birds stopped their pecking in the dust as he walked through the bus station.

What had brought him here? What unlikely, unnatural turn of events had brought him from middle class rural Germany to a bus station in downtown Cairo? Astonishingly, in this world, it was common. He looked up and could see ahead of him another blond man fighting to board a micro-bus. He had just past a Dutch looking woman heading down the subway. Suddenly he hated that blond, the unknown Dutch woman and, above all, himself. What right had they to be here? Bringing their Euros, easily buying the life that these hawkers could never attain despite working twenty-four hours a day, sometimes more. What sheer fluke, pure chance, unkind fate had bestowed upon them the right to jet into other countries and live it up with scarce a thought to where the next meal was coming from, when they would next wash with warm water or how they would sell enough plastic toys to shelter let alone school their children?

Bert knew where he was going. He was going to cross the road past the bus station, climb the stairway above the hawkers and stroll across 6th October Bridge in the evening air over to Gezira and on to his clean, comfortable hotel in Zamalek. His life was etched out ahead of him, he could see it, plain and clear in frustrating detail. What could go wrong? What event could possibly happen that could not be settled with a call to his credit card company or a visit to a cash machine? Even if he were hit by a car crossing this road now, he would be well looked after in the finest hospitals of Cairo and the man who hit him would doubtless spend the night in jail. His place in this city was cosseted away behind the security at his hotel in the tree lined boulevards of colonial Zamalek. There was no obstacle to his comfort and it was all thanks to pointless, aimless luck. Of course he worked but, in this world, incredibly, one hour’s work in Germany was equivalent to perhaps three days’ work for these hawkers. Probably more. Bert didn’t like to think about it because there was nothing he could do about it.

As he lowered his head a shout and a look caught his attention. A man about his age was waving a flashing elephant in his direction. Bert heard his name in the look. There was a flashing plastic train careering around a yellow plastic track at the man’s feet. Bert walked over, entranced. The man looked at him, “Seer! Mister!”
“Bikem?” Bert heard himself say.
“Da?” the man said, indicating the elephant.
“La,” Bert almost whispered through dried throat, “kull haaga.”
“Kull haaga?” The man’s eyes grew half an inch in diameter.
“Yes – it all. How much for everything?”
The man hesitated, calculating, measuring disbelief against opportunity.
“I want everything you have. The table, the stool, that cloth.” Bert was warming up, pointing at everything the hawker used to hawk with. The man was clearly unnerved by this mad foreigner and glanced across at his neighbour, who was beginning to take an interest. They fired a few sentences between themselves. The other man laughed and said, in surprisingly good English, “You want to buy all Mohammed shop?”
“Yes. I do. I want his entire stall. Everything.”
The man laughed and explained to Mohammed, who stammered a reply.
“Ok mister, Mohammed want 500 pounds.”
Well, eid has come early for Mohammed, Bert thought.
“I don’t have that much on me, but here is 250 pounds Egyptian,” Bert started emptying his pockets, “50 dollars US…and my watch.” Mohammed looked stunned.
“Is that enough?”
Mohammed laughed this time and took the money eagerly, counting it out for himself.
Bert laughed as well and said, “Now go, my friend, go and enjoy yourself! I’ll take it from here.”

Bert had never done anything so reckless. He felt like a new man. He had a vocation, he had comrades in the fight for survival. He and Mohammed had swapped places. Now Bert was the plastic toy hawker under 6th October Bridge. Mohammed was free, without a care in Cairo. Bert slipped into the world of a real Cairene. He grabbed the flashing elephant with zeal and started hawking. The other man, who introduced himself as Mahmud, was laughing heartily. Mahmud had never seen anything like it.

Bert hawked all that night, all the next day and into the night again, shouting himself hoarse. He stayed there twenty four hours straight, high on the intoxication of freedom. He didn’t sell a thing, but he didn’t care. Egyptians wouldn’t buy from a foreigner and foreigners would never buy the rubbish he was selling, certainly not from a mad German. He drew a lot of stares, but he didn’t care one bit. He was a Cairene hawker.
The police arrived after about eight hours and tried to get him moved on. They asked him where his hotel was and threatened to call the embassy, but Bert held firm and the hawkers, his new friends, argued his case in impassioned Arabic. The police moved to a respectful distance but stayed watching, clearly suspicious of this extraordinary foreigner. A gang of baladi kids came up to him and started teasing him, “Mister, mister! How much mister!”, delighting in this reversal of fortunes. Then they started trying to steal from him, mobbing him with their strong little hands. But Mahmud had eagle eyes and whipped a length of knotted rope at them. The kids fled, screaming in delight.

After about fifteen hours of non-stop hawking, Mahmud offered Bert half of his sweet potato to keep his spirits up. Bert gratefully accepted, they were equals, sharing food like true comrades. A few ragged looking men shuffled past on their way back from sweeping the roads, most just stared at him with dull eyes, but a few hissed. The police tried to get Bert to leave again, stating that it was against the law for him to work. Again Mahmud defended him by arguing that Bert hadn’t sold anything so technically could not be working. The police moved off again, buzzing into their radios.

About twenty hours in, an old lady shuffled up to Bert. It was clear that she was very poor and as she got closer Bert could tell that she was half blind. She used her hands to rummage through Bert’s collection of plastic and finally selected one, a chicken with furry feet who played a banjo when you twisted its neck. Bert looked into her darkened, unfocused eyes and felt his heart plunge. He was still far from equal. He could not sell her the chicken and shooed her away before his weakness showed. Mahmud noticed but said nothing. They watched the old lady shuffle off the kerb onto a bus, the chicken merrily banjo-ing the tune to Achy Breaky Heart.

The old lady had shaken Bert and he began to feel increasingly uneasy about shouting his wares into the night, increasingly self-conscious. He grew quieter and less eager for customers, fearful they would expose him for what he was. As his twenty-fourth hour approached, Bert started panicking, he started seeing the desperate eyes around him, he no longer saw comrades. How Bert had wanted to join them just twenty-four hours before. Now he could not imagine anything more claustrophobic.

As the twenty-fourth hour passed Bert saw a familiar face approaching his stand from across the bus station. Mohammed was returning and he did not look in the mood for conversation. Halfway across the road he started shouting at Bert. Bert couldn’t understand most of the words, but gathered that he was not welcome.
“Imshi! Get out! Get out! Thief!”

Mohammed was waving his arms around the stand of plastic toys. He picked up the flashing elephant and waved it in Bert’s face. Bert sensed the other hawkers closing in, forming a circle around him. The night was dark, lit from the fires of potato ovens, reflected in the dark eyes of his former comrades, the men he had spent the last twenty-four hours side by side with. Loneliness struck him in the chest. He lifted his arms as Mohammed started to beat him with the flashing elephant.
“Go! Get out! Thief! Steal my life! Get out!”
Mahmud raised his knotted rope and bared his teeth in the gloom. The cars and taxis raced overhead and Bert eyed the staircase. He ran. The mob chased him out of the bus station, out of the market and up the stairs, where they watched him flee across the Nile into Gezira. They watched him run until he was swallowed up in the night among the tall trees of Zamalek where he could do no harm.

6th October Bridge shook with traffic as the hawkers carried on their shouting match and a flashing plastic train careered around its yellow plastic track. The streets had forgotten him.