Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt “Vigorous” and “Alert”

One poten­tial draw­back of genius, it seems, is rest­less­ness, a mind per­pet­u­al­ly on the move. Of course, this is what makes many cel­e­brat­ed thinkers and artists so pro­duc­tive. That and the extra hours some gain by sac­ri­fic­ing sleep. Voltaire report­ed­ly drank up to 50 cups of cof­fee a day, and seems to have suf­fered no par­tic­u­lar­ly ill effects. Balzac did the same, and died at 51. The caf­feine may have had some­thing to do with it. Both Socrates and Samuel John­son believed that sleep is wast­ed time, and “so for years has thought grey-haired Richard Buck­min­ster Fuller,” wrote Time mag­a­zine in 1943, “futu­rif­ic inven­tor of the Dymax­ion house, the Dymax­ion car and the Dymax­ion globe.”

Engi­neer and vision­ary Fuller intend­ed his “Dymax­ion” brand to rev­o­lu­tion­ize every aspect of human life, or—in the now-slight­ly-dat­ed par­lance of our obses­sion with all things hacking—he engi­neered a series of rad­i­cal “life­hacks.” Giv­en his views on sleep, that seem­ing­ly essen­tial activ­i­ty also received a Dymax­ion upgrade, the trade­marked name com­bin­ing “dynam­ic,” “max­i­mum,” and “ten­sion.” “Two hours of sleep a day,” Fuller announced, “is plen­ty.” Did he con­sult with spe­cial­ists? Med­ical doc­tors? Biol­o­gists? Noth­ing as dull as that. He did what many a mad sci­en­tist does in the movies. (In the search, as Vin­cent Price says at the end of The Fly, “for the truth.”) He cooked up a the­o­ry, and test­ed it on him­self.

“Fuller,” Time report­ed, “rea­soned that man has a pri­ma­ry store of ener­gy, quick­ly replen­ished, and a sec­ondary reserve (sec­ond wind) that takes longer to restore.” He hypoth­e­sized that we would need less sleep if we stopped to take a nap at “the first sign of fatigue.” Fuller trained him­self to do just that, for­go­ing the typ­i­cal eight hours, more or less, most of us get per night. He found—as have many artists and researchers over the years—that “after a half-hour nap he was com­plete­ly refreshed.” Naps every six hours allowed him to shrink his total sleep per 24-hour peri­od to two hours. Did he, like the 50s mad sci­en­tist, become a trag­ic vic­tim of his own exper­i­ment?

No dan­ger of merg­ing him with a fly or turn­ing him invis­i­ble. The experiment’s fail­ure may have meant a day in bed catch­ing up on lost sleep. Instead, Fuller kept up it for two full years, 1932 and 1933, and report­ed feel­ing in “the most vig­or­ous and alert con­di­tion that I have ever enjoyed.” He might have slept two hours a day in 30 minute incre­ments indef­i­nite­ly, Time sug­gests, but found that his “busi­ness asso­ciates… insist­ed on sleep­ing like oth­er men,” and wouldn’t adapt to his eccen­tric sched­ule, though some not for lack of try­ing. In his book Buck­y­Works J. Bald­win claims, “I can per­son­al­ly attest that many of his younger col­leagues and stu­dents could not keep up with him. He nev­er seemed to tire.”

A research orga­ni­za­tion looked into the sleep sys­tem and “not­ed that not every­one was able to train them­selves to sleep on com­mand.” The point may seem obvi­ous to the sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple who suf­fer from insom­nia. “Bucky dis­con­cert­ed observers,” Bald­win writes, “by going to sleep in thir­ty sec­onds, as if he had thrown an Off switch in his head. It hap­pened so quick­ly that it looked like he had had a seizure.” Buck­min­ster Fuller was undoubt­ed­ly an unusu­al human, but human all the same. Time report­ed that “most sleep inves­ti­ga­tors agree that the first hours of sleep are the sound­est.” A Col­gate Uni­ver­si­ty researcher at the time dis­cov­ered that “peo­ple awak­ened after four hours’ sleep were just as alert, well-coor­di­nat­ed phys­i­cal­ly and resis­tant to fatigue” as those who slept the full eight.

Sleep research since the for­ties has made a num­ber of oth­er find­ings about vari­able sleep sched­ules among humans, study­ing shift work­ers’ sleep and the so-called “bipha­sic” pat­tern com­mon in cul­tures with very late bed­times and sies­tas in the mid­dle of the day. The suc­cess of this sleep rhythm “con­tra­dicts the nor­mal idea of a monopha­sic sleep­ing sched­ule,” writes Evan Mur­ray at MIT’s Cul­ture Shock, “in which all our time asleep is lumped into one block.” Bipha­sic sleep results in six or sev­en hours of sleep rather than the sev­en to nine of monopha­sic sleep­ers. Polypha­sic sleep­ing, how­ev­er, the kind pio­neered by Fuller, seems to gen­uine­ly result in even less need­ed sleep for many. It’s an idea that’s only become wide­spread “with­in rough­ly the last decade,” Mur­ray not­ed in 2009. He points to the redis­cov­ery, with­out any clear indebt­ed­ness, of Fuller’s Dymax­ion sys­tem by col­lege stu­dent Maria Staver, who named her method “Uber­man,” in hon­or of Niet­zsche, and spread its pop­u­lar­i­ty through a blog and a book.

Mur­ray also reports on anoth­er blog­ger, Steve Pavli­na, who con­duct­ed the exper­i­ment on him­self and found that “over a peri­od of 5 1/2 months, he was suc­cess­ful in adapt­ing com­plete­ly,” reap­ing the ben­e­fits of increased pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. But like Fuller, Pavli­na gave it up, not for “health rea­sons,” but because, he wrote, “the rest of the world is monopha­sic” or close to it. Our long block of sleep appar­ent­ly con­tains a good deal of “wast­ed tran­si­tion time” before we arrive at the nec­es­sary REM state. Polypha­sic sleep trains our brains to get to REM more quick­ly and effi­cient­ly. For this rea­son, writes Mur­ray, “I believe it can work for every­one.” Per­haps it can, pro­vid­ed they are will­ing to bear the social cost of being out of sync with the rest of the world. But peo­ple like­ly to prac­tice Dymax­ion Sleep for sev­er­al months or years prob­a­bly already are.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Pow­er of Pow­er Naps: Sal­vador Dali Teach­es You How Micro-Naps Can Give You Cre­ative Inspi­ra­tion

Bertrand Rus­sell & Buck­min­ster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Every­thing I Know: 42 Hours of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Vision­ary Lec­tures Free Online (1975)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Randy says:

    I’d cer­tain­ly like to see more large-scale exper­i­ments done into var­i­ous sleep pat­terns.

    Every­thing that makes it into the main­stream media seems to say that we need to sleep 7–8 hours per day, at night, in a com­plete­ly dark room.

    I’ve spent large stretch­es of my life on only 6 hours of sleep or less, and I’ve been able to go four days with­out sleep, unaid­ed by drugs. I could have done more, but I ran out of things to do.

    In par­tic­u­lar, I’d like to see more sup­port to allow peo­ple to exper­i­ment in the real world with longer days. This means not going to sleep at the same time every day. And that means ser­vices need to be avail­able at night.

  • noairbag says:

    a taxi dri­ver or a sol­dier at war would agree
    many 30 min­utes naps, let’s say 16?

  • Stefan Baier says:

    I have had a peri­od where i was very stressed and depressed. For 2 months i sleept 1 hour every sin­gle night. Then in the mid­dle of the day i would sit on a chair and fall asleep for a max­i­mum of 5 min­utes, and i would be all fresh and pro­duc­tive. Unfor­tu­nate­ly i had small stom­ach prob­lems almost every­day, and i was annoyed by every­thing up to the 5 min nap.

  • Eric Rehwaldt says:

    I have nev­er had nor­mal sleep pat­terns for as long as I can remem­ber. I com­plete­ly dis­agree with “experts” who say that you must have 8 hours per night. I usu­al­ly go to bed around 2:00–3:00am and awak­en at 7:00. When I sleep in I am tired and unpro­duc­tive all day. When I lay down I’m asleep in min­utes. If I awak­en dur­ing that first hour (almost always do as I have to uri­nate 4–8 times per night depend­ing on how much water I drank dur­ing the day) I am always aware of the vibrant dreams I was hav­ing. Mean­ing: I go into REM sleep as soon as I start sleep­ing. I’ve had my prostate exam­ined many, many times and it’s healthy and fine. I’ve had my blad­der mea­sured for vol­ume and it holds the same as oth­er men. Since I was 18 I’ve had over 8 low­er back surg­eries and the result now (I am 63) is that my win­dow for max­i­mum rest ver­sus max­i­mum com­fort is about 4 hours. Any­thing over that caus­es my back to stiff­en up and I am mis­er­able all day. In order for me to have a nor­mal life I have to lim­it sleep to 4 hours. About every 2 weeks I will fall into a deep, deep sleep in which I rarely remem­ber any dreams. These sleeps can last as long as 16 hours. If I miss my deep sleeps then I find myself falling asleep dur­ing any tv activ­i­ty, lec­tures, or times when I’m sit­ting, become relaxed, and just sit there. I also have a very hard time dri­ving long dis­tances if I’ve missed my deep sleep cycle. It seems to work for me even though I know it is high­ly unusu­al. I’ve read count­less nov­els with my extra hours. Sleep is noth­ing more than slices from the pie of life and if you count the extra hours I get com­pared to eight hour sleep­ers you’ll see that I was grant­ed a bonus of about 20 years dur­ing my 60 years on this plan­et

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