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Dream Of A Future Where You Don't Have To Waste Time Sleeping

Scientists are working hard on finding ways—pharmaceutical, neurological—to end the tyranny of eight hours a night.

Think about what we might do with 50% more "conscious lifetime"? You could spend more time with the kids, visit Africa, or start on that novel you’re always talking about. How? Not by actually living longer, as such, but by cutting down on our biggest time-waster: sleep.

In an extended essay at Aeon magazine, Jessa Gamble discusses several new technologies—from the Somneo Sleep Trainer to transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS)—that improve the "efficiency" of sleep, and could allow us to need less of it. "Now a life lived at 150 per cent might be within our grasp. Are we brave enough to choose it?" Gamble asks.

Gamble argues that the custom of sleeping eight hours on a raised mattress is culturally created. Though it is a good way of revitalizing body and mind, there’s no reason to do it at night, and for so long, if there’s a better way. Now, several researchers are looking beyond stimulants that simply curtail sleepiness (including stimulants like modafinil) to methods that improve sleep itself.

For example, California-based Advanced Brain Monitoring is working with DARPA on a mask that concentrates sleep to "only the most restorative stages":

With military personnel in mind, ABM has developed a mask called the Somneo Sleep Trainer that exploits one- or two-hour windows for strategic naps in mobile sleeping environments. Screening out ambient noise and visual distractions, the mask carries a heating element around the eyes, based on the finding that facial warming helps send people to sleep. It also carries a blue light that gradually brightens as your set alarm time approaches, suppressing the sleep hormone melatonin for a less groggy awakening.

Other techniques involve passing small electrical currents through sleep-important parts of the brain. tDCS, for example, focuses on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, delivering a "brief tingling." After 30 minutes, subjects are "keenly awake," and able to "learn visual search skills at double the speed." They also sleep better later on, with "briefer waking periods and longer deep-sleep sessions."

Meanwhile, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) induces "slow-wave oscillations" in the brain, pushing us into earlier deep sleep:

Whereas the Somneo mask is designed to send its wearers into a light sleep faster, TMS devices might be able to launch us straight into deep sleep at the flip of a switch. Full control of our sleep cycles could maximise time spent in slow-wave sleep and REM, ensuring full physical and mental benefits while cutting sleep time in half. Your four hours of sleep could feel like someone else’s eight.

The techniques Gamble describes could help soldiers on the battlefield, as well as the 30% of Americans who live with less than adequate amounts of sleep (according to the Centers for Disease Control) increasing risks of chronic disease. More deeply, they could change our notion of what sleep is. We just have to embrace the possibilities.

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  • Robyn Woidtke

    Sleep, a very important contributing factor to health and well being.  Data support the need to sleep 7.5-8 hours per night and sleep deprivation contributes to obesity, neurocognitive dysfunction and development of diabetes.  I don't think we should exchange the health benefits that sleep brings to be more productive. 

    We work enough as it is. 

  • Clarence

    Couldn't agree more. Technically, we don't need to spend long hours at work. We have enough to live by. It is the overwhelming marketing of consumerism that create unnecessary productivity and waste, rendering us the need to work more for more money to spend. We have already compromised at least 8 hours a day to work, there is clearly no need to deprive sleeps. Shorten work hours, prioritize activities that build on relationship rather than things.

  • ptr

    Seems like that would be the end of dreaming about any other kind of future too.
    Better to dream a future where we don't have to work so hard during the other 16 hours: a future where there's time to smell the roses, live life to the full and enjoy a good night's sleep.
    Guarantee, if it were possible to remove sleep, economic pressure would drive it as a compulsory requirement by employers.
    There's more to sleep than meets the closed eye. T'would be a shame to murder it.
    "Methought I heard a voice cry, 'Sleep no more!Macbeth does murder sleep'—the innocent sleep,Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,Chief nourisher in life’s feast." (Macbeth: Act 2, Scene 2, Page 3)

  • Dean Kakridas

    I find this goal utterly ridiculous. So do we exist only to be productive. To be busy. To be always on? 
    Let's all just view sleep as a time to renew and subconsciously reflect on the noisy hours upright. To feed our flailing souls...