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.