Let’s Eliminate Sleep

Matthew Walker wrote a book Why We Sleep that everyone talked about for a while. Then there was some controversy on the scientific accuracy of his claims and people discussed it further.

But a question which has been largely ignored in all this is: “should we sleep?”

What if we had a pill to eliminate the need for sleep? Would it be a good thing? Beggars in Spain seems to be the first instance of someone considering the possibility of sleeplessness, but why hasn’t it received more attention since? I found a few old articles1 about the possibility of eliminating sleep, but there is not nearly enough research into this topic compared to the potential benefits. One article makes the excellent point that “[i]f there were a widespread disease that similarly deprived people of a third of their conscious lives, the search for a cure would be lavishly funded”.

Of course, most people don’t think about sleep much because it is a natural part of our lives. We like sleep, and we rarely consider how the world would change without it.

But this blog rarely considers normal avenues for innovation. Let’s look at what we might gain from losing sleep forever.

The Dream

Busy people occasionally say, “I can sleep when I’m dead”. The saying pinpoints exactly why sleep matters; sleep is akin to being in a deathlike state, and it stops us from actually living our lives.

Imagine being offered 30% more lifespan, leisure time, or time to create. Imagine if everyone could get more out of every single day of their life. An invention which made this possible would naturally be one of the most important near-term goals of humanity.

Immediately, the economy would grow significantly because there is more demand for leisure combined with more labor supply. Not only would there be more time to innovate there would also be more incentive to innovate because there is more time to enjoy leisure. These new incentives would increase the growth rate.

A sleepless world uses land more efficiently as well. Currently many restaurants, office buildings, parks, and homes get used for a fraction of the day. By living in a world without fatigue, every structure can be utilized 100% of the time. In fact, there would no longer be a need for structures used primarily for sleep like bedrooms or hotels.

A Nightmare?

Unlike other innovations I have discussed, I can imagine people strongly objecting to getting rid of sleep. So, I would like to head off several arguments. If you don’t object to sleeplessness, feel free to skip to the next section.

Objection #1: Losing sleep could be dangerous for our health.

Of course, any intervention removing the need for something as complex as sleep would need to be studied for long term effects on health. I don’t think we should rush into this! But given that there are people who can sleep much less than others without any ill effects suggests that sleeplessness could be perfectly safe.

Objection #2: Sleep is pleasurable, we shouldn’t take it away.

Yes, sleep is enjoyable, but wouldn’t that change once we don’t actually need it? Either way, shouldn’t we at least have the choice to sleep or not? Without fatigue, real life can easily be more fun than just sleeping.

Objection #3: People that want to sleep will be forced to stay awake because of competition.

As long as workers remain productive when they are awake, employers will still want to pay for their waking hours of work. Say Alice chooses to be sleepless and works 60 hours a week while Bob sleeps and only works 40. Because Bob is still a productive worker during those 40 hours, the company will still pay for those 40 hours of labor, regardless of what Alice does.

But doesn’t Alice increase the labor supply and drive down wages? See the next objection.

Objection #4: Sleeplessness will increase labor supply, driving down wages.

Remember, a world without sleep has more supply (of everything!) but also has more demand. The company that Alice and Bob work at in the previous example will have significantly more demand for their services, thus there is no reason to think that Bob’s wages will be reduced by Alice working more.

Objection #5: People will get bored with the extra life they have.

People do not get bored over current lifespans, and people with longer lives don’t seem to run out of things to do. With more time in life, people have the chance to find new hobbies, or continue the ones they like. Either way, people might as well have the option.

Objection #6: Sleeplessness will increase inequality as more productive workers will be able to make an even larger income with more work hours each year.

Yes, sleeplessness would increase inequality, but it would make everyone better off by giving each person more life and increasing economic growth. If we are really willing to trade widespread prosperity for equality, why not stop growth and innovation altogether? Why not have everyone sleep more? Instead, a sleepless society should adopt more redistribution as a keyhole solution to increased inequality.

Objection #7: A sleepless society will wastefully use more resources.

Yes, a sleepless society would consume more energy and resources, but this isn’t an intrinsically bad thing. Similar to the previous objection, if resource use were bad, shouldn’t we roll back the industrial revolution? Rather, a sleepless society should strive to be more sustainable in the face of higher resource use. Note that some resources like land will actually be used less.

Objection #8: Sleeplessness is cool, but we should focus on other things first.

Achieving sleeplessness would be a huge deal, bigger than a lot of causes people spend time on. Additionally, this objection implicitly assumes that there is scarce attention towards fixing big problems and that we should focus all of our energies in one area. But this doesn’t seem to be the case, instead, society seems to focus on the wrong problems entirely. There can be multiple things we strive for in society, and this should be one of them.

Objection #9: [Insert some other objection that I haven’t considered here]

Could the negative effect you are referring to actually cancel out the good created by an opportunity to give everyone on earth the equivalent of 30 more years of life and accelerate growth, all while reducing the need for land? Are you sure there isn’t a keyhole solution which can fix the problem you are suggesting? If it is so terrible, should we, as a society, sleep more?

The Reality

Unfortunately, removing the need for sleep seems really challenging. Sleep has been around for a while in the animal kingdom and its biological roots run very deep.

Do evolutionary considerations suggest that sleep would be hard to cure? Perhaps. The most convincing account for why sleep evolved is that its used as a way to conserve energy as well as specialize in a particular temporal niche. This helps explain why sleep evolved before complex brains, why so many animals are either nocturnal or diurnal, why sleeping with a half-brain is possible, and why sleep requires so few calories. If this is true, it would mean that the effects of sleep on the brain and on recovery are only secondary features of sleep, and it may be much easier to eliminate. Today, we no longer have an evolutionary need for sleep, since energy is much more plentiful and we no longer need to specialize in a diurnal niche.

So what approaches exist for eliminating sleep?

Though there is not much research in this area, lets look at what has been considered.

  • Drugs such as modafinil, orexin-A, and melatonin have interesting properties related to sleep, and the military has long studied reducing sleep need using stimulants. However, it seems like a more direct solution will be needed to sustainably eliminate sleep as many stimulants can induce tolerance.
  • Some have suggested using techniques like trancranial direct-current stimulation and transcranial magnetic stimulation to increase the amount of rest individuals get from each hour of sleep.
  • Studying individuals who naturally have significantly reduced sleep need could point to strategies to achieve reduced need in others. Mimicking hormone or protein expression found in these individuals is one possible route. A more invasive approach involves identifying the genes responsible for this ability, so that gene therapy could be used. This would bring to life the original conception of genetically modified sleepless people from Kress’ Beggars trilogy.

Overall, research in this area is still in it’s infancy. This means that a deeper biological understanding of sleep, along with new methods for getting by without it, are essential.

Like other innovations I have discussed, a sleepless society would achieve amazing prosperity and transform our lifestyle. But for now, the road to a sleepless world is long, so until then, sweet dreams…

Notes

1. Articles I found on this topic in by year: 2002, 2013, 2014, 2019

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