A World Without Sleep

Removing the human need to sleep will undoubtedly happen at some point in the decades ahead of us. The potential economic benefits are vast, and so as soon as it becomes remotely plausible we will see tremendous investment in realizing whatever biotechnology ultimately makes it feasible. You might look at the present large and ongoing investment into developing sleep suppressant drugs that are free from significant side effects as a small foretaste of what is to come.

A life without sleep would be a life effectively made 30% longer. There's a thought for the day - not all methods that might be experienced as life extension involve your body being alive for more calendar years. For example, one of the advantages of the very long term goal of incrementally replacing brain cells with nanomachinery is that it opens up the possibility of increasing your "clock speed": of thinking faster and experiencing more time per second than a present day human could. By that point, of course, we would hope that much of the challenge of aging has long been solved.

Over at Depressed Metabolism, you'll find a different angle on sleep: used as an argument to show one of the ways in which knee-jerk reactions to cryonics are illogical.

Imagine that human culture has never experienced sleep, but suddenly must experience it to survive. Would they be apprehensive about experiencing it for the first time? Of course!

Just picture... this total suspension of consciousness, experienced for the very first time in human history. The notion would totally blow our minds. It would be completely shocking. We might even make up stories about dying and being replaced by an identical clone being, or trying to console ourselves that at least we will have a successor on the following day to carry out our desires.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no particular reason to assume that humans who "survive" events like freezing or vitrification would be any different from humans that "survive" sleep or anesthesia. The definition of consciousness we care about is the lifelong continuity of experiences created by memories.

Our memories are encoded in the fine structure and connections of our brains, and for so long as that structure is preserved then we continue to exist as a person - whether or not our brains are currently in operation. The essence of cryonics is to preserve that structure after the point at which our bodies and modern medicine are no longer up to the task. The molecular nanotechnologies and biotechnologies of the future will be capable of restoring a preserved brain to active life: it's just a matter of organization and waiting, which in and of itself is no small challenge, but not an insurmountable one either.


But I LIKE sleep. Why would I want to give it up?

This is similar to saying that in the future we could stop eating, and just plug into the wall for power. I like to eat, too. It's part of being human, and I've never met anybody who wanted to be a robot.

Immortality and eternal youth? Yes! Life as disembodied brain in a jar? No thanks. :)

Posted by: Paul at January 19th, 2011 7:50 PM

You like sleep just because you NEED sleep. You simply cannot afford yourself NOT to have it. Without it you cannot function - you are half-conscious at first, if you continue - you'd probably die at some point.

Same is with the food. You are too much used to it, to what it gives you and what you are biologically craving for without it. If you don't feel huger, nor have taste - food will be out of use.

And all this isn't something that is given to you, it isn't a bless, a gift - no, it's an obstacle, it's a defect.

This isn't about living as "disembodied brain in a jar". It's actually the opposite - living NOT as a simple (more or less) biological organism. It's about being a higher form of life. It's about being conscious all the time, all you life. It's about having memories, being aware 24/7, not being "switched off" half the time.

It's about being something greater than you are biologically, fundamentally expected to be.

If it's done right it could be a bliss, if not - a disaster.

Posted by: Trinity at January 20th, 2011 12:46 AM

The key is choice...
being able to avoid sleeping or eating or dying if you want to but not being forced to do it.

Posted by: Christian at January 20th, 2011 1:14 AM

Often it's good to just "get away" from things and sleep can be a wonderful, easy escape. As well, think of all those amazing dream experiences that would be lost if we never slept.

I would, however, appreciate the option of whether to sleep, or not - for one night, or more. I would also definitely like being able to function well on less sleep - 2 or 3 hours - whenever I chose.

Posted by: Suzanne French at January 20th, 2011 2:43 AM

@Paul: This gives you the option. As long as it isn't mandatory, then it's fine. This will be especially helpful for those of us that can't sleep very well.

Posted by: JotunDex at January 20th, 2011 5:44 AM

I don't see any reason to believe that the need for sleep will be removed in the future. Sleep serves a purpose in the brain, otherwise it would have been weeded out by evolution long ago, since obviously non-sleeping individuals would outcompete sleeping ones.

Of course, it's possible that a brain which works in a completely different way would not need to sleep. But at that point one is not really talking about "removing the need to sleep", but about rebuilding everything about a person.

Posted by: Will Nelson at January 20th, 2011 7:34 AM

@Will if the evolutionary purpose is something really minor by human standards (but heavily selected in nature) like e.g. preventing you from stumbling around in the dark where predators can catch you, or letting you develop a complex brain with less total nutrient consumption, then sure it can be removed without changing everything about a person.

@Paul if you like sleep, you will probably want to keep sleeping when given the choice. But it could turn out that what you really like is how GOOD it feels to wake up refreshed, or to be resting blissfully. If you could get that without losing consciousness/sanity for so many hours, maybe you'd enjoy that even more.

Posted by: Luke at January 20th, 2011 10:55 AM

Actually, I think I like the excuse to do absolutely nothing for several hours almost as much as the experience itself. If I was awake for all that time, I can't imagine what I would do with myself.

I think this would be a difficult thing to change. Obviously, sleep is physiologically very important (at the moment). psychologically, those of us who grew up with sleep would have a hard time doing without it.

Sleep divides this day from the last. The previous day is OVER, and you get to start again on a new one. Distant days begin to fade away, because you can't keep everything you were doing back then in your mind all at once.

Of course, technology may change all that. I can't imagine myself as wanting to change my own sleep patterns, except maybe pulling an all nighter from time to time. But if someone can get by with no sleep at all, more power to 'em.

As to the evolutionary roots of sleep, we can see that it must be doing something pretty important. Most animals sleep, or at least have a rest period, and it is quite dangerous. If another animal can approach you while you are defenseless, then it is all over.

So whatever is happening while you are asleep is clearly more important than the risk of being eaten.

Posted by: Paul at January 20th, 2011 6:41 PM

I'm sure we could debate the evolutionary origins of sleep for some time, but consider the power of specialization. A creature specialized for daytime or nighttime hunting would tend to be better at hunting in the day or night than a creature that is capable of hunting during both times equally. Sleep could have evolved as a way of keeping creatures hidden at times when they cannot fend for themselves as well due to this kind of specialization.

Of course it also conserves resources and is probably important for growth and repair of the body, but resources aren't hard to come by any more and repair could probably be boosted with some kind of nanotech. It may be something to do with the maintenance of neural networks or something along those lines, but again it seems that moderate nanotech/biotech could speed this up significantly.

An alternate course is to work on technologies to boost the effectiveness of lucid dreaming to the point that you can carry out conversations with friends, conduct business, perform art, maneuver a robot body around, etc.

Posted by: Luke at January 20th, 2011 8:05 PM

While possible, I do actually think getting rid of sleep will be very difficult since it's such a huge part of our biology, something we do for a third of our lives. If you don't sleep you die. For me the best part of sleep is the dreaming. I've seen and experienced things more amazing in my dreams than I ever have in real life or the best CGI movie. I wouldn't want to give that up. Of course, like all things you don't know what it will be like till you try it.

Posted by: Kim at January 23rd, 2011 7:13 PM

I am writing this at 6 AM. I took a modafinil pill and have slept about 1 hour this night. I am resting o a sofa with my iPad, reading email, processing my email, listening to Zamfir. I slept for 4 hours last night. Life is great, it's great to be conscious, it's great not to have to sleep.

When I was on polyphasic sleep, it was a different experience, but it was great nevertheless. The stream of being alive, not interrupted with temporary non-existence. I am really looking forward to the time when a combination of a polyphasic sleep schedule, a melatonin/hormone therapy and some new powerful sleep-prevention drugs will allow me to be alive 100% of the time with no side effects.

Posted by: Danila at January 23rd, 2011 7:31 PM

I believe that this may be a bad idea for the long term although acceptable for certain times during each year. The brain actually works harder when you sleep. It is processing information that had been obtained throughout the day. The mind, in my opinion, works by taking objects that normally do not make sense together and making sense of them being put together (in dreams most of which we do not remember) which forms the ability of creativity. This process may be shunted by this theoretical process.

Also keep in mind that if it is developed it would be best to make it very hard to get. Companies that you work for assume that you will use a microwave or go out to eat during your lunch break, and so now allocate the time in relation to this assumption. If everyone is able to go throughout each day without sleep then it will be assumed you now can use this time doing things for a company rather than what we would want to do with this time ourselves.

Posted by: Chad L Meffert at June 16th, 2011 6:29 PM

If you need a test subject, sign me up. I have been looking for this option for YEARS. I have gone 21days almost without sleep; I refer to this mode of existing as Zombie Mode. This was during a military event. I say almost without sleep because I randomly went into "environmental hypnosis" for minutes at a time even while walking. I had many moments of self-reflecting and almost outer body experiences or maybe it would be more accurate to say not quite in-body experience. It was like I was in a body, tunnel vision, and numb senses. I would only get pulled back into my senses when adrenaline kicked in. In the last five days my team and I ran/walked non-stop 300 miles in zombie mode, I did those 300 miles on two fracture ankles that were swollen to the point that I had to cut the material out of my jungle-boots in order to fit my feet in them. It wasn't fun but it was necessary and although I don't have to do that stuff now, I would definitely trade sleeping for another activity. Sign me up.

Posted by: Robert Horne at April 26th, 2013 2:56 PM

The notion of sleep becoming obsolete is beautiful, yet frightening on it's own. To think that if someone lives to be 90, 30 years of that person's life had been spent sleeping. Imagine what could have been accomplished in those 30 years! But this, like every other breakthrough in today's world could have two sides. Labor is exploited enough, imagine a world that has an abundance of workers who are capable of working 24\7 without losing productivity, motor funtions, or cognitive awareness. Bussinesses would have a field day with all the possibilities a world without sleep promotes. Although from a "you only live once" perspective, a world without sleep sounds liberating, would it be the humane thing to do in the long run? I'd like to see more speculation on the potential effects through other premises before any hypothetical action is discussed.

Posted by: Issiah at October 11th, 2015 10:15 PM
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