December 15, 2006

I ain't givin' up on sleep

A common human 'limitation' that many transhumanists would like to overcome is that of sleep. I am not one of them.

Yes, there are days when I most certainly wish I had more time and energy to do all the things I want to do, but in my mind there are simply too many trade-offs involved that are simply not worth it and possibly even dangerous. Moreover, there are emotional, psychological and aesthetic reasons for not wanting to eliminate sleep.

Before I get into these considerations its worth noting that I may be in the minority here. Demand for stimulants and sleep-replacement drugs are skyrocketing. Take Modafinil, for example. This is truly a lifestyle drug for 24/7 age. Sales are so good that Cephalon, the company that produces Modafinil, is already developing its successor, Armodafinil, and the experimental drug CEP-16795. Looking further into the future, there will be wakefulness promoters that can safely abolish sleep for several days at a stretch, and sleeping pills that will deliver what feels like 8 hours of sleep in half the time. This is an idea, it appears, whose time as come.

Modafinil is truly a remarkable drug. Users can get by on very little sleep -- as little as 4 to 5 hours per night. It has even been known to help people stay awake for as much as 48 consecutive hours.

Unlike other stimulants like caffeine or amphetamines, Modafinil does not result in side effects like jitters, euphoria and crashing. Remarkably, users don't seem to have to pay back any sleep debt. It is different than other stimulants in that it offers the brain many of the same benefits that normal sleep does. Traditional stimulants tend to fake the effects of proper sleep, often with long-term consequences like sleep disorders and ongoing mental fatigue. Modafinil, on the other hand, tends to deliver a genuine feeling of alertness and wakefulness.

There have been very few complaints of side effects from users aside from some complaints of headaches. That said, there may be unseen problems down the road as Modafinil and other drugs start to become more widely used.

What's interesting and even a bit disturbing is that no one one is really sure how it works -- although speculation exists that Cephalon is keeping the answer secret. What is known is that modafinil prevents nerve cells from reabsorbing dopamine, an excitatory neurotransmitter, once it is released into the brain -- but it does so without producing the addictive highs and painful crashes associated with most stimulants. It has been suggested that this is possible because modafinil also interferes with the reuptake of another neurotransmitter, noradrenalin.

Keeping people awake and alert is one thing, addressing the host of things sleep does for the brain is quite another. The sleep cycle is a complex process with multiple phases (e.g. "slow-wave" sleep versus shallower stage 2 sleep, REM phase, etc.). Each phase plays a particular role in brain restoration and regeneration. It will be some time yet before all aspects of the sleep architecture are cataloged, understood and converted into pill form. In the meantime, there may be many individuals who in their rush to eliminate sleep from their lives are putting their cognitive health at risk.

For example, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research recently discovered that sleep helps consolidate memories. According to their findings, new information is transferred between the hippocampus, the short term memory area, and the cerebral cortex during sleep. They concluded that it is the cerebral cortex that actively controls this transfer. Quite obviously, if pills like modafinil and other stimulants don't address something as vital as memory storage, people who completely avoid sleep will soon begin to exhibit serious problems.

I'm not suggesting that the sleep architecture is intractably complex. The general consensus amongst the developers is that is not a question of if but when. Some day soon we will have the option to give up on sleep entirely and live 24-hour days.

For myself personally, I can understand the desire for these drugs on an as needed basis. I most certainly could have used something like modafinil back in 2004 when I chaired the TransVision conference; I think I slept a total of only 10 hours during a 4-day stretch. It took me weeks to recover.

But as for eliminating sleep all together, I'm not so sure I'm inclined to do that. I love going to bed and sleeping. I adore that sleepy, dreamy feeling in the early morning when the body is relaxed and I'm hitting the snooze button. I'm reminded of John Lennon's lyrics to "I'm Only Sleeping,"
When I wake up early in the morning,
Lift my head, I'm still yawning
When I'm in the middle of a dream
Stay in bed, float up stream

Please don't wake me, no
don't shake me
Leave me where I am
I'm only sleeping

Everybody seems to think I'm lazy
I don't mind, I think they're crazy
Running everywhere at such a speed
Till they find, there's no need

Keeping an eye on the world going by my window
Taking my time

Lying there and staring at the ceiling
Waiting for a sleepy feeling
Like Lennon, I am also very fond of dreaming. It's the only time that I can become (quite literally) someone else and dwell in utterly insane and surreal worlds. I wish some of my dreams could be made into movies.

There are also some emotional and social aspects of sleep to consider. There's nothing quite like making love to your partner and having them fall asleep in your arms. And how wonderful it is to snooze, cuddle and wake up next to someone (provided they didn't steal the sheets, of course).

Sure, sure -- I may sound overly sentimental about the whole thing and even a little Kassian in my seemingly bioLuddite tone. But in all seriousness, these sleepy Dali-like and Learyesque dreamlike states closely resemble my own expectations as to what a posthuman existence might be like. Given how unorthodox and unreal Second Life is becoming, I can't even begin to imagine what an open-ended digital existence might be like. And like the uploaded character in Egan's Diaspora who refuses to give up urinating and defecating for aesthetic reasons, I too would want to retain those biological vestiges that I believe have an intrinsic value.

Aside from these somewhat romantic notions, there are other day-to-day practicalities about not sleeping that should be considered.

I find that sleep provides and essential break to the routine of life. It not only provides a physical and emotional break, but an existential one as well. Sleep is like a temporary death you have each night, only to be reborn the next day (a very Buddhist notion). I also find that the length of time sleeping is important as well. Despite being unconscious for an extended period, I can estimate with excellent accuracy the length of time I have been sleeping. I don't think 3 to 4 hours would cut it for me.

Moreover, there is always the risk that our corporatist society will change the rules of the game once sleep becomes optional. Working hours may be extended to unacceptable levels, and poor people will take the opportunity to work the full 24 hours just to make ends meet. The mind may not need sleep, but the physical body most certainly does.

I would certainly hope that, given the added time, people would instead focus their energies on leisure activities. Still, coming from personal experience, the intensity of my leisure activities are starting to demand respites of their own.

Again, I'm not suggesting that everybody abandon the thought of giving up on sleep. I'm merely making the point that this is not for me. Be careful of what you wish for, as they say, but even more careful about what you may come to lose.
  • Get ready for 24-hour living (New Scientist)

  • To Sleep, Perchance to Process Memory (Wired)

  • An end to sleep? (Futurismic)

  • Learning During Sleep? (Max Planck Society)

  • A real eye opener (The Age)


    Anonymous said...

    Modafinil is truly a remarkable drug. Users can get by on very little sleep -- as little as 4 to 5 hours per night.

    Five hours a night is about what I average anyway. Maybe with Modafinil I could get by on just two? That would be something.

    Anne Corwin said...

    Wow, this entry sounds like something my boyfriend could have written...he is a veritable sleep-fiend. And though sometimes I'd like it if I could make sleep optional, the prospect of never dreaming again does not sound like an appealing one.

    It's probably a good example of why conscious evolution doesn't just mean bulldozing everything about reality-as-we-know it, but rather, allowing each person to determine what works best for them (which, depending on the person, could mean radical physiological and cognitive modification or very little modification).

    In short, things have value because people value them, not because of any kind of objective external criteria, and certainly not because they're "natural" or "unnatural".

    There's nothing Luddite about liking something and wanting to be able to keep experiencing that thing. Luddism happens when people deliberately sabotage (or attempt to sabotage) progress due to a conviction that *they* somehow know what's best for everyone and that nobody should even have the choice to change certain aspects of their own existence. Wanting to enjoy the warm and snuggly aspects of dozing and the swirling surrealism of dreams is not the same thing as wanting to make it such that nobody else can ever do anything that reduces or eliminates their need for sleep.

    George said...

    Hi everyone,

    Thank you for all the great comments. I appreciate all the excellent feedback and supplemental information.

    Anonymous said...

    i'm with yah - i would never deprive myself of sweet sleep. to be honest, i don't want to be that efficient. and i don't really want to live in a society that values a 24/7 efficiency either!

    and then there's the dreams. As a dream researcher, I work best when i'm laying down. and no biological explination could convince me that dreaming is not important to our psychological functioning. maybe we could survive without dreams - but it wouldn't be livin.'