December 24, 2008

I ain't givin' up on sleep - A SentDev Classic

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)

  • This article was originally published on December 15, 2006.


    Anonymous said...

    It's interesting that not a single mammal species seems to have evolved the ability to live without sleep, despite the obvious advantages this would seem to confer. Whatever purposes sleep serves, they must be very important to the organism and very difficult to accomplish in any other way.

    An uploaded mind (computer brain simulation) might be able to manage without sleep, simply by recording its state after sleep and then adjusting itself back to that state periodically (though even then, it would probably turn out to be more complicated thatn that). Until then, though, I agree with you; we're better off leaving sleep the way evolution "designed" it.

    Anonymous said...

    Here's an opportunity to bring up something I've been expecting transhumanists to pounce on: Polyphasic Sleep. As we become more connected through the internet, and physicality (and timezones) fades into the background, it seems like there would be a natural migration to this sleep pattern. Also, I imagine polyphasic sleep would be highly beneficial for long-term space missions/voyages.

    Anonymous said...

    Hey, George, you don't sound like a bio-Luddite at all. Not that I consider myself a "transhumanist", but I think you may be buying into the commonly voiced criticism of "enhancement" technology, or what I'd prefer to frame as issues of morphological and cognitive liberty, that "transhumanists" (I use the term extremely loosely here, but I hope you'll know what I mean without reading too much into it) can't answer the questions "why" or "for what", and are simply too eager to ask the question "why not".

    This is nonsense, of course. As if Kassian, McKibbensian bioconservatives hold a monopoly on "meaning" and "purpose" simply because they pretend they do. That's exactly why I prefer to frame "enhancement" in terms of morphological and cognitive liberty; the question must not be "why"; a society obsessed with finding or adhering to the one true ultimate path is not a free society full of free agents; it's a slave state in thrall to ideology.

    Maybe a lot of so-called "transhumanism", "movement transhumanism" especially, gets up my guff for coming off as a brash, seemingly eugenicist utopianism ("enhancements"? "limitations"?), but I totally understand where you're coming from on this sleep issue. Sometimes there's nothing I'd like better than to stay awake, and getting tired is just not my cup of tea when there's so much I'd rather be doing. For me, to an extent, eating is the same way: I often find myself thinking "damn, didn't I just fucking eat? I'm busy" when mealtime rolls around, but I'd never give up the pleasure of eating some of my favourite foods if I could, indeed, end it all with a pill or a glass of milk full of mealmix powder.

    Similarly, I drink a lot of coffee/energy drinks (perhaps I do overdo the energy drinks, those aren't just water and caffeine), and though I'm not actually the sort of person who ever gets the jitters or the nervousness, I totally understand what you mean. Sometimes I do relish, not necessarily the unconsciousness, but the altered states of consciousness that I experience during sleep. And since I am such a big sleep avoider, I'm very experienced with the state of being partially asleep when I do lie down for my few hours a night; and I relish that feeling of letting go, the relaxing release of just getting lost in my own thoughts until none of them have priority and the spotlight of my consciousness broadens into the dim, all-encompassing glow.... before I bolt out of bed again barely in time to fly into the shower and be off to class.

    But that's just me, and it sounds like it's just you, as well. And this is a matter of liberty; of a diversity of autonomous agents finding their way in the world together, and it's nothing to sound so chastened about to want to live the kind of life you want to live, if at all possible.

    And of course the problem of a corporatist society being, as Iain Banks put it, "intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings", is a social problem that we're going to have to work to get sorted whether or not we ever end up with 24-hour-a-day lives.

    The inherent danger that you mentioned is simply that this already existing, genuine social evil is imported, from its traditional home in the developing world, into the daily lives and consciousnesses of you and I, the pampered, privileged citizens of the so-called "first world", whatever we think that means.

    But we can talk about the synthetic evils of the modern age until we're both blue in the face; the fact that sleep drugs or meal drugs might have any effect on that conversation whatsoever is simply evidence of just how deranged our cultural attitudes and social conversations are by our privilege and de facto placement at the top of the currently existing, vestigially imperialistic global economic dominance hierarchy.

    George said...

    @JM Thanks for your supportive and insightful comments; loved your Iain Banks quote.

    Unknown said...

    As a meditation enthusiast, I think it would be nice to limit sleep requirements occasionally if only to meditate more, which science is only beginning to understand the cognitive benefits of. Of course, advanced meditators may practice during lucid dreaming (a form of "dream yoga") - but I'm not quite yet capable of this...

    Anonymous said...

    I think a happy medium would be a sort of functional dream-state, in which we acquire all the physical and psychological benefits of the REM state while fully conscious and active. Essentially, we would be tripping every night, only to feel rested and nourished in the morning and ready to go about our business.

    In other words, we fulfill our Apollonian ambitions in the daytime, then get together in the evening and get our Dionysus on 'til dawn.