Like food and water, sleep is one of life’s necessities. Or is it?
Of all the science-related documentaries that I have watched recently, almost all unfold in this way:
- Cite a generally well-believed statement on a particular topic.
- Seed doubt: ask “Or is it?”
- Spend the next 50 minutes showing an expert trying to walk and talk simultaneously, constantly interupted with CGI sequences repeated an obscene number of times.
- (At best,) end with a largely non-commital confirmation of 1.
That’s not to say that these programs aren’t informative and usually enjoyable – in my opinion, normally they are – but this recipe does tend produce an uninspiring experience.
That said, I’ve learned a lot by watching documentaries recently. I wrote about the Horizon episode called “Why Do We Dream?” a couple of weeks ago, and subsequently posted about my experiences with dreams a few times.1 This week the documentaries were not about dreams, but about sleep. In particular, the two that I watched were “The Secret Life of Your Bodyclock” and “Make Me Stay Awake“.
I love sleeping, even more so than eating. The human body is fantastic at what it does: it makes the essential parts of life really quite enjoyable: eating, drinking, sleeping, sex, exercise and even the excretion of waste2. How amazing is that?
In an effort not to be like these bland programs, I’ll give away the punchline now: yes, we do need sleep, and the majority of us need quite a lot it (a good 6-8 hours out of every 24). However, around 20% of us can function perfectly well with just a couple of hours of sleep every night. What’s more, drugs such as Modifinil can drastically reduce the need for sleep, with few side effects.
This got me thinking. I generally sleep about 6 hours per school night, and maybe a bit longer at the weekends. If I was given the chance to take a drug that would reduce my sleep needs to a couple of hours per night, would I accept it?
I’m finding it really hard to answer this. Why would I want to take such a pill? The main reason that I only get 6 hours of sleep most nights is because I have so much that I want to get done. Something has to give, and it’s usually my sleep time. I watch a lot of TV shows, I read a lot, and this all has to fit in with the homework from 4 Advanced Highers and a nice gym session now and again – as well as having a bit of a life. Surely I’d jump at the chance to have an extra 4 hours awake every day?
Well… maybe not. Although I wouldn’t be bored with my extra time3, I think I would sorely miss my time asleep. I love dreaming – I really mean that4. It gives me a chance to escape: I can visit sunny days in the middle of winter, chat with people that I miss and get up to things that I either wouldn’t or couldn’t do in real life. Yeah, it’s not real, but for the time that I’m asleep it’s like visiting a virtual reality world. I don’t think that I could give up such a large chunk of my dream time, especially as I’m learning how to extert control over it.
Then there are the less exciting, but equally important physical aspects. Sleep is a great time for your mind to store memory, but would reducing sleep decrease that function? I assume that it would, so there’d be no point in filling my brain for the extra 4 hours if it was to vanish from my head the next day. I’d have to test that assumption though. Furthermore, I do quite a bit of physical exercise, and doesn’t my body need the relaxation to recover? Or is sitting comfortably just as good to soothe the sort legs after a long hike? Even after a whole even lying in my bed reading a book, my legs might still feel sore, yet after just six hours asleep, they’re as good as new. That’s hardly scientific, but it could be that the paralysis induced during REM sleep might be good for your sore body parts. Or something.
It’s just one of those debates isn’t it? Ideally, I’d like 30 hours in a day, with plenty of time for me to do all that I want. Sadly, bar a drastic increase in the period of the Earth’s rotation, or a huge change in civilisation, that’s not going to happen.
Given the chance, I probably would give the drugs a go, but I don’t think I could give up my dreamtime for very long. Could you?
- For the record: thinking about a particular subject before falling asleep (in order to guide my dreams) and trying to remember as much as I can just after waking seem to be working nicely. ↩
- Don’t tell me you don’t agree. ↩
- Some people might wish for extra awake time, only to realise that in the dead of night, it’s dead. No one else is awake. There’s nothing on TV. Tesco is shut. The gym is too. There’s also no daylight, and you have to stay quiet. Shhh. ↩
- I need to stop overusing ‘love’. It’s losing its effect. ↩