Human beings need sleep, and conquering that need is one of the great hubristic frontiers of modern science. An article this month in Aeon Magazine by journalist Jessa Gamble looked at several ways researchers are trying to free us to spend more time awake. None of them promise a sleepless world anytime soon, but the wide-ranging methods being pursued do accent just how mysterious and inexplicable sleep actually is.
Pharmacological interventions are the most immediately obvious ways to spend more time awake. But here, progress has stalled since the drug modafinil was introduced in the 1990s. Modafinil, whose precise mechanism is still unknown, has been shown to allow users to maintain mental focus even after being awake for periods as long as 60 hours. Unfortunately, it also leads to irritability, impatience, and a degraded social IQ (which is to say, after you use it, you need a nap).
In lieu of drugs, the Aeon article looked at the Somneo Sleep Trainer, a mask-like product being developed with the military in mind by a company called Advanced Brain Monitoring. The Somneo mask doesn't do away with the need for sleep, but it does aim to help people doze more efficiently. The mask blocks noise and light (of course) and contains heating elements around the eyes, which are supposed to speed the descent into sleep. The mask is also strategic about when and how it wakes you up. A blue light brightens as a designated alarm time approaches, helping you wake up gradually, with less grogginess.
The Somneo mask sounds perfectly pleasant whether or not you're about to lead a sortie. A more out-there approach to sleep mitigation is something called "transcranial direct-current stimulation," (tCDS) which was designed by a pair of MIT graduates and is now being promoted by a New York-based company called Fisher Wallace Laboratories. In this treatment, which has received FDA approval and is marketed to insomniacs, electrodes are hooked up to the scalp, just above your temples, and a slight charge is administered for 30 minutes. tCDS has been show to increase alertness and promote more efficient sleep in subjects in control trials, though how exactly it works and whether there are any long-term side effects are still open questions.
The upshot of all these anti-sleep (or pro-wakefulness?) strategies is that, given that we don't know much about how sleep functions, we can only make educated guesses about what kinds of interventions might allow us to do without it. In that light, we may end up devising ways to keep ourselves awake well before we figure out how to do away with the need for sleep.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.