Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Would Humanity Be Better off Without Sleep?

Suppose sleep wasn't programmed into our biology, and we could get by just fine without it. 

We might initially think this would be a good thing. In our current state, we spend nearly a third of our lives asleep. We typically believe that someone can't be engaged in meaningful pursuits while they're asleep, so our need to sleep would seem to constitute a tremendous loss of productivity. If we didn't have to deal with sleep, humanity would presumably be several centuries or even millennia more advanced than it is now, not just in terms of technological and scientific development, but also with regard to art, philosophy, literature, business, and other creative endeavors. Indeed, it's fair to wonder whether we could have, for instance, colonized Mars, or come up with a multitude of novel art styles by now if sleep weren't a part of our lives.

Nevertheless, I doubt we'd be much happier if we didn't sleep. Would we, as a species, be in many ways more advanced? Probably. Would this translate to an improved quality of life? I don't see why not. But would we feel more fulfilled, more content with what we have? It isn't obvious. There are the Steven Pinkers of the world, who think that modernity has brought with it a generalized sense of well-being, but there are also Pinker's critics. I probably fall more in line with the critics. So many of us seemed to be either aimless or miserable even before there was a pandemic. There are innumerable reasons why, but a lot of them seem to trace back to the progress achieved by modernity, as well as the cultural changes this progress has fomented. The internet, for example, is an amazing, multipurpose tool, but it has also fundamentally altered the nature of social interaction, in many ways for the worse. What would the internet look like now, if we didn't sleep? Presumably, some advanced form of virtual reality, like that seen in the movie Ready Player One. But who knows whether such a thing would have an overall positive effect on our lives. The same goes for many of the other developments we could have had in the absence of sleep.

And let's not forget that sleep is, in some ways, its own good. For one thing, it represents a period of "mandatory relaxation" in which we don't have to worry about or work on anything, and thus functions like a guardian angel whose sole job is to preserve our sanity. For another, many of us delight in our dreams. Lucid dreamers in particular often describe their dreams as "more real" than real life. Not everyone, of course, enjoys sleep. Workaholics may despise it (Napoleon is said to have slept four hours a night), and there are many who suffer from various dyssomnias or parasomnias that make bedtime more fearful than pleasant. But I imagine that most people throughout history would describe sleep as one of the more agreeable parts of their lives.

So no, I don't think humanity would be better off without sleep, even if we're not that much better off with it.

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