Free Markets, Free People

So lift those heavy eyelids

What if people could easily function with much less sleep?

Jon M at Sociological Speculation asked that question after observing that “new drugs such as Modafinil appear to vastly reduce the need for sleep without significant side effects (at least so far).” At extremes, as Jon M noted in a follow-up post, modafinil allows a reduction to 2.5 hours a night, but “the more common experiences seem to be people who reduce their sleep by a few hours habitually and people who use the drugs to stay up for extended periods once in a while without suffering the drastic cognitive declines insomnia normally entails.”  In fact, alertness is not the only reported cognitive benefit of the drug.

The US brand of modafinil, Provigil, did over $1.1 billion in US sales last year, but for the moment let’s dispense with the question of whether modafinil is everything it’s cracked up to be.  We’re speculating about the consequences of cheaply reducing or even eliminating the need for sleep for the masses.

If I can add to what’s already been said by several fine bloggers – Garett Jones at EconLog on the likely effect on wages, then Matt Yglesias at Slate sounding somewhat dour about the prospect, and Megan McArdle at the Daily Beast having fun with the speculation – the bottom line is that widely reducing the need for sleep would be a revolutionary good, as artificial light was.

For a sense of scale, there are about 252 million Americans age 15+, and on average they’re each awake about 5,585 hours a year.  Giving them each two extra hours a night for a year would be equivalent to adding the activity of 33 million people, without having to shelter, clothe, and feed 33 million more people.

Whatever objections critics have, sleeping less will be popular to the extent that people think the costs are low.  For all the billions of dollars spent trying to add years to their older lives, obviously people would spend more to add life to their younger years.  Who ever said, “If only I’d had less time!”?

Consider that the average employed parent usually sleeps 7.6 hours each workday.  He spends 8.8 of his remaining hours on work and related activities, 1.2 hours caring for others, and 2.5 hours on leisure and sports.

If he spends more time working productively (i.e. serving others), that’s good for both him and society.  The time and effort invested in birthing, educating, and sorting people for jobs is tremendous, so getting more out of people who are already born, educated, and sorted is just multiplying the return on sunk costs.

That’s a godsend for any society undergoing a demographic transition after the typical fall in birthrates, because aside from hoping for faster productivity growth, the specific ways to address having fewer workers per retiree – higher taxes, lower benefits, more immigration, or somehow spurring more people to invest in babies for decades – are unpleasant or difficult or both.

And if he uses extra hours to pursue happiness in other ways, that’s generally fine too.  A lot of people may simply get more out of their cable subscription. Others will finally have time for building and maintaining their families, reading, exercising, or learning a skill.

Yes, once a substantial number of people are enhancing their performance, others will likely have to follow suit if they want to compete.  But then, that’s also true of artificial light and many other technologies.  If people naturally slept only four hours a night and felt rested and alert, who would support a law forcing everyone to sleep twice as long, cutting a fifth of their waking hours so that everyone would slow down to the speed that some people prefer to live their lives?

I don’t think most people have such a strong presumption in favor of sleep.  We like feeling rested, or dreaming, but not sleeping as such; a substantial minority of Americans sleep less than advised despite the known costs, and so reveal their preference for waking life over oblivion.

33 Responses to So lift those heavy eyelids

  • Sleeping is one of those thing that “has a long tail”.
    Loss of sleep takes a long time to show it’s ugly effects and a longer time to recover.

    • Neo, I encourage you to check out some of the links, or do some of your own research.  You may be surprised at how well modafinil addresses the expected problems.

      But this post is mostly about the question of whether it would be good to need sleep less than we do.

  • I like to sleep.

    • But maybe that’s because I feel I don’t get enough.

    • Yah, me, too.  Sleep seems sort of…I dunno…natural

      • I find drinking beer to be natural, too. So I am no opposed to trying this stuff out. Probably your doctor is on it already, along with some ambien, adderall, and whatever else they like.

    • If you could sleep three hours a night and feel just as refreshed and alert afterward, would you be willing to pay a couple bucks for the privilege?

      • I think I like sleep because I don’t get enough, thus if I did not need as much sleep, it would be good.
        But, then won’t I just sleep 2 hours a night and still crave sleep?

  • Sounds like the plot of a Nancy Kress novel.  Though if memory serves, that was expensive pre-natal genetic engineering and not available to everyone.

    • Not far off, really.  And you’re right that it was a prenatal treatment, at least in the Beggars in Spain novella; I never got around to the novel.

      • An excellent story.

      • It also had the side effect of making its recipients immortal, which didn’t help matters sociologically speaking.  I quit after Beggars in Spain — it looked like it was turning into X-Men.

  • I’m watching Limitless, so I am getting a kick out of this post…now let me make some brilliant point about the Portuguese empire!

    • If I may indulge in a bit of overthinking: Cooper’s character was at least morally suspect for not sharing his non-habit-forming version of the wonder drug with the world.  What’s likely to turn out better: one brilliant politician, or a general increase in intelligence for a huge number of people?

      • Doesn’t that depend if the newly brilliant people work for, say, Al Queda?
         
        What happens when the newly brilliant people run into the same old people, who resent their smartassery?  And all their brilliance doesn’t compensate for the human wave assault.
         
        And wouldn’t being brilliant almost certainly guarantee that some of the brilliant people will get the brilliant idea that being brilliant should just be for the ‘right’ people, like, liberals, and not for the moron gun rights Sarah Palin voters?
         
        I suppose it might work, but frankly, I think you’re talking about a world full of PAK protectors, well, for a little while anyway.
        If you aren’t familiar with the PAK from Niven/Pournelle Known Space fiction (and YOU probably are  :) ) check them out.
         
        Yes, I’m a parade rainer!    That’s my part of being a stodgy old conservative.

      • Actually Bryan, I’m just playing the Devil’s advocate.   I’d love to see us be other than we are sometimes, but my faith in mankind is selective.

      • Yin/Yang. If the smarter people are awake longer, doing good, the not so smart will also be awake longer balancing the good with bad. In the end, we all get less sleep and just as many problems over a shorter period of time… Just sayin… :)

  • Giving them each two extra hours a night for a year would be equivalent to adding the activity of 33 million people, without having to shelter, clothe, and feed 33 million more people.
     
    This isn’t completely true.  People awake for longer would need to consume more food and draw up more resources for recreation / work doing what they do.  May be a net gain, but unless people just loaf around and do nothing, moving around more will have an impact.
     
    And in general, nothing’s free.  Evolution isn’t a genius by any means, but if we were just a little body chemistry away from having no use for sleep, then it would have happened in our evolution at some point.  Sleep serves a purpose.
     
    One is probably so our bodies recover.  If we stayed up and active continuously that’s more wear and tear and less recovery time.  Expect arthritis to onset earlier in life.  The extra activity will cause extra eating with no downtime and if you’re susceptible to type II Diabetes, it will onset sooner.
     
    The long term consequences of this are not going to be well understood for a while.  It could be a slow loss of sanity that the lack of letting the brain do what it needs to do during sleep to keep your thoughts in order.  Such an effect could take decades to manifest.
     
    Hate to be a Negative Nancy but you have my permission to go first.  But ultimately we are on the cusp of an era where drugs to enhance daily performance are going to come into existence.  I’m glad I’m going to be mostly out of the game by the time that gets into full swing.

    • jpm100 -

      “Giving them each two extra hours a night for a year would be equivalent to adding the activity of 33 million people, without having to shelter, clothe, and feed 33 million more people.”

      This isn’t completely true.  People awake for longer would need to consume more food and draw up more resources for recreation / work doing what they do.  May be a net gain, but unless people just loaf around and do nothing, moving around more will have an impact.

      Again, you won’t have to build shelter, buy whole extra wardrobes, and keep fed around the clock an extra 33 million people.  Nor will you need to raise and educate, or import, those 33 million people.  It’s definitely a large net gain.

      And in general, nothing’s free.  Evolution isn’t a genius by any means, but if we were just a little body chemistry away from having no use for sleep, then it would have happened in our evolution at some point.  Sleep serves a purpose.

      Sure, sleep serves a purpose.  But we seem to have stumbled onto something that makes most of us outside the ancestral environment need less of it for extended periods of time with a very low incidence of adverse side effects.  As far as we can tell after many millions of uses of modafinil, it’s less harmful than aspirin.

      Maybe the ancestral environment, with all the extra injuries, and deadly infections, and danger, and irregular access to food and fresh water, would be less forgiving.  Maybe modafinil is a bad idea for people who are still growing up.  I don’t know.  But maybe new technologies, far more advanced than modafinil, will solve those problems.  If and when they do, I think we’ll be better off for it, which was really what I was getting at with this post.

      •   Bryan,
          As a purely intellectual exercise, I have no problem with the idea. On the other hand, I find as I get older and hopefully wiser, I also get more and more leary of big pharma and the things they choose to pursue and promote. I think the vast majority of us have been guinea pigs for the drug industry for a long long time now. More and more frequently, they seem to come up with a problem that no one knew we had, and lo and behold, a new drug to “cure” that problem. I remember reading somewhere a while ago that the stated goal of the pharmaceutical industry was to have every single person in the world take a pill for something, every single day. Since reading that, we have not inched closer to that goal, we have charged toward it with zeal. Hence my leariness.
          That said, good mind exercise, and a nice diversion from working my behind off for not enough compensation. Cheers!

      • “buy whole extra wardrobes”
        Did you just admit to wearing PJs?

  • My first and most important question about Modafinil is What does it do to your sex drive?  Everything else is of tertiary importance.

    • I think that’s the best part. Wifey can’t say she’s tired and just wants to sleep. Time to start spiking the orange juice.

  • I was going to comment, but I think I’ll sleep on it first..

  • Sounds great.  Who knows what people like Diane Feinstein, Al Gore, Barrack Obama, or Andrew Cuomo might come up with a few extra hours on their hands.  I’ll pass.

  • So we’re gonna pay extra to be kept awake?
     
    There are days when the bliss of sleep is a reward.
     
    I won’t even get into how great this will be when people who normally work 70 hours a week for their 40 hour salary can now feel free to work 80 hours for their 40 hour salary.
     
    Funny how age changes your views ain’t it?

  • Still, I guess it sounds better than Benzadrine to keep people awake   :)
     
    See, I just knowed there’d be a silver lining in there.

  • Well, it’s not for me, I am already bored most of the time. I don’t need more waking hours.

  • I understand the point of the post but that aside, I really, really doubt these drugs – any drugs – will work like this in the long run without some sort of high cost. And I’d never take it unless it has decades of usage history with minimal documented problems.

    • This was my reaction to fen-phen when it came out in the 90s.  My friends thought I was some kind of Calvinist for pointing out that you can’t live on french fries and ding dongs and then just take some magic pill to melt the fat off — the human body just doesn’t work that way.  I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the nasty side effects showed up.