In my 20s, while sailing across the oceans and being a journalist, I tried everything to not sleep. I chugged coffee and popped NoDoz (caffeine pills) daily, sometimes up to five tablets a day. For a year, I fought to keep my sleeping to about four and a half hours a night. Unfortunately, that was just not enough for my body and mind to be at its sharpest. And over time, caffeine just simply didn't wake me up anymore. To stay up and write my articles coherently, I'd often pull the hair on my arms until the pain was severe enough it jolted my brain to attention.
Currently, I live in San Francisco and hang out with a lot of busy Silicon Valley types. Some friends—often CEOs—claim to only sleep three to four hours a night. I get jealous when I hear that. But of course that's partially why they're generally so successful. They have more time to work instead of counting sheep. Even the recent Wall Street sequel was titled Money Never Sleeps.
Like everyone who hates sleep, there are ways to make the best of a bad situation. To make sleeping more worthwhile, I read a few books on how to dream better and how best to record my thoughts after I awoke (with a journal on my nightstand). Indeed, some great ideas and art in the world have come about as a result of dreams. And I tend to dream big, especially when I do certain wacky drugs or eat heavy foods before bed. The problem is that while dreams on occasion do give me interesting ideas, it's only while awake that I analytically consider them and possibly find use for them. And I always feel I could've just thought them up while awake if I wanted to, anyway. Besides, mostly my dreams are a mosh pit of craziness stemming from the alligators in my mind. Rarely are they pleasant.
While much has been made about how beneficial a good night of sleep is, few discuss that sleeping is stealing away conscious time
Another pastime I took up was lucid dreaming. I did learn how to fly on demand, dream in vivid colors, and control to some extent what I wanted to do, not unlike Neo in The Matrix. The problem is, lucid dreaming is a major hassle to accomplish—it requires concentration before you go to bed, and concentration while sleeping. Hence, it doesn't feel like sleep at all, and therefore isn't very rejuvenative.
While much has been made about how beneficial a good night of sleep is, few discuss that sleeping is stealing away conscious time with loved ones, hampering economies around the world, and even indirectly hurting our bodies. We should never forget we age whether we're awake or sleeping. And while the studies say the better we sleep the longer we live, this information may be misleading. I believe we age much more in our sleep than our lifespans gain from sleeping well. Sleeping—like being awake—is slowly killing us.
Scientifically speaking, sleep is a process where internal restoration and recuperation of the body and mind takes place. Sleep is comprised of various cycles, which are often separated by two classifications: non-REM and REM sleep.
There are numerous researchers in the world working on ways to try to remain alert despite sleep deprivation. One well-known study seemed to herald a breakthrough when it showed a natural occurring brain hormone Orexin-A that reversed the effects of sleepiness in monkeys.
Unfortunately, it appears most studies on sleep are being done to treat insomnia and other chronic sleeping disorders, which affect approximately 40 million people in America. That's why I like some of the military studies on sleep deprivation better. They are not only after curing sleeping disorders, but getting their troops to stay awake longer and with more focus.
One of the more promising techniques being experimented with is transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), where an alternating current is administered to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. As Jessa Gamble reports in Aeon, "tDCS uses a very mild charge, not enough directly to cause neurons to fire, but just enough to slightly change their polarisation, lowering the threshold at which they do so."
After short 30 minutes sessions of this tDCS treatment, patients are reputed to be more awake and able to learn better. They also can sleep less and sleep better.
Other methods of sleeping less—including those of biohackers—involve sleeping better and getting to sleep quicker. Bulletproof's Dave Asprey suggests taking a blend of amino acids, magnesium, and potassium before bed. He also says do breathing exercises before bed, don't drink coffee after 2 PM, and try to sleep in total darkness. For some people, Asprey also suggests a CES (cranial electrotherapy stimulation) machine to run a current across the brain at between 0.5 and 1.5hz (the range of physical regenerative sleep). One of the most well-known ones is the FDA-cleared Fisher Wallace Stimulator.
For now, those like myself who don't like to sleep will have to use a combination of science, diet, technology, and stimulants to have more waking hours of the day. But hopefully in the near future scientists will invent a way to avoid sleep altogether. My guess is in the next 15 to 25 years a cranial implant that directly stimulates focusing and thinking powers in the brain—perhaps building upon tDCS technology—will at least get us to a point where we don't need more than two hours of sleep a night. Two hours lost, I can handle. But sleeping a third of my life away—or approximately 26 years on average—is not only insane, but tragic.
You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.