A cultural sleep

Jessica Gamble describes new techniques and technologies whose inventors would radically reduce or eliminate the human need for sleep:

Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is a promising technology in the field of sleep efficiency and cognitive enhancement. Alternating current administered to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex through the thinnest part of the skull has beneficial effects almost as mysterious as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), its amnesia-inducing ancestor. Also known as ‘shock therapy’, ECT earned a bad name through overuse, epitomised in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and its 1975 film adaptation, but it is surprisingly effective in alleviating severe depression. We don’t really understand why this works, and even in today’s milder and more targeted ECT, side effects make it a last resort for cases that don’t respond to drug treatment. In contrast to ECT, 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.

Using a slightly different technique — transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which directly causes neurons to fire — neuroscientists at Duke University have been able to induce slow-wave oscillations, the once-per-second ripples of brain activity that we see in deep sleep. Targeting a central region at the top of the scalp, slow-frequency pulses reach the neural area where slow-wave sleep is generated, after which it propagates to the rest of the brain. Whereas the Somneo mask is designed to send its wearers into a light sleep faster, TMS devices might be able to launch us straight into deep sleep at the flip of a switch. Full control of our sleep cycles could maximise time spent in slow-wave sleep and REM, ensuring full physical and mental benefits while cutting sleep time in half. Your four hours of sleep could feel like someone else’s eight. Imagine being able to read an extra book every week — the time adds up quickly.

The benefits are so obvious that Gamble doesn’t actually argue in favor of all this technological wonder and post-evolutionary glory; instead, she insists that no present-day person can logically argue against it:

The question is whether the strangeness of the idea will keep us from accepting it. If society rejects sleep curtailment, it won’t be a biological issue; rather, the resistance will be cultural…. Such attempts are likely to meet with powerful resistance from a culture that assumes that ‘natural’ is ‘optimal’. Perceptions of what is within normal range dictate what sort of human performance enhancement is medically acceptable, above which ethics review boards get cagey. Never mind that these bell curves have shifted radically throughout history. Never mind that if we are to speak of maintaining natural sleep patterns, that ship sailed as soon as artificial light turned every indoor environment into a perpetual mid-afternoon in May.

Setting aside, for the moment, the matter of sleep, there’s an interesting assumption lurking beneath that paragraph, and I think it’s worth ferreting out, because the opponents Gamble imagines share it.

It’s certainly true that the regular daily eight-hour sleep isn’t natural, by which I mean not that it’s necessarily bad but that it is not a rule dictated by nature. Research and historical records both suggest otherwise:

Our contemporary sleep habits are not in any sense natural and ancestral human sleeping patterns would be very difficult to integrate into modern life. In the 1990s, the psychiatrist Thomas Wehr of the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland put subjects on a natural lighting schedule and observed complex sleeping rhythms. Falling asleep at dusk and waking at dawn, volunteers experienced a sort of anti-nap in the middle of the night — a two-hour period of quiet, meditative repose during which prolactin levels spiked. This is backed up by historical records from pre-industrial times: early modern English households observed ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’, with the time in between used to pray or socialise with family members.

What’s a “natural lighting schedule,” though? Or, in the historical case, when are dusk and dawn? I would assume that traditional sleep patterns in moderate to high latitudes were seasonal, and the pattern described here sounds to me like winter; in the northern European summer you wouldn’t have time for such leisurely sleep. Maybe they took siestas, or maybe they just did with less sleep in summer and caught up in winter. Even if fifteenth-century European peasants had wanted to sleep past dawn in May, agricultural work likely wouldn’t have allowed him: their sleep patterns, just like ours, were adapted to the needs of their work. They were cultural patterns, not merely biological ones, though cultural patterns that respected the demands and limits of biology.

Gamble, though, equates “pre-industrial” with “natural.” She observes that other “traditional” cultures still in existence have different patterns of sleep, but if they differ from one another, can they all be natural? Fairly obviously not, I think. They evolved to adapt to the needs — economic, environmental, and, yes, biological — of a given community or society, but they evolved not through random biological processes but by trial and error and culling and weeding, a process that looks a lot like science if science were done by communities over a span of generations. I assume Gamble would equate the adoption of “artificial light” with the invention of the light bulb, but if we’re contrasting the use of technology with our animal natures, fire, strictly speaking, is artificial light, which means that we’ve not been sleeping “naturally” for tens of thousands of years. We quit sleeping purely naturally, in fact — and doing anything else purely naturally — as we developed culture, and then we began sleeping culturally. Traditional sleep patterns, and traditional everything else, are every bit as much human-created as those the article’s heroes offer.

Or, I might argue, more so. The eight-hour nightly sleep would seem to be similarly adapted to the needs of modern industrial society: long work days prevented leisurely sleep, and factories and offices prohibited napping. But since the eighteenth century there has been no shortage of doctors and self-declared experts ready to tell us how much sleep we need. In 1836 The Family Magazine offered this rundown: “Jeremy Taylor states that three hours only in the twenty-four should be devoted to sleep. Baxter extends the period to four hours, Wesley to six, Lord Coke and Sir William Jones to seven, and Sir John Sinclair to eight.” By that point hardly anyone wanted to take a stand in favor of nine or ten; the Protestant work ethic had too strong an influence. Most admitted that different people had different needs for sleep, but then as now one didn’t sell books by being wishy-washy but by offering a system.

And these systems, like most of the advice available on the internet today, were designed to fix what ailed you. By 1890, it was more common to read advice like this, in Popular Science: “Decide how much sleep you ought to have — say, eight hours — and get up sternly when you have been in bed eight hours, however you have been awake.” Standardize yourself, in other words — as if you were a machine. Industrial society didn’t only make traditional sleep patterns impractical; by making the machine the standard of progress, it made rigid mechanical standards like the eight-hour night more acceptable. Why eight? As likely as anything, it was one-third of a day. It fit a simple system. It became part of the slogan of the labor movement: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.” (Distrust round numbers: they usually signify that somebody is thinking too much, or not nearly enough.)

The problem I see with the standard-issue eight-hour night isn’t that it fit the needs of people living in an industrial society but that it re-imagined people themselves on an industrial model. Traditional patterns hadn’t been natural per se but had respected the limits of biology and environment; industrial patterns reimagined biology and environment as machines similarly under human control, and so sleep, like many other human activities (eating and sex, for a start) ceased to be defined by culture respectful of nature and came to be defined, in practical terms and by model, by the requirements of machines. The principle we accepted 150 years ago wasn’t that of “artificial” versus “natural” sleeping; it was the principle that the needs and practices of human beings could and should be adapted (forcibly if necessary) to the needs and practices of machines of our own creation — ultimately by becoming machines ourselves. It wasn’t that we replaced animal natures with technological solutions of our own devising. Rather, we replaced a human-created system that was locally adapted and highly adaptable with one that was rigid, inflexible, standardized, and imposed from above and without.

But if Gamble is wrong about the principle we’ve accepted, she’s right that once we’ve accepted the principle it’s hard to find purchase on the slippery slope of its implementation. Indeed, as Gamble says, that ship has sailed, and we’d only be complaining now that it’s going too far. Anyone shouting stop will be met with a chorus of “why here?” To which there really is no good answer. Indeed, why here? We’d have to give up the principle that got us on board. But “human enhancement” isn’t that principle; we’ve been enhancing ourselves for millennia. Nor is technology, nor the abandonment of the natural in favor of deliberately cultivated behaviors. The principle we accepted is that we can safely replace human-created cultural patterns with mechanical ones imposed from without. The question isn’t whether we better ourselves but whether those betterments are mediated by culture. If they aren’t, it seems to me, then we’re not taking control of our own evolution: we’re giving it up.

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