How Humans Can Evolve to Need Less Sleep
Some scientists claim humans will get by on only five hours of sleep a night by 2055.
Illustration by Anita Rundles
Forget the classic model of a bed, a rectangular mattress and four legs, because it could soon be history. Now imagine sleeping in a bubble-shaped pod. You're wrapped in smart pajamas that monitor your sleep patterns and automatically adjust temperature, sound, and light to ensure your comfort without disturbing your sleep cycle.
Humans spend one third of life sleeping, but some sleep researchers believe gadgets like these could reduce that. We could evolve to need less shuteye by using comfort-boosting technology to optimize our sleep. The key is to get the best, deepest sleep in the least amount of time—a skill humans have been mastering for thousands of years.
If you want to know how to cheat sleep in the future, take a look at the past, Duke University sleep researcher David Samson says. On the heels of a study proving humans sleep "more efficiently" than our closest primate relatives, scientists believe it's possible to shrink your total hours of sleep each night by improving your sleep environment.
To explain why, Samson points to a monkey. The groundbreaking study he co-authored examined 21 species of primates and found humans need roughly half as much sleep as most monkeys and apes, about seven hours per night. (Lemurs sleep 14 to 17 hours per night and chimpanzees sleep 11.5 hours per night.)
That's because, over time, humans stopped sleeping in trees. We moved onto the ground, began sleeping near fires and eventually in beds, where we feel cozier and safer with less fear of "predators." We now sleep more deeply, reach REM faster and waste less time on light sleep than primates, according to the study. And we'll likely keep evolving that way with the help of technology, Samson said.
"For hundreds of years, we have been manipulating our environments, instead of the other way around. There's no reason we can't use science to take that a step further and continue to optimize sleep. I absolutely think we'll see light and temperature-controlled sleeping pods become popular in [homes in] the future," he said, adding they already exist in expensive early-model form.
By 2055, most people will get by on only five hours of sleep per night, scientists from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and sleep expert Dr. Raj Dasgupta predict. The shift toward less shuteye is already happening. Americans sleep, on average, one hour less per night than they did 40 years ago, explained Dasgupta.
"Any doctor or researcher worth his salt will tell you we'll be sleeping less in the future," Dasgupta said. "Total sleep time has been decreasing for years. In 1970s, we slept 7 to 8 hours, presently it's 6 to 7. If you do a little math, in next 40 to 50 years it could be 5 to 6 hours."
"And that scares me," he added.
In the past, humans have evolved—slowly over thousand of years—to reduce how many hours we sleep. But technology could lurch that into fast forward, he warned. From students to soldiers, just about everyone wants to unlock the secret to needing less sleep. But tampering with our biology could have negative health effects, he said.
"Just look at the quotes about sleep that our society focuses on. You've got, 'You'll sleep when you're dead' and 'The early bird catches the worm.' Now, millennials are saying, 'Sleep is a poor substitute for caffeine.' It's almost subliminally promoting the idea we should sleep less," Dasgupta said. "It's sad," he added. "Sleep is associated with better moods and better lives."
But that's not stopping firms from dreaming big about cheating sleep. Wearable tech that monitors snoozing patterns to optimize sleep, similar to a fitness tracker, is developing quickly.
A night shirt, developed by the sleep diagnostics company Nyx Devices, uses fabrics "embedded with electronics" to "monitor the quality and quantity of the user's sleep," according to its website. A small chip determines a user's phase of sleep, including, REM, deep and light sleep. More advanced models could soon hit the market, tracking breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and skin conductivity while the user dozes.
Sleep cycle alarms are another way to squeeze the most out of your shuteye, researchers said. The gadgets monitor breath and movement and wake the user during light sleep, so he or she feels more refreshed. They'll be used in hotels by 2035, predicted futurist Ian Pearson, who was hired by Travelodge in 2011 to study the future of sleep.
"Sleep cycle alarms will monitor the electrical activity in the brain and identify the best time to wake the sleeper so that the individual will wake up fresher than if they had awoken in the middle of a new sleep cycle," Pearson wrote in the report.
The bed itself will change, too, he predicted.
Enclosed spherical spaces, similar to napping pods—found in cutting-edge airports and offices like Google and Uber—can also be rigged to automatically control light and temperature and boost sleep efficiently.
An early retail model, Tranquility Pod, has already hit the market for $30,000. The covered fiberglass bed is shaped like an huge egg. It controls sound, heat and light "to transport the body, mind, and spirit to a tranquil state of relaxation," according to its website. It features a "biofeedback system" that monitors the user's heart rate and pulse and it comes complete with oval-shaped memory foam and water mattresses.
The spherical dome enclosure promotes restfulness and provides privacy by eliminating surrounding distractions, according to the firm. A study conducted by the pod-making firm MetroNaps found people who took a 20-minute pod naps saw a 30 percent boost in alertness, making them more productive.
Sleeping less in the future could free up more time for work and play. But we should be careful when tinkering with human nature, Dasgupta warns. A society full of people who think they are rested could explode into a public health nightmare. "Sleep deprivation is associated with poor immunity. It could take something drastic shocking before people realize how important it is," he said.
There's no denying modern society is obsessed with how to sleep less and still feel good. Where there's a demand there's a market, and in this case a tech-centric one. But it's important for people to listen to their bodies, not just their devices, Dasgupta said. "I don't think less sleep is what our bodies want," he said. "But it's where we're headed."
You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.