7 reasons why the future of sleep could be wilder than your wildest dreams


Thanks to advances in fields like neuroscience, the way we think about sleep is going to change radically over the next 20 years. (CTK/AP)

In a hyper-busy world, it seems like sleep is a luxury at times. How many times have you heard your cubicle mate or family member complain that there just aren’t enough hours in the day? But what if the key is not in optimizing your day-to-day routine or in trying to squeeze more hours out of a day, but rather, in minimizing – or at least optimizing – your sleep time?

Here’s a review of some of the more audacious ideas for rethinking the future of sleep:

1. Dream management

It’s long been a staple plot device of science fiction films such as “Inception” for people to wake up and realize that they are living inside their dreams. Now that may be a possibility – as long as you don’t mind zapping your brain with a weak electrical current (40 hertz appears to work best) a few times a week. In tests performed in Germany, researchers found that delivering a low-level electrical impulse to the frontal lobe of the brain during REM sleep cycles enabled sleepers to experience “lucid dreaming” – the sensation of being an active participant in your dreams.

In a base case scenario, “lucid dreaming” would make it possible for people to manage their dreams in real-time. People experiencing nightmares – such as people suffering from PTSD – would potentially be able to alter the outcome of painful experiences. Decades from now, it may even be able to “incept” a set of dreams and trick your brain into thinking that a specific lucid dream scenario from someone else is actually happening to you.

2. The perfect sleep experience

No, this is not a tagline for the newest mattress promising a good night’s sleep. Think what would happen if your mattress were connected to the Internet, and your bedroom was hooked up to your Nest. You might be able to regulate the perfect sleep experience, right down to the temperature of the room, the rigidity of your mattress, the fluffiness of your pillows and the amount of light filtering into the room from your window. You could then optimize things further by having your bed wake you at the end of a sleep cycle.

Hotel brands are among the real-world companies that might take advantage of such technology to lure customers away from other hotel chains. In 2011, Travelodge hired the futurologist Ian Pearson to study the future of sleep for hotels and travel. By 2030, says Pearson, the future of the perfect sleep experience might be possible. Theoretically, you’d arrive at your hotel, plug in all the variables into a hotel’s sleep management database, and you’d be able to drift off into a peaceful night’s sleep wherever you are in the world.

3. Super-naps

Based on extensive studies of how humans nap, neuroscientists have already determined that unique brain activity gets activated during a typical nap cycle. At Georgetown University, researchers have found that during naps the right hemisphere of the brain (responsible for creative thinking) was extremely active and busy transmitting information to the inactive left hemisphere of the brain (responsible for analytical thinking). The initial results suggest that super-naps could make us more creative.

Imagine what’s possible when you can combine all the benefits of sleeping and dreaming into a new type of experience, available on demand. In cities such as New York and Tokyo, there have been attempts to create “nap pods” where corporate office workers can take quick 20-minute naps and re-charge. In the future, you might do more than re-charge – you might be able to take a super-nap and unlock the future of your creativity and big picture thinking skills.

 4. Genetically modified sleep

As biologists map the human genome, they’re looking for genetic markers that code for certain behaviors and tendencies. One gene they hope to locate is the “sleep gene” – a hypothetical gene within the genome that codes for “light sleep.” Certain genes, such as CLOCK and BMAL1, are known to play an important role in the body’s circadian rhythm. Now researchers think that they’ve found another gene – DEC2 – that might be the secret to light sleeping. Mutations to DEC2, it appears, significantly reduce the amount of sleep time that’s required for the human body.

The military is apparently one of the major customers for such genetic technology. Imagine SEALs and Green Berets, once they’ve had some gene therapy, able to soldier on for days at a time during battle. They would be biological super-soldiers, capable of accomplishing missions without suffering the negative effects of sleep deprivation, such as drowsiness, disorientation and slower reflexes.

5. Red pills and blue pills

One of the little-told stories of neuroscience is how researchers are getting better and better at creating synthetic drugs that target specific neurotransmitters of the human brain. Researchers, for example, have found that steady dosages of a pill such as modafinil can help to cure narcolepsy. Modafinil appears to target the neurotransmitter GABA, which is the brain’s most important sleep regulator. It also appears to affect other chemicals in the brain, such as glutamate, that are responsible for creating high levels of neural activity.

There’s apparently a thriving market for these FDA-approved pills, as everyone from athletes to students show signs of willing to experiment with them. Some pharmaceutical companies are even working with DARPA on new “wakefulness” drugs. In some circles, modafinil is viewed as a “lifestyle drug.”

6. Smart pajamas

We already know that sleep has many restorative functions related to memory and aging. By monitoring sleep patterns, it might be possible to optimize these restorative functions or even diagnose some medical conditions while you sleep. The next iteration would be targeting and tweaking many of these restorative functions using the latest in wearable technology.

Imagine settling down for a brief night of sleep and donning a pair of smart pajamas that is instantly able to monitor your sleep patterns. These smart pajamas would be able to measure factors such as skin conductivity, blood pressure, heart rate and pulse – and then put all of these factors together to offer a custom medical diagnosis, all without a trip to the doctor’s office.

7. Human hibernation

We tend to think of hibernation as something that only animals do to conserve energy and get through long winters without starving. Yet, a long line of research that dates back to the early days of the space program is based around ways of inducing astronauts into a form of prolonged hibernation. To make long journeys to Mars possible, for example, NASA is experimenting with a method used for therapeutic hypothermia to cool down human body processes in order to make hyper-sleep on manned space missions possible.

Given the lack of immediate plans for manned space exploration to Mars, the most immediate application of these “hibernation technologies” would be the ability to suspend the activity of certain physiological processes in order to help humans survive certain surgeries and traumatic events, such as battlefield injuries. Victims of gun shot wounds and others experiencing cardiac arrest can sometimes be saved by slowing down body processes, effectively giving the body time to heal physical processes. 

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What all of these share is their common heritage in the world of science fiction. It’s almost impossible to watch a movie such as “Prometheus” without wondering at the latest sleep pod technology, or a movie such as “Total Recall” or “Inception” and not wonder about the future of dream management. So the next time you’re watching a science-fiction flick and stumble across a unique method of sleep, make a note of it. Thanks to remarkable advances in genetics, neuroscience and pharmaceuticals — in the future — no idea for the future of sleep may be too wild.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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Tuan C. Nguyen · May 20, 2014