Podcast Response: Genetic Engineer for Sleeping Less

Original Podcast: NPR Hidden Brain – Eyes Wide Open: Part 1

Sleep is a huge topic these days.

In fact, it’s been a point of discussion for long time now.

I recently listened to NPR’s series on sleep titled “Eyes Wide Open” which discussed the various viewpoints on sleep over the past 30 years. Ranging from something that humanity thought was “pointless” and could be eliminated in the 80s, to most scientists agreeing that it is fundamental to our existence today.

A key point that stuck out to me was “if sleep is useless, evolution would have not made it so that we spend 8 hours of everyday sleeping.” Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, millions in mammalian biology would have gotten rid of sleep if it wasn’t necessary. But it didn’t, which means some part of the sleep process is very important for our biology.

Interestingly, one of the stories told during the podcast recalled a man who broke the world record for going without sleep. 11 days. And after the ordeal, he slept 14 hours and 30 minutes, and then was largely fine for the following days. He was able to function normally. Of course, during those 11 days, after the first 48 hours, he was dysfunctional in mental tasks, although was completely capable in physical tasks.

Sleep is very interesting. Personally, I still tend to look at sleep as an non-active activity. Something that could be “cured”, something that my life could optimize around. I tend to get somewhere around 6-6.5 hours of sleep a day, and I’m not sure if I want to increase that.

Having said that, I wonder about the implications of genetic engineering and what capitalism will demand sleep becomes. Since it is a purely biological process, in theory with advancing biotech we may be able to engineer humans who need less sleep. Will that be good? Is that beneficial for society? What are the implications during the early stages of this type of treatment when only certain members of society have this “productivity advantage?”

I think it’s inevitable. Humans will engineer ourselves around sleep. But there may also be unforeseen consequences. If the natural lifespan is about 100 years, is that 66 waking years with 33 sleeping years? If so does eliminating or reducing the need to sleep change the lifespan to something smaller than 100 or would humans be able to keep those 100 years? Does it matter if it means one could be awake more during their youth and most vibrant times? What does it mean to be young? Perhaps that’s a question to follow in the next blog post.