Are you sleeping too much?

sleep-584.jpg First aired on The Current (28/05/13)

Do you have trouble sleeping? Everyone has a sleepless night from time to time, but for sufferers of chronic insomnia, bedtime can turn into a nightmare. But what if you didn't need so much sleep? Research is looking into ways to make sleep more effective -- so that you can spend more time awake.

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The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed the authors of two new books about sleep. Science writer Jessa Gamble's book, The Siesta and the Midnight Sun: How Our Bodies Experience Time, discusses the changing nature of sleep, and why less, but higher quality, sleep is something to aspire to.

"There are a lot of people who would tell you that they enjoy their sleep...but the fact is that they don't experience [most] of it. I think that if we had the option of being more present in our lives, as long as we weren't tired in that time, a lot of people would take that option," said Gamble. "Being unconscious is the ultimate disability. If we can experience more of our lives, it's almost like a longevity issue --  we're living longer, effectively."

Humans trying to function on less sleep is nothing new. Caffeine pills and energy drinks, for example, have been around for a long time. But are there new technologies or drugs in the works that could help us reduce the amount of sleep we need? "There are other pharmacological technologies that are coming into play that actually consolidate or enhance your 'slow wave' sleep, which is a restorative phase that makes you ready to learn the next day," said Gamble. "That's the sort of thing that drug companies might be developing to try to help people be more refreshed from the sleep that they do get."

One facet of society that is particularly interested in how to require less sleep is, unsurprisingly, the military, whose personnel are often required to stay up for days at a time if they're on a mission. "The culture of the U.S. military is such that human enhancement is accepted as a goal, taking people beyond the norm," she said. "There are so many resources going into that kind of research."

The current prevailing wisdom that eight hours of sleep a night is the ideal is a relatively new, and culturally specific, phenomenon, according to Gamble. "[Eight hours a night] is a vast contraction of how we used to sleep," she said. "Before the advent of artificial light, we had 13, 14 hours in bed every night...and so what we experience now is about a 40% contraction of how we used to sleep, and I for one am glad of that -- I don't want to spend 13 hours in bed."

Tremonti also spoke with Matthew Wolf-Meyer, the author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life. He's not convinced that less can be more when it comes to sleep. He cites the obvious negative effects that come from not getting enough sleep, but he also approaches the question from a more philosophical angle. "The other side of the question is why we would want less sleep," said Wolf-Meyer. "If we're accepting less sleep so we can do more work, that might not be a great trade-off. But, if we're working towards less sleep because we want more time with our families or more recreational time, then that might be something that's actually worth pursuing."

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But does sleeping less really mean that people would spend their newly increased waking hours more productively? Wolf-Meyer isn't convinced. "I look at the generation ahead of me and people are kind of unwilling to retire and I think that part of people's reticence about retiring is because they don't know what to do with their time," he said. "And many of us have hard times drawing the lines around when we're working and when we're not working, and if we're going to reduce our sleep to six or four hours, we really need to think critically about what we're doing with that time."

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