Hacking sleep: Meet the transhumanists making sleep obsolete
Brain and central nervous system (Shutterstock)

Not everyone wants to sleep in. A growing transhumanism community wants to sleep less, and better, and they’re going to great lengths to make it happen.

For those unaware, transhumanism is an intellectual and cultural movement that aims to improve the human condition, to push beyond our biological limitations, largely through technological advancements. They’re particularly focused on extreme longevity. But with treatments for an extended healthy life still works in progress (and playing out on a very long timeline), some transhumanists have turned their attention to sleep.

The average well-rested person sleeps eight hours a day. The average American lives 79 years. That’s a little more than just 50 years being awake. Life is much shorter than you realized — at least if you agree with your typical sleep-hacker that sleeping is wasted downtime.

Of course, the human brain doesn’t come with an on-off switch. Science has repeatedly shown that we’re biologically productive when we sleep. While your body is lying relatively still, your brain is cycling through various stages of sleep, some of which are mission-critical to a healthy life.

When it comes to pushing electrical currents through your brain, caveat hacker.

In a post on The Conversation, Padraic Monaghan, professor of cognition in the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University and director of the Centre for Research in Human Development and Learning, outlines the two important stages of sleep — slow-wave (deep) sleep and REM — and why they matter to our health:

“[T]here is growing evidence that slow-wave sleep is related to the consolidation of memory and is involved in transferring information from the hippocampus, which encodes recent experiences, and forging long-term connections within the neo-cortex. REM sleep has been linked to processes involving abstraction and generalization of experiences, resulting in creative discovery and improved problem solving.”

In other words, during that supposed wasted downtime, your brain is getting smarter.

The challenge then, for those who would hack sleep, is not merely to find a way to overcome the exhaustion that comes from not sleeping. They want to pack all the qualities of a good night’s sleep into fewer hours. And while futurists dream of genomic and cyborgian hacks that might turn us puny humans into sleepless supermen (sorry — obviously, I mean non-gendered posthumans), current efforts are far more quotidian. They can be broken into three categories: devices, drugs and behaviors.

The Devices

Devices that claim to affect, improve and even control the brain have attracted propeller-beanie types — and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists — since the earliest days of science and science fiction. For decades, consumer-level neuro-technology was the exclusive realm of New Age shills hustling sound and light devices as “brain wave machines.”

Thanks to proven scientific advancements in the field, today’s brain toys are used by medical doctors, hospitals and the army. Sleep, unsurprisingly, is central to much of their research.

Matthew Walker of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at UC Berkeley, for one, is sending subjects into slow-wave sleep by attaching electrodes to their heads, then hitting the cerebral cortex with transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). He expects to continue his research for at least another five years before turning tDCS loose on the world as a treatment for poor sleep.

Imagine going down for a 20-minute nap, and arriving at your rejuvenating slow-wave sleep two minutes earlier.

But hackers, transhumanists and other experimentalists don’t want to wait that long. They’re putting together their own tDCS and similar brain-stimulation devices. It goes without saying that, when it comes to pushing electrical currents through your brain, caveat hacker.

There are appliances available to consumers. For example, Manhattan-based Fisher Wallace Laboratories sells and rents a cranial stimulation device, the Fisher Wallace Stimulator. According to their website, it “works by generating a gentle electrical pulse at a patented frequency that stimulates the brain to produce serotonin and other neurochemicals required for healthy mood and sleep.” The cost? $200 to rent, $600 to buy; you need a doctor’s prescription.

In a conversation via Skype,  Chip Fisher, company founder and president, said he “uses a mild form of alternating current to stimulate key neurochemicals or cortisol. And this triggers REM sleep. We're basically inducing serotonin and dopamine and beta endorphin. Serotonin is key to sleep. And then we’re lowering cortisol, which tends to reduce stress.”

Fisher admits they “haven't proven exactly why it will trigger REM sleep,” but he claims efficacy in 75 to 80 percent of patients. His device is being used by the Veteran’s Administration and NASA, as well as Woodhall and Metropolitan hospitals in New York City. It’s also been cleared by the FDA for treatment of depression, anxiety, insomnia and chronic pain.

Other sleep-enhancing devices are on the horizon. Giovanni Santostasi, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, claims he can improve sleep through sound and EEG measuring. His gadget reads a subject’s specific EEG frequencies and delivers appropriate sounds to enhance slow-wave sleep.

Santostasi explains, “It recognizes the different stages and, during slow-wave sleep, it uses an algorithm called Phase Locked Loop that locks to the individual waves and presents an acoustic stimuli at the right phase of the wave. The sound is a short burst of pink noise that is synchronized to the waves.”

Using this stimulation method, Santostasi says it’s possible “you could do with less sleep.” Furthermore, he’s looking at sleep and memory. Based on a small study he conducted in Chicago, he says, “with changes in the EEG...subjects perform better in memory and cognitive tests we give them…in comparison with baseline conditions.”

As with Chip Fisher, Santostasi doesn’t quite know why his sound device works. “Why we are able to amplify the slow-wave via this approach is not completely known. The slow waves are a very highly synchronized process, and we simply give them an external rhythm to make the firing of the neurons even more synchronized. This makes the process of memory consolidation even more efficient.”

Santostasi’s device isn’t yet commercially available, but he has partnered with psychotherapist Linda Gamble to launch the biohacking start-up Fountain Health Innovations. Their focus is “neuroscience research and development of wearable brain computer interface devices to monitor, manage, improve and record physiological and cognitive/emotional data.”

And then there’s the U.S. Army. One would like to believe that they’re a decade ahead of everybody else — after all, we give them an awful lot of money — but their sleep machine doesn’t sound any more impressive than the others. Whereas Fisher brings the electricity and Santostasi is bringing the sound, the military is heating things up.

“Somneo Sleep Trainer,” still a work in progress, is a collaboration between DARPA and a company calledAdvanced Brain Monitoring. It’s a large, awkward bit of gear that covers most of the head and delivers a type of heat around the eyes.

The idea is, facial warming encourages sleep, if only by a factor of minutes, and encourages the wearer to enter valuable stages more quickly. For soldiers who typically sleep in shorter bursts than ordinary civilians, this can make a difference. Imagine going down for a 20-minute nap, and arriving at your rejuvenating slow-wave sleep two minutes earlier.

To that end, the Somneo features built-in EEG monitors that know when you shift from one sleep state to another; you can then program it to wake you up at a particular time. And, because screeching alarms are not the healthiest way to wake up — particularly if you’re armed — the device uses a slowly brightening blue light to rouse the wearer.

The Drugs

While some sleep hackers are looking at devices, there’s still a lot of attachment to the old-school method for staying up: drugs. There are roughly two categories: raw stimulants and smart drugs. First, let’s look at speed.

Before bikers became America’s most high-profile speed freaks in the 60s, soldiers were using methamphetamine (aka, crystal, ice, crank) to fight longer, harder and meaner. In WWII, the Nazis jacked up their goose-stepping soldiers with Pervitin, an early version of today’s crystal meth, and it’s long been speculated that Japan’s kamikaze pilots were tweaking as they crashed their planes.

The Allies countered with their own breed of speed, distributed to bomber pilots in particular. Since then, the use of stimulants by military personnel here, there and everywhere to “hack sleep” has been an open secret.

In recent years, some stimulants, both new and old, have been reframed as nootropics — drugs that increase intelligence. This is a win-win for transhumanist seekers who want nothing more than to boost smarts and decrease sleep. Brains and good judgment aren’t generally associated with tweakers, but it’s no secret that amphetamines have, for decades, been favored by writers and other artists as well as students cramming for exams.

Of course, not everyone is so eager to pick up a speed habit in their pursuit of the ideal night’s sleep. (Though much-loved by students cramming for exams, Ritalin and Adderall are in the amphetamine family.) For those who prefer pharmaceutical-grade safety in their drugs, there’s Modafinil (Provigil) and its close cousin Adrafinil.

The use of stimulants by military personnel to “hack sleep” has been an open secret.

These novel stimulants, labeled “eugeroics,” or wakefulness-promoting agents, have a reputation for being better than methamphetamines for achieving focus and wakefulness — without the inevitable crash when the drug wears off. As opposed to the pleasurable but dissipating high provided by most stimulants, Modafinil’s effects are said to be emotionally opaque. And the degree of wakefulness is more evenly distributed over approximately 10 to 15 hours.

(Modafinil has another quality that I have personally experienced. Depending on your body’s chemistry, you can sometimes nap while still under the drug’s influence — then continue to experience its beneficial properties when you wake up.)

Modafinil is hardly a secret. And it’s hardly fringe. On his website, Bulletproof CEO and well-known biohacker Dave Asprey notes, “I used Modafinil (aka Provigil) when I got my Wharton MBA while working full time at a startup that sold for $600 million.”

Such personal testimonies are common. Still, Modafinil’s qualities as a nootropic are subject to much debate. In one amusing study performed by a defense psychologist in 1996, it was noted that volunteers on Modafinil were “brusque,” and thus, did worse at giving driving instructions. They didn’t have the patience to explain the details. They also believed they’d done much better than they had.

Inflated self-regard: That’s one thing Modafinil and meth have in common.

The Behaviors

One might reasonably hope that big-name biohackers like David Asprey are exploring the extreme edge of technology. The reality, as usual, is more banal.

According to Asprey, enjoying shorter, better sleep is within reach of everyone — and the tricks to getting there are simple and well-known:

  • Avoid artificial light starting half an hour before bedtime, most notably from your phone and laptop;
  • Don’t exercise too close to bedtime; and
  • Consume caffeine and chocolate cautiously

Asprey also claims there’s an ideal window for going to sleep. Namely, between 10:45 and 11 p.m. “If you miss it,” he writes, “you get a cortisol-driven ‘second wind’ that lets you be productive until 2 a.m., or keeps you awake until then. You also get better sleep from hitting the before-11 p.m. window, and wake up feeling more rested than getting the same amount of sleep starting later and sleeping in.”

Finally, Asprey recommends a high-fat snack before bedtime. He also takes 400 mg of Magnesium, 400 mg of potassium citrate and 100 mg of L-Theatine.

Meanwhile, Tim Ferriss, of 4-Hour Workweek fame, is experimenting with polyphasic sleep, which breaks down the single-session sleep paradigm, replacing our standard eight hours with smaller, shorter sleep sessions throughout the day. (Read Van Winkle’s ongoing coverage of polyphasic sleep here.)

Polyphasic sleep is a common topic among transhumanists, as it has the added charm of deviating from the general public’s mundane mannerisms. There’s little transhumanists love more than standing apart from the pack.

Should We Defeat Sleep?

While transhumanist hackers await genomic superhumanity — or an AI singularity that will allow them to transcend biology — perhaps they (and we) can make good use of the tools at hand. We have machines, methods and substances to help us pack the benefits of sleep into fewer hours, and then take drugs for maximum wakefulness.

We can do this. But should we?

There’s no doubt that having long days and nights would be advantageous in today’s competitive, goal-oriented society. And even if one doesn’t embrace those jet-fueled values, who wouldn’t like to catch up on that bookshelf of neglected novels? Or, to be more realistic, finally binge-watch The Wire, just like you’ve been planning but can’t find the time?

But isn’t there something a bit superficial — one-dimensional — about negating the value of sleep for its own sake? If we lose sleep, we lose dreams. Isn’t this a bad thing?

Carl Jung would have thought so. Even if you don’t subscribe to Jungian psychology, consider the joy and meaning dreams bring into many lives. In every culture, dreams are examined, analyzed and shared; it’s an essential part of the human experience. And what of those artists and writers for whom dreams are a deep well of inspiration? Two of my favorites, William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker, derived a lot of their material from dreams.

With so much transhumanist discourse geared toward efficiency and optimization, it’s wise to heed the words of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who warned us that the “extensions of man” bring about amputations of other qualities. In cultures of limitless ambition and logical efficiency, indulgence and waste are presumed to be synonymous. But sleep should not be seen as indulgence. It’s not like we’re not alive when we’re sleeping; some parts of our minds are working, and maybe even enjoying themselves.

Ultimately, the urge to hack sleep out of the human condition brings up a key question: Were we really put on this planet to find ways to work even harder?

By R.U. Sirius, VanWinkle's

This article originally published by Van Winkle’s, vanwinkles.com, the editorial division of Casper Sleep