The Future of Sleep Will Be Wilder Than Your Dreams
Thanks to advances in fields like neuroscience, the way we think about sleep is going to change radically over the next 20 years.
By Dominic Basulto / Source: Washington Post
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Related Article: How to Wake Up Inside Your Dreams