Waking up to the perils of a pill that promises to kill sleep

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am

'Sleep while you can,' the caption read. The announcement it referred to, the death of sleep, filled this journalist with fascination and disquiet.

The disquiet wound up winning the day. The prospect of no longer needing to sleep bothers me as much as the chance of extending life indefinitely and the development of memory boosters such as Anacardium that promise to prevent you from forgetting all the misfortune life throws at you.

Just in case you were dozing off when the news emerged in the New Scientist magazine, lifestyle pills, it seems, will enable people to cope with the pressures of a 24-hour society by allowing for eight hours of sleep in just under two. The mind boggles as to how having sleepless nights helps anyone cope - I thought that sleep deprivation induced hallucinations.

The pursuit of wide-eyed nights seems even more bizarre in the light of a recent University of Amsterdam study showing sleep is critical to our decision-making processes. In February, in the New Scientist, Gaia Vince wrote that complex decisions are best left to your unconscious mind - over-thinking a problem could result in costly mistakes.

The research suggests that the conscious mind should be trusted only with simple decisions such as selecting a brand of oven glove. Sleeping on a big decision, such as buying a car or house, was more likely to produce a satisfying result than consciously weighing the pros and cons of the problem, researchers said.

'Thinking hard about a complex decision that rests on multiple factors appears to bamboozle the conscious mind so that people only consider a subset of information, which they weigh inappropriately, resulting in an unsatisfactory choice. In contrast, the unconscious mind appears able to ponder over all the information and produce a decision that most people remain satisfied with,' Ms Vince said.

So there you have it. Unless you are just buying an oven glove, a snap decision made without shut-eye is a stupid decision.

Regardless of the consequences, the promise of endless sleepless nights will delight ruthless new economy bosses keen to make the working day last all night.

Picture the shadowy prospect of an eternal overtime unhindered by drowsy eyelids. Picture total productivity embodied by remorseless drones who have no concept of knocking off or clocking off.

It could happen. 'The more we understand about the body's 24-hour clock, the more we will be able to override it. In 10 to 20 years, we will be able to pharmacologically turn sleep off,' said Russell Foster, a circadian biologist at Imperial College London.

Otherwise, the lifestyle pills story was short on detail about the blockbuster drug(s) in question. That is encouraging because it may mean that the story amounts to science fiction.

But if the drug ever does materialise, maybe it should be banned like GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), crystal meth (crystal methamphetamine), the dissociative anaesthetic ketamine and other dodgy substances. I cannot imagine anything worse than no longer being able to sleep.

After all, sleep is central to our mental health - mending the mind and enabling us to recover from whatever stress we have experienced in the car, home or workplace. Also, sleep has a recreational purpose. I remember reading the resume of British industrialist Sir John Harvey Jones and noticing that it mentioned sleep as one of his hobbies.

Why not? As some seer once said, there is more refreshment and stimulation in a nap, even the briefest, than in all the alcohol ever distilled.

What is more, it is an integral part of our culture, like fire, long lunch breaks and the internet. Remove it from the equation and society will degenerate into a dystopia entirely driven by the understanding that you are what you do. The very thought is exhausting.