Humanity could one day live without sleep

Forty winks: A 75-year-old on eight hours’ rest a night will have spent around 25 years asleep.

What if we never needed sleep? Scientists have discovered a genetic mutation that lets its carriers live happily on only a few hours’ sleep, and it could be spreading through the population.

Margaret Thatcher famously needed only four hours’ sleep. Today, Donald Trump gets by on as little as three.

So, how can some people run countries on a couple of hours’ sleep, while others are bleary-eyed and incapable on anything less than eight? Scientists, finally, think they know the answer. It may be written into our DNA.

A group of researchers at the University of California studied 12 members of the same family, who all slept for 4.5 hours a night or less without feeling tired. They found that they all had a genetic mutation in a gene called ADRB1.

“The eight-hour norm has been the standard for a long time but, somehow, a few new mutations occurred recently and produced this seemingly advantageous trait,” explained Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California.

Over generations, this mutation may be spreading through the population.

And the researchers took the study a step further. When they bred rats with the same mutation, the rodents needed 55 minutes sleep less per day. It raises the possibility that scientists could, one day, develop a treatment to dramatically reduce the amount of sleep we need, or eradicate it all together.

If you had the chance to never feel sleepy again, would you take it?

Fu thinks it’s an exciting prospect.

“Most natural short sleepers are very happy about their sleep pattern – they usually fully take advantage of their extra time,” she says.

In a recent study of US adults, 65% said they it would be “very desirable” or “desirable” to never need sleep. Over one-in-four would spend their extra hours on leisure and fun, 16% on working more, and a further 16% would spend it with their family.

And yet, as a society, we are more obsessed with sleep than ever. The sleep industry is worth $76 billion, built on designer pillows, best-selling books, apps and podcasts.

And sleep has a bigger role than just fending off tiredness. Our social and working lives are structured around it.

Would life really be better if we never slept again?

Sweet dreams?

Of course, say some. You wouldn’t miss sleep if you didn’t need it. With those extra eight hours, we could achieve so much more in our short lives: learn a language, read and write books, spend time with family and friends, or just catch up on that boxset. There are never enough hours in the day, so let’s have the night too.

But is that right? “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,” gasps a sleep-deprived Macbeth. It is our break from the relentless pace of life. Even if we wouldn’t feel tired, our brains can only take a certain amount of work or stress before we lose the ability to think properly. That’s why the best ideas often come unexpectedly, when the brain is relaxing. A life without sleep is a recipe for overload and misery.

You Decide

  1. How many hours do you need to sleep for?
  2. What more would you do if you didn’t need to sleep?

Activities

  1. Make a poster with five tips to encourage healthy sleeping patterns.
  2. Keep a dream diary for the week. After seven days, reflect on what you have written down. Do your dreams relate back to your daily life? Do you think they have a meaning?

Some People Say...

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), US author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The average human spends roughly one-third of their life asleep. This is less than the brown bat, which needs 19.9 hours day, but a lot more than the giraffe, which sleeps for just 1.9 hours. For humans, the record for the longest period without sleep is 11 days. A study found that people who earn between £65,000 and £75,000 get the best sleep.
What do we not know?
Whether the ADRB1 mutation will become more widespread over time, or how long that could take. Mutations area an essential part of evolution. Without mutations in the DNA of living things, they would never be able to change and adapt to the environment. Blue eyes is a genetic mutation that took place around 10,000 years ago, although it is of no evolutionary benefit. Before that, everyone had brown eyes.

Word Watch

Margaret Thatcher
The UK’s first female Prime Minister, in office 1979 to 1990, making her the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century.
Three
The US President credits his success with getting only three to four hours’ sleep a night.
Study
A survey of 1,000 adults carried by sleepjunkie.org this year.
$76 billion
US insurance company Aetna, which has almost 50,000 employees, gives them a bonus for getting more sleep. If they sleep for seven hours (or more) for 20 nights, they get an extra $25 (£20) per night.
Macbeth
The Scottish king of Shakespeare’s tragedy cannot sleep from the guilt of committing a bloody crime.

Subjects

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