7 min read

#5 - The future of sleep

What happens when we don't need sleep anymore? Or when we're all able to have lucid dreams? That would change the world, but how? In this edition of the newsletter, I try to answer that question.
#5 - The future of sleep
Midjourney prompt: little boy looking at a dreamworld with indian temples, hazy, clouds, dreamforest, light blue, pink, fog, dreamy lights, 8k, intricate detail, studio ghibli style --upbeta --testp --ar 16:9 --upbeta

What happens when we don't need sleep anymore? Or when we're all able to have lucid dreams? That would change the world, but how? In this edition of the newsletter, I try to answer that question.

What I have been thinking.

What would a random person from the Middle Ages recognize in your home? I spent some time performing this thought experiment this week. Let's go through the investigation together. And to make it a bit more fun, let's call our medieval friend Walterus. When Walterus approaches my home, he would probably need a minute to recover from seeing a multi-story building and glass windows. He would, however, recognize the door and the lock. He would also know how to use the corresponding key to open the door. Once inside, he would see a pile of newspapers, a drying rack full of clothes, and a pile of shoes. He will probably recognize the shoes, and with some luck, he will see the similarities between his pants and the jeans on my drying rack.

The only thing Walterus immediately recognizes in my kitchen are the pots, pans, cutlery, and plates. He would have recognized the gas stove if I had one, but I have an Aliexpress induction plate, which Walterus doesn't recognize. Walterus also marvels at the sight of all the food in the refrigerator and pantry, the dishwasher, and running water. He also realizes that all the rooms are brightly lit, even when it's dark outside. Brilliant.

The next room he enters has something he vaguely recognizes: a bath. "𝔑𝔦𝔠𝔒 𝔱𝔬 π”₯π”žπ”³π”’ 𝔬𝔫𝔒 𝔣𝔬𝔯 𝔢𝔬𝔲𝔯𝔰𝔒𝔩𝔣" he whispers. In the town Walterus lives, there is one place where everyone takes a bath. He is most astonished by the running water in this room, especially when it is used to make his feces disappear.

He moves on to the next room, called "the living room," by the people who somehow transported him from his peaceful farm to modern times. The only thing he vaguely recognizes in this room is the seats and tables. They look different than the furniture in his house, but once he sits on the sofa, he knows that it serves the same function as the wooden chair he owns. When he takes another look, he notices one more thing: the shelf with books. Although he doesn't own books, he is aware of their existence.

My bedroom is the last room Walterus enters. He instantly recognizes my bed. Sure, it is a bit different from the wooden bed and mattress stuffed with hay, but the function of the bed didn't change much during the centuries he skipped. Tired from his journey, Walterus decides to lie down for a bit. He is already asleep when his head touches the pillow.

We can conclude that not many things in our homes survived the test of time: clothes, doors, locks, kitchenware, tables, chairs, stairs, baths, books, and beds. Even more interesting, except for sleeping, all activities related to these objects changed radically during the last centuries. We read fewer books, our clothes look different, we use our chairs more than 8 hours per day, we take showers instead of a bath, we cook other food (or don't cook at all), and our most important table is our desk instead of the dining table. The only activity that didn't change was sleep. If we talk to Walterus, it will probably be the activity where we can have a fun conversation and understand each other's feelings. The only other thing that I can come up with is talking about the weather. Sure, we sleep less and are woken by an alarm instead of the sun, but the activity in itself stayed largely the same. That is remarkable because it takes up a large amount of our day (in a world where we need to become more and more productive).

Another reason why sleep is fascinating; it's the same process for everyone. Everyone needs sleep; you can't skip it. It doesn't matter if you are rich or poor, man or woman, young or old. That is quite remarkable in a time where it seems you can buy everything if you have the money for it. It got me thinking about scenarios where our sleep is invaded by innovation and the consequences that it would bring. I (inspired by this episode of The Joy of Why podcast) came up with three scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: We develop a way to sleep less
  • Scenario 2: We develop a way to engineer our dreams
  • Scenario 3: We don't change the way we sleep

Let's explore these two scenarios further.

Scenario 1: Sleep less

I like to make bold assumptions when I think about the future. When you don't make bold assumptions, your brainstorming will only get you a few years further, and the discussion will get stuck on details. Pay attention when you hear someone say: "That technology is years away" or "That's impossible" because these statements tell that the brainstorming session is hitting a wall. So, for this scenario, I will make the following bold assumption:

Humanity discovered a way to sleep less (3 hours per night) without immediate effects on health.

As stated above, I'm not saying that this will be possible in the (near) future. That's not the point of this thinking exercise. The point is to think about the consequences of this development, were it true.

The dystopian answer to this question is that we will work more. The utopian answer is that we will have more free time. I lean towards the dystopian version, but I also watched all Black Mirror episodes twice (except for the horrible last season). The graph below shows that this catastrophizing is unnecessary, as the total working hours per worker have decreased during the previous hundred years.

Let's assume that we will keep working eight hours per day. Will we work during the day or the night? It will probably feel weird to be in the office in the middle of the night (or to spend my free time during that time of the day). If I had to choose for myself, I would sleep from 24:00 till 03:00, work from home till 08:00 and spend the last three hours in the office. This means I'm done around noon and can spend time on the things I love. This won't necessarily work for other people. I wonder if the world will feel like one big airport where everybody has an entirely different internal clock. Being awake for 21 hours also means businesses and shops will probably stay open longer. Since individuals will not work more than before, there will be new jobs. These will be hard to fill since the aging population is already a problem with the current labor market. As much as I hope that the extra time will allow people to learn to play an instrument, speak a new language or write a remarkable piece of software, it will probably lead to even more hours on TikTok, Youtube, and the metaverse. And will this technology be available to everyone? Or will only the rich have access to the sleeping pill?

Scenario 2: Engineer our dreams

In this scenario, we don't sleep less, but we will find a way to alter our dreams. Lucid dreaming for everyone, nature's metaverse! Thus, the bold assumption is:

Humanity discovered a way to alter and manipulate the dreams we have.

The "fun" thing about this statement is that it's already happening: there are studies where the subject can communicate with the researchers during a lucid-dream, and other studies show that the things we hear during our dreams can affect our decisions while awake. Millions of people have a smart speaker in their bedroom, an Apple Watch on their wrist, and their phone on the nightstand. It is not a far-fetched idea that these devices will start playing advertisements during our REM sleep. Maybe we will even accept ads during our dreams to have an ad-free experience while awake.

I also wonder if it would be possible to work during our dreams. If we are fully conscious, why not make use of it? Maybe we will get to a point where our body is resting, and we use influence the dream in such a way that we can do something fun and communicate with others. There are probably positive effects of dreaming (that we don't know of) that we destroy by using our dreams to work, though. Maybe it's a bad idea. Then again, I already dream every night, and it feels (kind of) real. It would be cool to have a multiplayer dream. Watch a movie with my girlfriend (by the way, is there a word that sits between girlfriend and wife? Let me know in the comments), play a game with friends, or read a book. That shouldn't be too taxing on the brain, would it?

Scenario 3: Everything stays as it is

The only constant is change. Things change, as will our sleep. I'm curious to see how this develops, and I hope that humanity shows humility in the face of mother nature. I believe that sleep is essential and has many effects that we don't know about. Other than that, I love to sleep in. It will be a bummer if I have to miss that.

What I have been doing.

  • I rediscovered Khruangbin. If you are fed up with Lo-Fi music, try this while you are working.
  • I started doing daily stretches. This routine works well for me (even though I still struggle).
  • I started to make my favorite takeaway chicken wrap at home. Still looking to perfect the seasoning for the chicken; maybe this video will help.
  • Interesting thread about the difficulties of self-hosting your email.
  • Graphs about the aging population in different countries. It is going to be interesting in a few decades.
  • I started watching House of the Dragon, and it feels like good old GoT (including a king who looks like a deepfake). Wonder what happens when the writers run out of books (read: storyline).


And with that, my friends, this edition of the newsletter ends. More than 70 people subscribed this month, which is fantastic. It is fun to write, but it is quite an honor to know that people take the time to read (and react). If you know someone that might like this newsletter, please forward this edition to them.

Have a great week, and see you next Tuesday!