Sleep is a preoccupation the vast majority of human beings simply cannot shake. Unlike those lucky few who seem to be able to get by on a few hours a night, most people require a good eight hours of rest to be able to work, play, and function properly. Given that so much of our lives are spent in sleep – a full third, if we’re lucky – it’s little wonder then why the science of sleeping continues to fascinate us and garner so much attention.
Just this past April, Yukiyasu Kamitani and his colleagues at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, announced that they were close to realizing their goal of being able to visualize people’s dreams. By this, of course, they meant the ability to take what a person was seeing while in deep REM sleep and project it onto a screen.
The process relies on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device, which examines the flow of blood in the brain to monitor activity. Using this data, the team then managed to create an algorithm that they claim can accurately display in real time what images are appearing in the subject’s dream. This is the first time, it is believed, that objective data has been collected from dreams.
But of course, the concept is predicated on the idea that when you experience a thought, your brain behaves in a specific, repeatable function. Assuming that this much is true, then the results could very well be quantifiable and rendered. The technology has already been demonstrated to work with a fair degree of effectiveness, as shown as the 2011 experiment at the University of California, where subjects watched movie trailers and had the images they were watching reconstructed.
And while some researchers are working on seeing dreams, others are working to reduce the time we spend doing it. Yes, given the hectic pace people who live in the modern, industrialized world are now forced to live by, there are actually research teams out there looking to find ways – pharmaceutical and neurological – to reduce our dependency on sleep.
The purpose is simple, to increase the amount of time we have in which live, produce and enjoy ourselves not by living longer, but by increasing the efficiency of sleep so we can spend more of our lives awake. In an extended essay that is available at Aeon magazine, Jessa Gamble – a writer specializing in the science of sleep – explains how new technologies could make this a reality.
Such technologies include things like the Somneo Sleep Trainer, a special mask that is being developed by Advanced Brain Monitoring and DARPA to help US servicemen and women combat fatigue, sleep deprivation, and experience more restful sleeps when they take them. By using a device that combines an EEG monitor and a series of blue-LED lights to supress melatonin, the mask is able to restrict the wearer’s sleep to only the most restorative phases of sleep.
And then there is the technology of transcranial direct-current stimulation, which involves such devices as the tDCS headband. Here, an electrical current is sent through the sleep-important parts of the brain, specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The mild stimulation augments awareness and allows subjects, according to Gamble, to “learn visual search skills at double the speed.” They also sleep better later on, with “briefer waking periods and longer deep-sleep sessions.”
A third potential technology that could be used is known as “transcranial magnetic stimulation” (TMS), a process which induces “slow-wave oscillations” in the brain, pushing the subject into a state of deep sleep in less time. Whereas the Somneo Sleep mask puts people into a lighter phase of sleep quicker, TMS will allow them to achieve a deeper state of sleep almost instantaneously. Add to that a better sleep cycle and better periods of wakefulness, and you’ve got what can only be described as “augmented sleep”.
But of course, this technology is being spearheaded for the sake of armed services, but has immense civilian applications as well. According to the CDC, roughly 30% of Americans live with less than adequate amounts of sleep, which drastically increases the risks of chronic disease. So realistically, this technology has the power to remediate the problem of those not getting enough sleep before it begins “enhancing” the sleep of others.
And I for one wonder where I might get myself a tCDS headband. While I have no intention of cutting down on the total number of hours I spend in the sack, I do like the idea of making the sleep I get more sound and my waking hours more wakeful. Then people can expect me to be a lot more productive. I know there have been some complaints about my output on this site lately 😉