What If Humans Didn't Need Sleep?

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Alex Slade
We spend 33% of our lives sleeping. That's around 25 years wrapped up in bed, catching up on sleep! But, what if we didn't need to sleep? What if we could spend our nap time doing something else? With more hours in the day, we could watch more movies, listen to more music, play more games, learn more skills and have more fun. Or, we could end up working longer shifts, stressing ourselves out and damaging our mental health.

What If Humans Didn’t Need to Sleep?

Sleep – who needs it? Well, all of us actually. Typically sleep takes up one third of our entire lives, which is a sobering and pretty frightening thought. So, clearly, the obvious answer (and logical starting point) is that if humans didn’t need to sleep, we’d have much more time for other things.

It’d mean fundamental changes in the way we live, what we do, and how and when we do it. Whether our shift to a sleep-free existence happens immediately or over time, we’d have to restructure everything to benefit from the extra waking hours we’d all enjoy. Which doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Or, too difficult? But, the idea of having more time may have its drawbacks and downsides as well.

First off, would we really get more done? Because, let’s be honest: More free time, means more time to waste, right? Bingeing TV shows becomes easier. Beating a new game without having to take a day off work becomes the norm. And general procrastination takes over. But, what if you aren't a time waster? What if, even without sleep, you strive to make every second count? There’s only so long you could keep it up without your body and mind being affected. After all, we’d still need time out to cope with the everyday stresses of life, and sleep is that time for a lot of people.

The economic impact would naturally centre on the sleep industry. While we’d probably still keep beds around for comfort and … recreation... everything else linked to sleep would become obsolete, or extreme luxury items. Dedicated bedrooms would disappear from most households, remaining only in the wealthiest homes as an opulent extra. Manufacturers of cushions, blankets, duvets and anything designed to make resting comfortable would find themselves without a customer – especially if, in a world without sleep, we never even felt tired at all.

It’d be more than just amenities, though, as there’d be a knock-on effect for medical professionals. Sleep specialists would no longer be needed. Pharmaceutical companies would no longer produce sleeping aids. And no sleep means no dreaming, so even the role of some therapists would change. Elsewhere, the hospitality sector would be totally different, too. While hotels would still exist as temporary bases for tourists and visitors, they’d need to be much more than just ‘somewhere to sleep’. That said, any hotel that did persuade its guests to indulge in a period of now-unnecessary sleeping could bill itself as though on another level of comfort and extravagance.

Without sleep, there’d be more time to work longer hours, and employer expectations could change. If even half of an average night’s sleep was spent working, that’s four extra hours in every 24. Even without physical exhaustion, the mental strain could quickly mount within a worldwide workplace that’s impossible to switch off from. On the plus side, for shift-work there’d be more shifts available, which could increase work opportunities. But, strict and specific laws would need to be in place to prevent burn out.

Assuming that our sleepless bodies would still need to retain energy of some kind, then food industries would surely benefit because we’d all be eating more. Without standard sleeping patterns, we’d need more meal times, too. And, with everyone awake all of the time, agreed upon meals would probably happen at agreed upon hours. So, breakfast is at 8 o’clock everywhere. Dinner is at five. Some kind of ‘other’ meal always happens around 1AM.

In general, a regulation of the clocks could set in all over. Yes, we’d still experience ‘day’ and ‘night’ at different times, which would still be crucial to farming industries especially, but the Earth’s rotation would no longer dictate when most of the world sleeps or wakes. With everything on and everyone conscious all of the time, the excesses would clearly start to show. With food, obesity levels could rise. But, also, the amount of garbage we make would increase. As would the amount of energy we consume, and the pollution we produce. Theoretically, the human impact on global resources would rise by 20 to 30%, given the extra time we’d all be awake. Yes, our homes and bodies still demand something from our planet when we’re sleeping, but not nearly as much as they would if we never took a nap.

On the plus side, the move would surely force hundreds of recycling initiatives. With the unsustainability of our lives suddenly fast-tracked, there’d be an even greater emphasis on eco-friendly living. There’d be all new jobs created in a quest to save the environment, but also plenty of opportunities in standard emergency services, too. The majority of accidents happen when we’re awake – so, our hospitals would need more doctors, nurses, surgeons and paramedics. Not to mention the maintenance staff, receptionists, managers and everyone else that works to keep those places open.

The police might also see their duties change, although a little less predictably. While general crime rates are usually highest during the day, a lot of what’s illegal happens when no one is watching – at night time, when they’re sleeping. So, while there’d still be a ‘cover of darkness’ at certain hours, the window for violent crimes and theft could close. Then again, potential criminals would be constantly awake, so the burden on the police increases because of that. Meanwhile, without the need for sleep to interrupt their schemes, the likes of fraudsters, hackers and scam artists could operate around the clock. It’s not as though the police would be less busy, just that there could be a change in focus.

In happier news, and if our jobs didn’t take over everything we did, then the extra time would also mean more leisure time. The entertainment industry would boom, creating more shows, films, games and music, just to keep people from being bored. And, with our enlarged diets threatening to become a major problem, health trends and fitness goals would be even more popular than they are today.

With more time on our hands, there’d also be more time to spend with family, friends and peers. There could be some downsides here – with time to trigger more arguments – but the positives of socialising with more people would likely outweigh the negatives. In terms of couples, there’d again be some extra strain. But, on the other side, the extra time together could also start a baby boom.

Regardless of how anyone chose to spend their extra time, however, there’d be many mental challenges. At its simplest, sleep is time for our mind and body to heal, for us to forget our problems and process information subconsciously. We usually wake up ‘feeling better’ for a reason, and the idea of ‘sleeping on it’ taps into the way in which sleep divides our lives up.

As well as the extra worries and stresses that a 24-hour waking society could create, it’d be even more difficult to escape those negative thoughts. Without sleep to provide at least a little structure and ‘downtime’, our minds would be working overtime, wrestling with whatever’s bothering us – which could lead us to react and behave in ways that we wouldn’t normally. Ever pulled an all-nighter? In the real world, we tend to become irritable because of the tiredness. But here, we could be dealing with hours and hours of panic, fear or sadness without any break.

Even if you’re in a positive mood, then the fundamental feeling of never-endingness could be confusing. The days would all just, kind of, blur into one, and we wouldn’t know the actual date (or even day of the week) without looking. With sleep, you can easily recall the things that happened the day before and say, “this happened yesterday”. But, when you never wake up from anything, it's hard to determine when exactly past events took place. If you didn't keep a diary before, you’d absolutely have to now.

It’s clearly a tricky balance, but for all of the negatives it’s still hard to imagine that a sleep-free world wouldn’t in some way equal faster progress in terms of technology, creativity and general human output. Given average sleeping hours and average life expectancies, we sleep for around 25 years throughout our lives. Consider the global changes that have happened in the past 25 years on current slumber patterns, and the whole of human history would look totally different if we didn’t need our Zs.

But, it’s definitely a case of perspective, and there’s no getting away from our biological need for sleep. In fact, because of the structure it gives our lives, and the opportunity it gives our brains to process and develop, sleeping should really be embraced. If we suddenly didn’t need it, then we’d no doubt quickly miss it.