Netflix vs your dreams

The science is still out on the inner-workings of a good night's sleep. There are myriad hypotheses about it's core purpose, ranging from memory consolidation to immune system tuning to regulating emotions to dream generation. The one thing that we can be sure of, however, is that dream time is not safe from the opportunistic tentacles of the capitalist cephalopod—to put it gently.

This is tongue-in-cheek—surely?—but it betrays some general truths about how mis-aligned this basic human function has become with the imperatives of free-market capitalism. Sleep has simultaneously become both a barrier to increased consumption (when you get it) and a missed opportunity to maximize your productive output as a human (when you don't).

Netflix wants to keep you up all night bingeing. The sleep aid industry wants to "help" you stay down all night so you can continue performing the insomnia-inducing pageant of late capitalism. Silicon Valley has ramped up funding for Big Sleep companies of various shapes and sizes, allocating almost $300 million last year.
"It might seem counter-intuitive to see internet entrepreneurs pitching solutions for the same fatigue-induced burnout commonly caused by working at a startup or using its products. Yet that’s what’s happening as more serial founders jump on the restfulness bandwagon."
The structures and learned behaviors of modern society have driven us to epidemic levels of insomnia—not to mention a culture that embraces sleep-shaming—but instead of re-thinking those structures to better align with our natural homeostasis, we look to technology and pharmaceuticals. Could the solution actually be the one that evolution perfected over the course of 3.6 million years?

A cure for the common sleep

As with many innovations, the military is responsible for pushing the leading edge of research into ways that we can "free" ourselves from the pesky need to spend 1/3 of our lives in a restful state. This Aeon article discusses the various ways the military is pushing toward a future in which sleep can be cured.
"Every hour we sleep is an hour we are not working, finding mates, or teaching our children; if sleep does not have a vital adaptive function to pay for its staggering opportunity cost, it could be ‘the greatest mistake the evolutionary process ever made’, in the words of Allan Rechtschaffen, the pioneering sleep researcher and professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago."
To consider the need for sleep an evolutionary mistake is to misunderstand evolution. Mutations that occur during reproduction are what allow evolutionary testing of new genetic combinations, and the ones that stick (i.e. sleep as a basic organic function) tend to be the useful ones.

One interesting—and intuitive—finding comes from an experiment run in the mid '90s by the Canadian military to test the effects of sleep-surpressing stimulants on task performance. They paired volunteers and instructed one to help the other reproduce a map (the map was needed for the second volunteer to complete a task). The participants who had not been given a stimulant often paused along the way to ask for feedback on their instructions to ensure that the other was following. Those who had received the stimulant were more brusque, and their communication was more aggressive and unidirectional—resulting in less accurate maps and lower team performance on the task.

This effect, known as tunneling, forces a waking state in which subjects are able to continue to perform tasks, but unable to relate well to their wider environment. It demonstrates how catastrophic outcomes arise when problems aren't solved holistically.

Aside from stimulants, other techniques discussed in the article include high-tech sleep masks and trans-cranial direct-current stimulation (a.k.a. shock therapy). Regardless, treating sleep like a disease that needs to be cured seems like a downstream solution to a problem we ourselves have created far upstream.

Why dreams may come

What makes sleep—like many neurological phenomena—such a fascinating subject is how little we actually know about it. However, a few recent studies have shed some new light on the subject.
"Our dream stories essentially try to strip the emotion out of a certain experience by creating a memory of it. This way, the emotion itself is no longer active. This mechanism fulfills an important role because when we don’t process our emotions, especially negative ones, this increases personal worry and anxiety. In fact, severe REM sleep-deprivation is increasingly correlated to the development of mental disorders. In short, dreams help regulate traffic on that fragile bridge which connects our experiences with our emotions and memories."
There seem to be considerable similarities between the types of brain waves generated and the parts of the brain that are active when we create and store waking, "autobiographical" memories and when we experience vivid dreams in a deep REM state.

Anyone waking from an intense dream can testify that these emotions are felt just like any lived experience, and it stands to reason that there is a well-developed evolutionary purpose to our brains attaching these real emotions to self-generated "memories".

Asleep at the helm

This American Life produced a fascinating episode a few months back that was all about humans screwing up in very high-stakes situations. The first act tells the story of a team of mechanics in a missile silo in Arkansas who—through a freak accident during routine maintenance—almost detonated a nuclear warhead.

The second act looks at a string of recent naval accidents that resulted in the death of nearly 20 sailors, the cause of which was later revealed to be a result of a toxic culture of sleep deprivation within the Navy.

Both stories are absorbing, but the second really exemplifies the corrupting forces of the military-industrial complex—that supremely capitalist alliance.

Deep thoughts

Umair Haque is an economic futurist and author of The New Capitalist Manifesto, which served as a practical guide to adjusting the main tenets of industrial-age capitalism to create a new "constructive capitalism"—one which does not feed on infinite (read: unsustainable) growth.

He recently published a new book, entitled How to Dream (available as an e-book and for free as a Medium post), which is an attempt to reignite the art of dreaming in a society that has been otherwise anesthetized against it, in service of creating a world that maximizes our potential, rather that satiating our "rational empiricist materialism."

"Once we dreamed of voyaging to the far-flung stars. Now we settle for sending billionaires into low earth orbit. We once nobly dreamed of curing mankind’s ills — and did. Now, we spend more on nutraceuticals, cosmeceuticals, and plastic surgery than we do on new antibiotics, vaccines, or chemotherapies… while we decry taking vaccines... We dreamed yesteryear of education for every mind. Now young people’s backs break before they’ve even learned to stand up, with debt."

Nothing comes into existence without first being dreamed—waking or sleeping—and if we don't dream big, the best we can hope for is incrementalism, which is precisely how we ended up in our current mess. These dreams become the new stories we tell about where we can collectively go as a society and as a species.

Dreaming is not limited to Sleepytime™, but if we seek to eradicate sleep in the name of efficiency, or if we treat the symptoms of a sleep-deprived culture without assessing the root causes, it seems unlikely that we'll have the energy, focus, and holistic awareness to conjure dreams that might prevent us from penning a Black Mirror episode with our future.


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