Sleeping Pills and Quality of Life

Blog || Politics || Philosophy || Science || Fiction || Quotes

Melatonin is a chemical secreted by the pineal gland when it gets dark and our eyes get less light. It helps regulate the human sleep cycle, telling the body that it is time to slow down, rest and regenerate. The lessened production of it in old age is the most likely explanation for the trouble older people have sleeping compared to young people.

Unfortunately, in our modern world of artificial lights and late nights, as we stare into TV and computer screens until moments before hitting the sack (hours after the sun has fallen), the natural sleep cycle can be interrupted because melatonin is not being produced as it should be. This is why a lot of people now take melatonin supplements a while before bed in order to fall asleep quicker and sleep better.

Granted, people have been taking sleeping pills for a while, but melatonin is less harsh and does not have unintentional side effects like most sleeping pills (Tylenol PM, for example, has the exact same active ingredient - Diphenhydramine HCl - and dose as Benadryl, an allergy medication).

However, it got me thinking about the way we use technology (in this case drugs) to alter how our bodies work (in this case, fix what we broke). Surely this can be extended beyond melatonin supplements. Wouldn't it be nice if sleep came in pill form?

The human body is only so complex, and our knowledge about it and ability to manipulate it keep progressing faster and faster. How long until we can manipulate those processes that make us require sleep, so that we can either ditch it altogether or at least minimize it? Perhaps with biotech implants or drugs or altered genetics we will be able to go days without sleep, requiring only a few hours here and there.

Imagine how such a change would impact society. No doubt if society has not drastically changed already then an immediate effect would be more working hours. After all, compare the hours spent working by the average person in a first world country like America or Japan to the time spent on survival by our nomadic ancestors (or modern-day "primitives" like the !Kung bushmen, estimated to work a little over two hours a day). Technological advancement has not exactly led to increased leisure time - though it certainly has increased leisure opportunities, and perhaps even quality.

Getting back that one-third or so of our lives that we spend sleeping certainly sounds appealing, even if it means some increased work hours in order to keep up with the altered economy. For that matter, what about all those other actions we go through day-to-day just to subsist and get by - the things we have to do repetitively, that eventually have to be done again no matter how good they were done the first time.

Eating for one. We could perhaps alter our bodies to require less food, or get by more efficiently on different intakes. Granted, we might still want to experience certain sensations connected with food and eating (both taste and the very feelings of hunger and sustenance), but we could separate that away from both the survival necessity and the negative effects of eating 'bad foods' (perhaps stimulate taste sensations directly and dissociate them from the connection with food). The same goes for dreaming if we give up sleep - presumably we could still keep the good parts of these activities around while avoiding the necessity that gets in the way so often.

After hunger and sleep, we could perhaps alter our bodily functions to avoid bad breath, body odor and other hygiene things that we spend so much time on in this modern world. Menial chores could likely be minimized by technological intervention too. Imagine all the time we could gain by getting rid of these daily requirements.

How we would spend that time is perhaps a more appropriate question though. As mentioned above, we would probably waste a good amount of it on increased work - not out of desire to do so, but because the system (bosses and managers, 'market forces', whatever you want to call it) would now be able to get away with it. Even the extra free time would likely be spent on the same things we spend our free time on today, good and bad.

Which just brings into focus the concept of life extension. Would adding x days (even a year) onto your life really increase the quality of your existence as a whole that much in the long run? Should I fret that much if I am deprived of one potential year at the end of the livable part of my life? Worrying about every potential year that could be added on seems a little silly, since there will always be one more imaginary year out of reach (and on into infinity, or the heat death of the universe anyway). In the end, it is what is done with the time that seems more important than how much of it there is. As D.P. Barron put it:

"Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon."

So next time you drag yourself out of bed and groan at all the hours you were forced to waste on the bodily function of sleep, instead just concentrate on what you can do during your waking hours to make them worthwhile. For example, you might find it rewarding to tally up the hours you spend whiling away time on silly stuff that afterward seems like a waste (channel surfing when nothing is on, e.g.). Try to make the most out of the time you have, because you will never have it all and worrying about the time you don't have just wastes the time you do. At least until sleep in pill form is invented.

Originally Written: 03-11-05
Last Updated: 03-11-05