Optimized Sleep

by Anders Sandberg

To reduce or at least control the need for sleep is a very popular subject among transhumanists. Here are some ideas I have found, that may be useful for this end.

This page is mainly based on two interviews with the sleep-researcher Torbjörn Åkerstedt at IPM, in Fri Teknik December 1995 and Dagens Nyheter November 3 1995.


Sleep can be more or less efficient. If you sleep for a long time there is a risk that the sleep will be inefficient, and you just waste your time (although it is of course pleasant and dreams can often be inspiring). There is also some evidence that imply that people who sleep longer more often develop depressions, that can be ameliorated or cured by reducing the length of sleep and the introduction of more light during waking hours. In general it is good to be surrounded by light during waking hours (preferably bright sunlight), and darkness when one plans to sleep to adjust the biological clocks correctly (the superchiasmatic nucleus in hypothalamus, which regulates our rhythms, is linked to the optic nerve and reacts to light/darkness).

It is currently a bit unclear how much sleep is needed per night, but four hours seems to be the absolute minimum for normal function. Normal sleeping time is 6 hours for adults, while the body will (if allowed) shift to a 8.5 hour sleep every night. There are no doubt individual differences, and the length of sleep is also dependent on our habits.

The lightbulb has changed our sleeping habits to a large extent; earlier the sunset marked the beginning of the night and sunrise the beginning of the day, but today most people (at least in the cities) remain awake a long way into the night. According to the old biological rhythms we should awaken at 8 in the morning, not at 6 as most people do. At this early time the melatonin concentration is at its greatest, and it makes us tired and sleepy.

It is worth noting that there exists two kinds of sleep, mental sleep and physical sleep. The body needs rest to replenish energy resources and some forms of repair, while the brain appears to do "garbage collection" during sleep (although this is debated). These two forms of sleep do not have to coincide, although they usually do. It should be possible to relax and rest the body while remaining mentally active, for example in some forms of meditation or just lying in bed reading (in the latter case some ergonomic design is needed to avoid tensing too many muscles).

Beside the major 24-hour rhythm there are other short-periodic rhythms in our activity levels. Most people experience a dip in activity after midday, corresponding to the siesta in warmer countries (a quite natural adaption to the noon heat). A related periodic activity change seems to have a period of aix hours; after waking up at six the mind and body feel tired to around nine, when they start to become efficient and clearly awake. This active state lasts for around three hours until replaced by the early afternoon dip, which can last to until three, when another activity period begins. These times are of course different for different persons, but by acting on your biological rhythms you can plan your day for maximum efficiency.

A System For Optimal Sleeping

As described in the article in Fri Teknik: This will give you approximatively 5 1/2 hours of sleep per day, distributed more evenly than the usual sleeping pattern. The timing should of course to be adjusted for your own daily rhythm. To make your sleep efficient is a matter of training, and it is not possible to achieve it through pure willpower (which will just undermine your efforts, since having to go to sleep is one of the best ways of avoiding it).

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Anders Sandberg / asa@nada.kth.se