If you set aside the incomparable cruelty and stupidity of human beings, surely our most persistent and irrational activity is to sleep. Why would we ever allow ourselves to drop off if sleeping was entirely optional? Sleep is such a dangerous place to go to from consciousness: who in their right mind would give up awareness, deprive themselves of control of their senses, volunteer for paralysis, and risk all the terrible things (and worse) that could happen to a person when they're not looking? As chief scientist in charge of making the world a better place, once I'd found a way of making men give birth, or at least lactate, I'd devote myself to abolishing the need for sleep. Apart from the dangers of letting your guard down, there's the matter of time. Instead of trying to extend the life of human bodies beyond their cellular feasibility, the men and women in lab coats could be studying ways to retrieve all the time we spend asleep. A third of our lives, they say - and that probably doesn't take the afternoon nap into account. Even if we died aged what is these days a rather youthful 70, finding a way to stay awake would increase our functional life to the equivalent of 93. And if we happened to live to 93 then we'd effectively be . . . oh, even older. Plus the nap time. Sleep, we're told, is essential, repairing the wear and tear on body and mind, but sex was once solely for the purpose of propagating the species and we pretty much found a workaround for that biological constraint.
LRB 31 July 2008 | PDF Download