You want the sheeple to wake up? Jessa Gamble writes at Aeon:
Since stimulants have failed to offer a biological substitute for sleep, the new watchword of sleep innovators is ‘efficiency’, which means in effect reducing the number of hours of sleep needed for full functionality. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the research arm of the US military – leads the way in squeezing a full night’s sleep into fewer hours, by forcing sleep the moment head meets pillow, and by concentrating that sleep into only the most restorative stages. Soldiers on active duty need to function at their cognitive and physiological best, even when they are getting only a few hours sleep in a 24-hour cycle.
Nancy Wesensten, a psychologist for the Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland, has a mission to find ways to sustain soldier operations for longer, fighting the effects of acute or chronic sleep deprivation. She has argued that individual’s sleep should be regarded as an important resource, just like food or fuel. Working with the Marine corps, Wesensten is not trying to create a super warrior who can stay awake indefinitely. She does not even see herself trying to enhance performance, as she already considers her subjects the elite of the elite. Everyone has to sleep eventually, but the theatre of war requires soldiers to stay awake and alert for long stretches at a time.
Whereas the US Army and Air Force have a long history of adopting stimulants — pioneering modafinil applications and dextroamphetamine use in 24-hour flights — the Marines generally will not accept any pharmacological intervention. Like Wesensten, Chris Berka, the co-founder of Advanced Brain Monitoring (ABM), one of DARPA’s research partners, told me that she is cautious about the usefulness of stimulants, ‘Every so often, a new stimulant comes along, and it works well, and there’s a lot of interest, and then you don’t hear anything more about it, because it has its limitations.’
Some failed Air Force missions have drawn attention to the dangers of amphetamine-induced paranoia. Less than a decade after a 1992 Air Force ban on amphetamines, ‘go pills’ were quietly reintroduced to combat pilots for long sorties during the war in Afghanistan. On 17 April 2002, Major Harry Schmidt, who had trained as a top gun fighter pilot, was flying an F-16 fighter jet over Kandahar. Canadian soldiers below him were conducting an exercise, and controllers told Schmidt to hold his fire. Convinced he was under attack, the speed-addled pilot let loose and killed four Canadian soldiers. The friendly fire incident resulted in a court martial, but in the media it was the drugs that were on trial.
With military personnel in mind, ABM has developed a mask called the Somneo Sleep Trainer that exploits one- or two-hour windows for strategic naps in mobile sleeping environments. Screening out ambient noise and visual distractions, the mask carries a heating element around the eyes, based on the finding that facial warming helps send people to sleep. It also carries a blue light that gradually brightens as your set alarm time approaches, suppressing the sleep hormone melatonin for a less groggy awakening.
Sleep ideally contains multiple 60- to 90-minute cycles, from slow-wave sleep back up to REM, but a 20-minute nap is all about dipping into Stage 2 as quickly as possible. The idea of the Somneo is to fast-track through Stage 1 sleep, a gateway stage with few inherent benefits, and enter Stage 2, which at least restores fatigued muscles and replenishes alertness.
For Marines at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, four hours of sleep or less is one of the rigours of both basic and advanced training. As a character-building stressor, night after night of privation is a personal endurance test but, as Wesensten has argued, it runs counter to other goals of their training, such as learning how to handle guns safely, and then remembering that information in a month’s time. Berka agrees. ‘We demonstrated cumulative effects of chronic sleep deprivation, even prior to deployment, and it was having an impact on learning and memory,’ she explained, after ABM had brought brain-monitoring devices into the camp for 28 days of measurement. ‘It was defeating the purpose of training for new skill sets, and command acknowledged this was important.’ It’s not cheap to equip dozens of trainees with night goggles and train them to distinguish foes from friends — all the while paying out salaries.
The Somneo mask is only one of many attempts to maintain clarity in the mind of a soldier. Another initiative involves dietary supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish oils, sustain performance over 48 hours without sleep — as well as boosting attention and learning — and Marines can expect to see more of the nutritional supplement making its way into rations. The question remains whether measures that block short-term sleep deprivation symptoms will also protect against its long-term effects. A scan of the literature warns us that years of sleep deficit will make us fat, sick and stupid. A growing list of ailments has been linked to circadian disturbance as a risk factor.
Both the Somneo mask and the supplements — in other words, darkness and diet — are ways of practising ‘sleep hygiene’, or a suite of behaviours to optimise a healthy slumber. These can bring the effect of a truncated night’s rest up to the expected norm — eight hours of satisfying shut-eye. But proponents of human enhancement aren’t satisfied with normal. Always pushing the boundaries, some techno-pioneers will go to radical lengths to shrug off the need for sleep altogether.
Read more here.