The 'Doctor Who' Argument Against Sleep Consolidation Science

In "Sleep No More," a hyper-powered nap chamber literally turns us into monsters.


Half Blair Witch Project, half first-person shooter, the Mark Gatiss-written “Sleep No More” was a radical departure from previous Dr. Who episodes in both its style and plot. In a season so far dedicated to two-part story arcs, “Sleep No More” was in essence a straight-up 45-minute horror vignette that feels like it would have been much better suited as a Halloween special akin to a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons.

The episode goes something like this: in the 38th century, a scientist has perfected the Morpheus machine — in essence, a sleeping pod that condenses a month’s worth of sleep cycles into one tidy, five-minute power nap. The only problem is the Morpheus machine has a pretty unsettling side effect: it creates monsters out of eye dust, which is to say flesh eating boogeymen made of actual …well…sentient eye boogers.

As skeevy as that sounds, there were actually a lot of redeeming qualities to the episode, especially the opened-ended conclusion where it’s revealed that the Doctor had actually been outsmarted along, but to what end? Does the mad scientist have plans to turn the human population into eye-crust monsters, or was the plan simply to make a story for the sake of a story?

According to Gatiss — perhaps best known for his role as Mycroft Holmes in the BBC Sherlock series — the answer to those questions are left to the viewer, at least for the time being. However in the words of Gatiss himself, “Sleep No More” was meant to be a sort of lampoon on the notion of sleep being the enemy of productivity.

“It’s a satire on our working lives. In the future, we’ll have no time at all. We’ll have to work all the time. Really, what humanity is doing is bartering away the most blessed thing there is: sleeping. Shakespeare and all the poets were right. There’s more to it than we know. It’s not just about having 40 winks, it’s empirically right for us to do, otherwise the monsters will get us!”

Interestingly enough, the idea of a sleep consolidation is rooted in actual (though still theoretical) science. We know an average human being will spend about one-third of their life catching z’s. Economists have long since examined the correlation between sleep and productivity, and while most agree workers getting a good night’s sleep are more efficient than workers who don’t, scientists are already experimenting on ways to consolidate sleep in an effort to spend less time snoring, to squeeze out more productivity.

Proponents of polyphasic sleep — taking several short naps throughout a 24-hour period — argue that a daily eight-hour sleep cycle is an evolutionary anomaly unique to human adults. Most animals sleep in polyphasic cycles, and as any parent of a newborn baby can tell you, so are most humans until we are trained otherwise. History is full of examples of some of mankind’s greatest thinkers adhering to a polyphasic sleep schedule. Perhaps most notable is Buckminster Fuller, who famously coined the phrase “Dymaxion sleep schedule” based on his own system of taking a 30-minute nap every six hours.

Can technology really let us tap out of a full night’s sleep? If so, would a five-minute sleep cycle be a blessing to productivity or a curse to humanity?

As University of Edinburgh neurologist Dr. Ian Morrison tells Van Winkle’s such a machine is possible, and likely to become a reality far sooner than the 38th century. However, given that most scientists are still unclear as to exactly why we sleep in the first place, even if sleep consolidation technology becomes available, we might be worse off for it.

Scientist Piotr A. Wozniak argues that while there are studies trumpeting the benefits of sleep consolidation, there is no way to condense the sleep cycle without chronic sleep deprivation, which can cause hallucinations and even heart failure. Not to mention the fact that polyphasic sleep studies are typically very selective in terms of the activities and occupations of the participants. While a sailor might get by on a series of 30-minute naps, how comfortable would we be finding out our surgeon was about to cut into us on two hours of sleep?

Technology notwithstanding, Gatiss’ philosophical argument might be the most convincing. What kind of masochist wants to live in a world where we trade a good night’s rest for another eight hours of work, of all things? Becoming a literal man-eating mucus-zombie seems only slightly less frightening than trading in a good night’s sleep just to work a week’s worth of double shifts, no matter how sound the science. We should take the Doctor’s advice (apparently, even Time Lords enjoy a good 40 winks) and embrace the gentle dark.

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