Many of these new technologies chase the dream of optimised slumber. They promise to help tailor our sleep schedules to fit around our social lives, help us sleep for longer or even skip a night’s sleep altogether.
Here’s how technology is permeating our sleep, and what the future holds.
Time to wake up
Sleeping pills have recently been joined by a wave of wakefulness drugs, purportedly safer and more powerful alternatives to caffeine. It seems that they work best on people who are already sleep deprived and don’t have a huge effect on those who are already well rested.
Modafinil is touted for its cognition enhancing effects (especially in sleep-deprived people) and can supposedly keep people awake and alert for several days at a time. Some scientific studies are showing that this may indeed be the case, although results are mixed, with other research showing the effects are similar to caffeine.
The drug was developed to help people with narcolepsy but some have started using it for its focus-enhancing effects. It is a controlled drug (prescription only) in most countries. People who use it for cognitive enhancement or wakefulness are buying it on the black market or getting it from friends who have a prescription.
Modafinil is popular with students – in 2020, Loughborough University researchers found that, of 506 students surveyed at 54 UK universities, 19% had taken cognitive enhancement substances.
But people who take them for non-medical purposes are risking their health. Studies of the safety of these drugs do not consider this type of use. We don’t know what using these drugs to stay awake for long periods of time does to people’s bodies. But we do know that disrupting your sleep pattern (for example, shift work) is linked to health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Recent studies suggest some people are combining sleep and wakefulness pills to manage their body rhythms and optimise their sleep or unwind after a day of hard work. The effects of taking wakefulness pills with other drugs is largely unknown.
In the UK sale or supply of a prescription-only or unlicensed medicine is a criminal offence. Whereas in the US, even possession of stimulants without a prescription is a crime.
Many people already use smart watches, smart jewellery and fitness bands to track their sleep – for example, alarms that wake people up at the optimal point in their sleep cycle and motion sensor apps that analyse sleep patterns.
New ways of tracking sleep could soon include donning a pair of pyjamas embedded with sensors to track changes in posture, respiratory and heart rate, or hugging a robot pillow, whose algorithm creates a breathing pattern to mimic and help you fall asleep.
Meanwhile, care robots have already been trialled in Japan to test whether they could help older people sleep better. Designed to watch over residents at night in care homes, they give staff information on how well the residents are sleeping and let them know if anyone goes for a nocturnal wander...
Continue reading the article by Dr Catherine Coveney, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Loughborough University, and Dr Eric Hsu, Lecturer in Sociology at the University of South Australia, on the Conversation website.