Life's Little Mysteries

What If We Didn't Need Sleep?

A young woman sleeping.
(Image credit: Pressmaster |

If you've ever pulled an all-nighter, you know you're not yourself the next day. And perhaps you've even lamented the need for 8 hours of shut-eye.

But what if there were a cure for sleep? What if there were a drug you could take so you never felt tired? After all, researchers are working on drugs to prevent sleepiness — a 2007 study found that a nasal spray containing the hormone orexin-A reversed the effects of sleep deprivation in monkeys.

Even so, experts say sleep plays a fundamental role in how people structure their lives, and taking it away would have a large sociological impact.

"People don't realize what a reciprocal relationship we have with sleep," said Mairead Eastin Moloney, a medical sociologist and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky. "Sleep really structures our lives," and we also structure our sleep around our social world, Moloney said. [What If? 22 Crazy Hypothetical Questions (and Their Answers)]

Here are some ways human lives might be different if there were a cure for sleep.          

More productive?

Many people think they would be more productive if only they had more time. So in a world without sleep — in which people had 8 more hours in a day — it's tempting to suggest they'd get more done, and society would solve more problems. But experts say most people would not make the best use of this extra time.

"It's really seductive to think we would all become smarter and more productive, but that's not necessarily the case," Moloney said.

The human brain requires a certain amount of downtime to function optimally, and too much work or stress impairs thinking, Moloney said. That's why people may come up with their best ideas in the shower, or in the middle of a seemingly mindless pastime.

Linda Sapadin, a psychologist in private practice in New York, agreed. "Most people are not more productive," if they have more time, Sapadin said.

When people have extra time, they tend to fill it with relaxation, or just pass the time away, Sapadin said. "We're not machines," so we can't simply keep working 24/7, she said. People who are compulsive workers might do more at first, but "eventually [the work] would take its toll, because we need to refresh ourselves," she said.

Rather than being more productive, people might just be busier. Technological advances over the last few decades have allowed people to work around the clock, Moloney noted, but they aren't necessarily more productive than in the past — they're just busier.

"Sleep really puts a pause on our busyness and our productivity," Moloney said. Without sleep, "I would be curious to see if we would spiral into busier and busier patterns."

Changes in work schedules

Expectations around work might change as well. Without a need for sleep, your boss might be justified in wondering why you didn't reply to an email at 3 a.m.

Taking away sleep "shifts expectations of how long people can work for without a break," said Catherine Coveney, a research fellow in global health at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.

As part of a research project, Coveney asked people in different professions what they thought would happen if there were a drug to replace sleep. She found that people who worked day as well as night shifts (such as doctors, nurses and police officers) were concerned about the idea. "They were worried about exploitation and employers putting pressure on their employees to work longer hours and do more shifts in the name of economic productivity, where socially and healthwise, workers would lose out," Coveney said.

Society would also need more staff in service professions, such as police officers and firefighters, Moloney said. Even though there are night-shift workers now, society would need more, because people would be more active at night, Moloney said.

What would you do if you didn't have to sleep?

Relationship problems

A cure for sleep would also likely affect relationships. Although people like to spend time with loved ones, too much time with their kids or significant other could have a downside.

"If everyone's awake and active, when do you get downtime, when do you get a break from your intimates?" Moloney said. "People get a little worn out," if they don't have time away from their loved ones — something that sleep usually brings, she added.

On the other hand, some people might lose out on interactions with their family if routines that are built around sleep, like reading to kids before bed, disappear.

"We might lose things like mealtimes and family time [and] routines around bedtime," Coveney said.

Economic impact

Although the elimination of sleep would provide more opportunity to make money, it would also offer more opportunities to spend money. For instance, people would need to heat their homes 24 hours a day and eat more meals, Coveney said. "A world without sleep would need more resources to keep it running," she said.

There's also a question of what would happen to the sleep industry — Americans spend $5 billion a year on sleeping aids, Moloney said.

"We have all these ways in which we basically have formed a private economy around sleep that would disappear," Moloney said.

Health implications

Forgoing sleep might also have health implications. Sleep problems have been linked with a number of health conditions, including obesity and heart disease. Even if there were a drug that allowed people to function without sleep, that would not necessarily take away the risk of these other health conditions linked with a lack of sleep, Moloney said.

In addition, there would be more opportunities to eat, which could lead to increases in obesity, Moloney said. While there would theoretically also be more time to get to the gym, humans tend to gravitate toward things that bring pleasure, she said.

"Even when people really do have the time to make healthy choices, a lot of times, most of us don't," Moloney said.

Sleep is also important for memory consolidation, said Dr. Abid Malik, medical director of the South Seminole Hospital Sleep Disorders Center at Orlando Health in Florida. So even if people don't feel tired, a lack of sleep can affect their brains, Malik said. It's unclear what the long-term consequences of taking drugs to stay awake might be, he added.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.