What Will the Future of Sleep Look Like?

January 4, 2016 All posts Jared Sebastian

Sleep has changed somewhat since we flopped into our caves after a hard day of mammoth chasing, hasn’t it? Mattresses have evolved from straw to springs to latex and rubber. We invented light bulbs, upending the natural order of “sleep when it’s dark” and causing our internal clocks and melatonin secretion to go haywire. Until modern times, we haven’t even always slept in eight hour blocks. History professors have found that it used to be preferable to sleep twice, in chunks of three or four hours, spread out over twelve hours. Doctors would say the time after “first sleep” was best for study and contemplation. Even in the 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas A. Wehr found that after a few weeks of living without light bulbs, televisions and computers, his subjects would eventually fall into a pattern of falling asleep earlier, waking after midnight for a couple of hours, and then dozing off again.

The cutting edge in sleep right now is zero gravity adjustable electric beds, originally inspired by hospital bed technology. But what is in store for the future and what will the beds of the future look like? We have some zany ideas.

Nap pods

As data on the productivity benefits of napping become harder and harder to deny, workplaces like Google and Price Waterhouse Cooper have started to encourage sleeping on the job. These companies are already using tech that, if trends continue, will be widespread in the future: the nap pod. They look like a chaise with a hood. These nap pods (which were recently available to rent in the Empire State Building) are able to provide varying degrees of darkness and ambient sounds that encourage sleeping.

Dream control

Ever have a dream where you know you’re dreaming, and can decide what happens to you? Scientists may have worked out how to reliably control your dreams… if you’re willing to pulse low levels of electricity through your scalp.

Researchers in Germany last year found they were able to induce “lucid dreaming” by sending around 40 hertz of electricity to the frontal-temporal lobe during a snooze. A future where these devices are readily accessible would have very positive effects for people suffering from nightmares, PTSD, and related disorders.

Sleep cessation drugs

This is out there, and it's something we're concerned about as true believers in sleep. Crazy as it sounds to civilians, the military has long sought to create soldiers who fight without fatigue. A new drug, modafinil, has been shown in clinical studies to increase the hours of wakefulness among pilots and infantrymen without reducing their cognitive abilities. And what used to be considered normal – the requirement of eight hours of sleep – is starting to be seen as a flaw that needs to be corrected. Most research into modafinil is funded by not only the U.S. Department of Defense, but also the military of China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, India, and France. Seems like there’s a new race toward sleepless soldiers.

The drug recently become increasingly popular among investment bankers and students, and with the surge in interest of delaying or eliminating sleep, researchers and ethicists are wringing their hands over the dilemmas the trend could bring. What happens when a workplace encourages, or even requires these kinds of enhancements? Let's hope this "remedy" is soon abandoned. People need to sleep for themselves, and the technology is out there to help them.

Connected mattresses

A lot of this tech is actually already here, with mattresses now able to connect to portable devices, track how well you sleep, and then suggest solutions. Should the mattress be firmer in some parts and softer in others? Should it rise and fall in areas that will relieve pressure on your spine?

But the connected mattress of the future will go beyond current technology, picking up on your body’s preferences to adjust the fluffiness of your pillow, the temperature of your bed, and the darkness of your room. Companies are also developing mattresses that monitor heart rate, blood pressure, sleep stages, and even menstrual cycles. This kind of tech is particularly interesting to hotels, who are envisioning a future where you can arrive at your hotel, plug all your variables and preferences into their sleep system, and have your best night’s sleep, no matter where you are.

Whatever the beds of the future look like, we’d guess that one thing will remain the same: feeling well-rested to be ready to take on the (flying car-filled) world.