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Sleepless Nights: Exploring the Dark Side of Our Obsession with Productivity

We spend a full third of our lives sleeping, our eyes closed, our minds drifting into dreams. Studies show that this is a necessity: sleep allows our brains to recharge and our bodies to rejuvenate. But what f we didn’t need sleep at all? What if we could train our bodies to push past fatigue and achieve round-the-clock productivity?

Liam Bell’s The Sleepless asks exactly these questions, having the real-world regularities of our routine pitted against a cult who believe sleep is unnecessary and are working towards establishing this way of thinking and living as the norm. Bell's thriller imagines a world in which shunning sleep is seen not as deprivation, but liberation – a way of reaching a kind of nirvana, if dedicated enough! The novel comes out of COVID-19’s conspiracy theories, and indeed the commune of The Sleepless may seem a far world away from today, and yet the idea of foregoing sleep is often celebrated in a glamourisation of 21st-century work culture.

In fact, business tycoons and revered entrepreneurs have been boasting about their own restricted sleep schedules for decades. For Thomas Edison, inventor of the artificial light, staying awake meant staying ahead of the technological and economic competition. His so-called ‘Insomnia Squad’ of workers were selected based on their sleep endurance and he hired watchers to enforce vigilance that ensured his workers stayed awake. A century later, Elon Musk tweeted in 2018 that ‘nobody every changed the world on 40 hours per week’ and Donald Trump similarly asked: ‘How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 to 14 hours per day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?’ It is worth noting the irony that these proponents of changing the world through restricting our sleep have, indeed, produced the tools that fuel our modern day struggles to sleep: the artificial light and social media .

Bell’s novel takes these ideas in which lack of sleep is compatible with hyper-productivity and stretches them to their extremes in his cult of ‘The Sleepless’ who seek to redefine the routine of sleeping and waking to which we have grown accustomed. The cult members argue that ‘we’re programmed to desire sleep’ and that we ‘structure our every day to that end.’

There is a wealth of scientific research which explains why sleep is a fundamental part of our daily lives. Amongst the numerous negative physical and psychological side effects of being sleep deprived are, in the short term, lapses in concentration, alertness and productivity, and in the long term, increased risk of obesity, diabetes, damage to our cardiovascular systems and difficulty managing our emotions (thus leading to mental health disorders).

However, new research into polyphasic sleep patterns and the results from brain imaging present the counter-argument that restricting sleep is not entirely detrimental to our health in some cases. Polyphasic sleeping involves taking short naps (between twenty and thirty minutes) at every, for example, four hours over a twenty-four-hour period; reportedly, the artistic masters Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo followed such a sleeping pattern. Whilst sleep deprivation is shown to disrupt the circadian rhythms in our bodies (the physical mental and behavioural changes we undergo in the twenty-four-hour cycle), the frequent naps of a polyphasic cycle actually allow these rhythms to be maintained and thus are not to our detriment. Additionally, brain imaging has shown that the sleep-deprived brain is dynamic and can overcompensate for sleep deprivation through shifting its activation in different areas. Rather than following a single neurological look, the brains of some individuals are naturally more fatigue-resistant than others and thus the negative impacts of sleep deprivation are not universal and should be considered on an individual basis.

Science aside, let’s compare the world we live in now to a hypothetical world in which humans don’t need to sleep. Surely, we would be able to get more done. Not only would we gain the eight hours in which we are asleep, we would also gain the minutes and hours we devote to the morning and night-time routine, we wouldn’t be distracted by an anticipation of the day’s end and planning for tomorrow. We would instead be living in a perpetual present. We would be working in the continuous momentum of the now, instead of having this momentum fragmented by the endpoint of sleep and then expending more energy to garner this momentum again. The movement between day and night would not impose a routine that we as individuals have to follow but would merely provide the shades of light and dark to our existence.

Sounds utopian, right? Or does it sound similar to some of the days you spent whilst in the depths of the 2020 lockdown as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic? This is what is simultaneously so interesting and disturbing about Bell’s text. Whilst he investigates the proposal of a new existence, he situates this existence in a very real post-pandemic society in which the distinction between night and day, sleeping and waking has already been destabilised. The line between work life and home life was entirely eliminated: our working weeks got both longer and shorter, being in the office everyday, but everyday also feeling like a weekend. The ease of giving into the temptation to both send that email in the early hours of the morning and sign off a couple of hours earlier to watch just a couple more Netflix episodes, because, after all, who’s going to know?

Alongside this, Bell’s text is also set in the all-too-familiar world in which overwork and burnout are glamourised. Indeed, The New Yorker has actually called overwork ‘a cult.’ The celebration of sleep restriction in Bell’s fictional cult is, alarmingly, not dissimilar to the status symbol that is attached to overwork and our association of long hours and constant exhaustion with professional and economic success. As an example, an internal survey of first year analysts at Goldman Sachs in 2021 found that they averaged a 95-hour workweek and were only getting five hours of sleep per night. The prevalence of this association between being awake for longer and being more productive has also entered social media.

My Instagram feed is flooded with reels showing ‘My 5-9 before my 9-5’, recounting everything that an individual can achieve before the working day has even begun – we watch people run marathons, complete strenuous workout routines, ‘meal prep’ for an entire family for an entire week and complete all household chores, before the conventional working day has even begun. Overwork has us striving to be hyper-productive in both our professional and personal spheres, with the common denominator being the sacrifice of sleep, in order to achieve this.

Where the celebration of sleep restriction has become both embedded into twenty-first century workplace culture and a means of amassing Instagram likes, it also has a darker side. Real life cults have exploited its detrimental effects and used it as the method to control members. To name just a few, ‘The People’s Temple’, a proposed socialist utopia led by Jim Jones, inflicted long working days on its members with little sleep under the premise that ‘sleep proved that your head was in the wrong place, which made you susceptible to treason.’ A former member of Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s ‘The Moonies’ recounted how they were not allowed to sleep if they didn’t achieve the tasks that had been set for them, which resulted, for one member, in a three-day period without sleep. Marshall Applewhite enforced a polyphasic sleep cycle on the members of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ under the belief they could experience a religious ascension in this way; the tragic result was 38 of its members being convinced to commit suicide in order to achieve this experience.

The Sleepless takes our obsession with overwork and hyper-productivity and its proximity to sleep deprivation, combining it with the existence of cults in which sleep-deprivation is a method of coercion, to produced a fictional commune in which sleep deprivation is at its core: both the ideology and the methodology. When a commune member comments that ‘staying awake isn’t some chemical or drug-driven craze, it’s a process to be followed and a journey to be undertaken’, Bell is forcing us as readers to envision a world in which humans not only celebrate sleep restriction through an Instagram reel but test the physical and mental limits to which their bodies can be taken in a sleep-deprived state. The commune leader demands that the members ‘must all test [their] limitations now.’ The means the members use in order to stay awake are horrific and visceral and yet the equipment they use to do this ensures the commune remains grounded in the real world. This, again, disturbingly reminds us that the pursuit of what they refer to as ‘a truly wakeful state’ is entirely plausible with both the culture in our society and physical tools we already have at our disposal.

Through picking up on ideas that pervade the everyday setting of our workplaces and social media, Bell’s text explores the unstable balance whereby a culturally celebrated concept can easily become subverted into a dangerously practiced ideology. Pre-order now to unveil the shocking truths within Bell's nightmare commune! Just maybe wait until the morning to start reading...

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