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The Vast Conspiracy to Create Insomniacs

Insomnia is exactly what the movers and shakers of our society want for us.

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Vladimir Nabokov once called sleep the "most moronic fraternity in the world, . . . [a] nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius." He really did have it in for Hypnos, the ancient Greek god of sleep. In his memoir, Speak, Memory, he writes, "People in trains, who lay their newspaper aside, fold their silly arms, and immediately, with an offensive familiarity of demeanor, start snoring, amaze me as much as the uninhabited chap who cozily defecates in the presence of a chatty tubber [bather]. . . . I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive."

Nonetheless, in Nabokov's novel The Defense, a chess master is so obsessed with his "chess life" in which "everything obeyed his will and bowed to his schemes" that he doesn't go to sleep at all, but devotes himself night and day to perfecting every conceivable chess strategy. In the end, he's horribly punished for his monomaniacal determination to win at all costs by an insomnia that drives him mad and kills him. Exhausted and reeling during a heated match, he falls into a delirious phantasmagoria of "twilight murk, thick, cotton-wool air," in which strange voices, lights, chess figures, ghosts, and shadows, snatches of landscape and architecture appear and disappear before "a wave of oppressive blackness wash[es] over him," whereupon he collapses and dies. In "Sleep," a surrealist story (surrealism, fantasy, magic realism, all lend themselves to insomnia, and vice versa) by Haruki Murakami, a woman, suddenly liberated from the need to sleep at all, finds herself becoming a tireless, perfectly functioning humanoid machine—entirely free of ordinary biological constraints, more energized, intelligent, self-confident, her consciousness expanding, expanding until . . . until her life explodes, literally, in terror and death. "I had imagined death as an extension of sleep. . . . Eternal rest. A total blackout," she thinks, on the way to her demise. "But now I wondered if I had been wrong. Perhaps death was a state entirely unlike sleep, something that belonged to a different category altogether—like the deep, endless wakeful darkness I was seeing now."

Beyond the Need to Sleep

In our own culture, there's an eerie echo of this insatiable striving to rise above our stupid, beastlike, physiological need for sleep and become unflagging, bionic powerhouses. For some years now, a drug called Provigil has been marketed as an alternative to amphetamines for keeping people awake and alert without the screaming meemies that are often a side effect of Dexadrine and other forms of speed. Provigil was originally intended to treat people with narcolepsy, but 90 percent of all prescriptions now are written "off label" ($575 million worth in 2005) for travelers who want to avoid jet lag, night-shift workers and long-distance truckers, military personnel, people in high-stress jobs (those 15-hour-a-day junior lawyers bucking to make partner), and students pulling all-nighters (or just partying all night). "There is a multibillion-dollar demand from civilians who wish to sleep only when they want to sleep," Jonathan Moreno wrote in the November 2006 issue of Scientific American.

Provigil is only one of several such wake-up drugs in the research pipeline. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), which pioneered Internet technology in the '60s, is investing at least $100 million for research into even better wake-up-and-stay-up contrivances, including more powerful, side-effect-free drugs, focused magnetic waves, and light stimulus. "The more we understand about the body's 24-hour, clock the more we'll be able to override it," says Russell Foster, a circadian biologist at Imperial College London quoted by Graham Lawton in the February 18, 2006, issue of New Scientist. "In 10 to 20 years we'll be able to pharmacologically turn sleep off."

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