Alexandre Erler – ‘Sleep and Opportunity for Well-Being’ – Talk Podcast

Many of us are guilty of sleeping more than we really need to. Moreover, some people just need more sleep than others. In this talk, (which you can listen to here) Alexandre Erler argues that this means that many of us (who sleep excessively) are severely restricting our opportunities for well-being, and that the unfortunate people who need long sleep are significantly restricted in their opportunities for well-being by their need for sleep; in view of this, he argues that more research ought to be carried out into ways in which people might safely be able to restrict their sleep.

In the first part of the talk, Erler distinguishes between two types of sleepers, and presents some startling statistics about the cost of long sleep. On the one hand, he suggests that those people who need to sleep for less than 7 hours a day are short sleepers; on the other hand, he suggests that those people who need to sleep for longer than 8 hours a day are long sleepers. He points out that the amount of extra time a long sleeper spends sleeping in comparison to a short sleeper over the period of a lifetime is far more significant than we might guess, and that long sleep is correlated with (although not necessarily caused by) higher mortality rates.

The main point that Erler makes in this talk is that long sleepers (through no fault of their own) are missing out on opportunities for well-being by virtue of the time they spend asleep, and thus unable to increase their welfare. With this in mind, in the second section of the talk, Erler considers three broad philosophical accounts of welfare, drawing on Derek Parfit’s tripartite distinction between hedonistic, desire-fulfilment, and objective list theories. Acknowledging that meeting one’s sleep need is necessary for health, he nonetheless argues that on any of these accounts, reducing an agent’s excess sleep time will increase their opportunities to increase their well-being.

Having replied to objections concerning the way in which dreams might be construed as increasing well-being, Erler finally considers the practical implications of his view. He suggests that it might be possible to safely restrict excess sleeping in three ways: First by changing one’s sleeping patterns (and changing working environments and attitudes to accommodate this) in order to increase sleep efficiency; second through the (short-term) use of stimulants such as coffee and modafinil, and finally through the use of pharmacological or genetic interventions. Furthermore, he suggests that it is important to dispel the ubiquitous myths often heard about healthy sleeping, such as the stereotype that people who need long sleep are lazy, or that ‘waking up should be easy’ if you’re sleeping for the right amount of time. Ultimately though, Erler concludes that far more research is necessary into how many people can safely restrict their sleep, the natural underpinnings of ‘short sleep’, and the value of dreaming activity.

Erler provides a very convincing case for why we should seek to assess the amount of excess time we might be spending in the land of nod. This is a novel topic, but one with far-reaching and important implications for human welfare.

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