Innovating sleep: The technology helping you get a better night's kip

Innovative insights, distilled weekly. Tom Ollerton and Alastair Cole offer up cut and paste knowledge from The Innovation Ramble, their weekly podcast which investigates the world of innovation one subject at a time.

In January 1986 the Space shuttle Challenger took off from Kennedy Space Centre with seven crew members hoping to better understand the universe beyond earth. Within seconds the ship exploded killing all on board. Several key managers on the project had showed up to work having had two hours sleep.

This week’s Innovation Ramble looks at the innovations that are trying to help us sleep better and the innovative science trying the crack the codes of our body clocks.

The Challenger disaster took place at the end of a decade synonymous with the all-night, work hard/play hard culture of Gen X. A lifestyle made cool by Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen in Wall Street set in New York – the city that “never sleeps”. It wasn’t always like that.

In the preceding centuries, the night was a place populated by people of disrepute – criminals, prostitutes and drunks. So we stayed home, and enjoyed two sleeps spanning 14 hours, waking for a couple of hours in between. This time was used to pray, meditate on dreams. It was only as we become increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency that we started sleeping in one consolidated block. Today, in the United States, 250,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel every day, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School resulting in 100,000 crashes.

So how can innovation help us get better sleep?

Sprayable Sleep is a spray can which emulates the body’s natural melatonin production, bypassing the digestive system and making the application more natural than taking the chemical in pill form. Hush earplugs send you to sleep with soothing sounds by masking unwanted sound up to 70 dB with more pleasant, soothing noises. A small speaker driver in each earplug plays locally-stored noise-masking sounds for up to 10 hours.

There are many sleep tracking smartphone apps, wearables and sleep mats that give you data on your sleep patterns. Nintendo has filed patents in this space which indicate hardware that will project your sleep patterns on the wall next to your bed as you wake up. Quantifying your sleep isn’t a solution to serious sleepy time issues. If we want to innovate and truly change they way we sleep we need to look further than the app store.

At Oxford University prof Russell Foster was granted £3m to investigate a new discovery called the sleep "switch". The ventral lateral pre-optic nuclei is the on/off switch for the neural system that keeps us awake. The research raises the possibility of developing a drug to allow our bodies to ignore the light/dark cycle. This could cure Jet Lag, insomnia and depression and autism.

Recent innovative research has also shown that sleep deprivation might actually be a good thing. The Wellcome Trust-funded research which investigated the effects of sleep deprivation in a clinical setting. Subjects were shown film scenes containing traumatic content. They were then either sent home to get a full night’s sleep, or deprived of sleep in the laboratory. Scientists noted that those deprived of sleep experienced fewer bad memories of the films than those who got a good night’s sleep at home. The reason for this is that sleep reinforces neural pathways for memories that are powerful and important to us. So depriving a trauma sufferer a good night’s sleep can help disrupt these pathways being formed and consequently relieve the stress.

Sleep is a fundamental human process and it’s unlikely we’ll be able to meaningfully affect it any time soon. However lucid dreaming, the ability to be consciously aware while in a dream, is becoming a reality. Tech-infused sleep masks and head-bands are enabling users to cognitively influence their dreams.

Devices such as the Remee, Neurodreamer and Aurora play music and show light patterns while you’re in REM, the deepest stage of sleep. With practice and dedication, these companies claim that their devices will help you to achieve lucid dreaming. With this innovative technology the hope is that we will overcoming recurring nightmares, expanding creative output and simply have fun.

If this is all a bit straight laced for you then turn to Lemmy, the Motorhead frontman who took so much speed he stayed up for two weeks. Or as he put it in their classic The Ace of Spades – “that’s the way I like it baby I don’t want to live forever”.

Tom Ollerton is We Are Social's marketing and innovation director and Alastair Cole is chief innovation officer at Partners Andrews Aldridge / Engine Group. You can follow their innovation ramblings @innovramble and subscribe to the Innovation Ramble on iTunes.

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