PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The importance of Sleep

The importance of Sleep

Clara kindly sent us a link to a TED talk by Professor Matt Walker on the subject of Sleep:
Sleep is your superpower | Matt Walker

You can also see a presentation and interview by Prof Walker at this YouTube link from the “How To: Academy” channel.
The New Science of Sleep and Dreams | Professor Matthew Walker

For practical purposes, we can safely assume that sleep is a biological necessity and that we need a good period of sleep every day, maybe of about eight hours. From our perspective what is important is not the numbers of the science, but that the science gives us a fair idea on what the biological human needs are regarding sleep.

How is sleep relevant for philosophy? What can philosophy contribute to the subject of sleep? To start with we need to remind ourselves the purpose of science, in this particular case, medical and biological science, and philosophy. Science deals with empirical observations, refutation of hypothesis and methodology. In effect science is about statistical inference, to be specific, and more generally, scientific inference. First and foremost philosophy is also about applying the various philosophical tools to evaluate our thinking. And from this we arrive at valid value judgements based on valid or sound arguments.

A scientific inference would suggest that with regular sleep of a certain number of hours we can improve our memory, and reduce our risk to such things as cardiovascular diseases, cancer and so on. This is all explained by Prof Walker. However, even knowing the science behind sleep, we might still decide to stay late at night to read a book or watch an interesting film. Value judgements are not necessarily about what is good and what is good for us but more about our desires and beliefs. But value judgments can also be wrong and disastrous and this is when philosophy is relevant. We might not like the science, but we might like our flawed thinking even less.

During World War 2, it was believed that bombing at night would demoralise the population and as a consequence people under the flight path of the bombers had to leave their homes during their sleep time and go to the shelters. Except that the low morale did not make the people turn against the regime nor affect productivity. There are two issues here: today we know that productivity in Germany during the war was not terribly affected by low morale but because they produced their armaments in different locations. And this had nothing to do with the resolve of the Germans to fight the war or support the regime.

The second issue as Prof Walker makes it quite clear is that sleep affects the individual and not the collective. Different people have different reactions to sleep deprivation; what is clear is that sleep deprivation has serious consequences on each of us. But sleep deprivation does not necessarily affect everyone at the same time in the same manner. Which might explain why sleep is an evolutionary dangerous activity but still very important for survival: People react differently even under the same conditions, thus in evolutionary time some might have coped better sleeping less whilst guarding those who slept at night.

What is clear is that the productivity logic of the Germans is today standard practice amongst multinational companies, and why something like Brexit won’t affect multinational companies as much as it will hurt the British economy. What this illustrates is that making the wrong assumptions about individuals might backfire on us.

And yet sleep deprivation is a standard torture weapon used by states and the military. Psychological warfare was effectively used by US forces when Manuel Noriega took refuge in the Holy See embassy in Panama. US special forces used loud music, amongst other things, to dislodge Noriega from the embassy which they succeeded after a few days.

For us the question is whether sleep deprivation, as torture or a weapon of war (eg night bombing), can be classified at the same status and condemnation as rape in war, chemical and biological warfare, and mines? This is where science helps us with the value judgements and maybe moral disapproval: given that sleep is a biological human necessity ought using sleep deprivation as a weapon of war be a crime against humanity? Or is it legitimate to deprive the enemy population of sleep, whether military or civilian? But anti personnel mines are disapproved of not because they kill people, but rather because they maim and injure people even long after the conflict is over. Likewise sleep deprivation can have long term effects on people long after the conflict.

Sleep, as I have tried to argue is directly linked with human rights, international criminal law and war crimes and up to an extent strategic planning. Thus ought sleep deprivation be a necessary and sufficient condition in legal matters to take into consideration when making reasonable inferences (ie legal decisions) or even beyond reasonable doubt inferences (criminal decisions)? If our neighbour decides to play music loud at night would that just be a social nuisance or an infringement of our human rights at the same level as racism or homophobia?

A 101 definition of capitalism is that private investors own the means of production to provide goods and services for profit. Those means of production include the element that other people have to be involved in the programme to make things happen. Employees are paid for their services to the employer. This model and this theory is accepted as the best possible economic model. But there are two basic issues with this model.

The first is a historical bias in the model that assumes that people who use manual labour, such a digging holes in the streets, are somehow different from professional or services employees such as book keepers, lawyers or chief executives. What is common for all these people is that all of them offer their time to perform their duties apart from the physical exertion. The work we do for others is always a function of our time and physical exertion. Thus even accountants, lawyers and CEO give up their time and mental energy to perform their duties. This means that the biological rules of sleep apply to all these people irrespective of what they do. The capitalist model (and any other ideology) does not take into account this fact that humans need sleep. And sleep is a matter of time available to do it in.

The other problem is best illustrated by this headlines from the TUC website: Workers in the UK put in more than £32 billion worth of unpaid overtime last year - TUC analysis,

March 2019 ( This is not only a problem in the UK but worldwide. Many of us have worked in companies where they have the culture of working late at the office. This is endemic in Japan(1), and even more in other countries where they don’t even collect reliable data on overtime work.

But even when countries legislate to protect employees against unpaid overtime there are legal loopholes to prevent some people from receiving overtime pay. The new labour law reforms in Japan(2) exclude people earning more than ¥10.75 million a year (88,816.50 Euros) from legal protection on overtime pay. Similarly in the USA: under president Obama legislation was introduced to set the threshold for Salaried Employees starting with $23,660 (31,484.14 Euro) in 2004 but automatically increasing the threshold every three years. President Trump’s administration is proposing a $35,308 threshold but do away with the three year rule (3).

Working unpaid overtime, or staying late at the office, is not only theft of employees’ time and energy, but staying late deprives people of necessary rest and sleep which is well covered by Prof Walker.

In effect, the present economic and business models are not only failing the theory of the capitalist model, but what we call the capitalist model depends on inefficiency and basically downright theft. The problem is not so much the unpaid overtime money, but rather that without these extra unpaid hours the companies involved would probably be unprofitable and maybe even untenable. In effect, employees are being asked to assume risks that involve the future of companies that by rights should be borne by the investors and shareholders.

In conclusion humanity does not seem to have a valid economic model and business model that respect human rights and human biological needs. And this general statement, I would argue, applies to all political ideologies since they all follow the basic capitalist model; the only difference seems to be the level of exploitation of people.

(1) Japan has some of the longest working hours in the world. It’s trying to change
By Uptin Saiidi (2018)

(2) Abe's work-style reforms give Japan's employers the green light to demand unpaid and unsafe overtime
by Hifumi Okunuk

(3) Trump administration proposes overtime pay expansion
Daniel Wiessner

best Lawrence

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