Thursday, October 27, 2005


Could sleep benefit a robot?

We will die. We don't know what it'll be like. But we know what sleep is like, and we compare death to it all the time. The ability to fall back on that metaphor helps us somewhat to deal with the emotional disturbance arising from our expectation of death.

Those are facts. Here’s a conjecture: Maybe the need for sleep comes in part from the need to reassure oneself that such experiences aren’t so bad? That is, maybe we’re assuaging our fear of death when we sleep? It sure would be nice, because it would suggest that by becoming less afraid of death, I could reduce my sleep requirement!

More generally, I wonder whether sleep serves a purpose psychologically, beyond what it accomplishes biologically. We know that animals need sleep, even animals like fish that eschew heavy introspection. That’s because sleep serves real, biological, physically concrete needs, such as letting us knit brain cells together in ways that we can’t do when they are in use. But I wonder whether there exist other benefits of sleep that are specific to the software of creatures with a notion of self, benefits having nothing to do with biology?

Assuaging one’s fear of death would be an example of a non-biological psychological benefit – e.g., a benefit that even intelligent machines could garner from sleep. Another such benefit might be that sleep forces one to step back from one’s involvement in the world. It could be perceived (erroneously, but perceived nonetheless) as the world’s way of saying, “You’ve got to chill out,” and because it’s “said” in such a peremptory manner, the “advice” is heeded, and the “advice” turns out to be healthy.

I’m stretching to look for reasons that sleep might be good for the mind even independently of the body, because sleep feels that way to me: the comfort that sleep provides seems partly philosophical, rather than purely biological. Sleep is a necessary part of the day, the way sex or gunfights are necessary parts of certain kinds of movies. Whether or not they have to happen as a matter of mechanism, they have to happen in order for the experience to feel complete and satisfying.

Alas, I’m probably confusing cause and effect. Sleep probably feels philosophically satisfying precisely because the human genome discovered that such feelings make us most likely to get enough sleep.

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