Whether it’s Bird Box (sinister entities come to Earth), The Society (the parents in a small town inexplicably vanish), or The Silence (basically A Quiet Place), Netflix has been trying to corner the market on niche post-apocalyptic scenarios. Bird Box was a legit phenomenon when it debuted in 2018, but the results elsewhere have been middling: The Society was canceled after one season in 2020; the same year, The Silence was savaged by critics before disappearing into the vast, unknowable abyss that is the Netflix digital content library. (Perhaps The Silence and The Society could’ve used more dank memes.)
However, undeterred by those failures, the streamer has come up with another post-apocalyptic scenario with an unconventional twist: losing the ability to sleep. in the appropriately titled awake, a mysterious cataclysmic event wipes out all electricity (not very well) while also making it impossible for everyone on earth to catch some z’s (really not very well). the bad mood quickly turns into a social meltdown through highly agitated individuals shooting each other, while others embracing the inevitability of death begin wandering around naked, which is arguably just as troubling. but, as these post-apocalyptic tales often say, there is a catch. a little girl can still fall asleep, and the US government is racing to find out why she’s immune, FYI: not extra-strength melatonin gummies, before almost all of humanity dies from lack of sleep.
It goes without saying: sleep is important, and not getting enough sleep can have serious effects on the body. but is there any logical scenario where a person can never go back to sleep, or wakes up as just another in a long series of ridiculous doomsday movies based on shoddy science? while it is likely the latter, I felt it was my journalistic duty to ensure that we are not a blackout away from a worldwide and potentially incurable case of insomnia. to help break it all down i called dr. Rebecca Robbins, an instructor at Harvard Medical School specializing in sleep research. we discuss the ridiculous premise of awake, what would actually happen to the human body after days without sleep, and the importance of getting a good night’s rest, even if mass extinction isn’t on the cards.
In waking up, there is a global blackout and suddenly all of humanity can no longer sleep. is there any conceivable way that someone, or a group of people, would simply lose the ability to sleep?
There are a couple of cases where there have been, literally, I’m now going back in my mind to a psychology course I took 20 years ago in college. my professor told a story, or a case study, that is largely anecdotal to my understanding. but this person had a very serious brain injury of some kind and after that, he didn’t seem to need as much sleep as before. is at the heart of a question we often receive: what would happen if we lost sleep, or is there a treatment on the horizon that alleviates the need for sleep?
What we do know is that when we deprive ourselves of sleep for long periods of time, we increase our risk of death. there are some countless examples, sadly on wall street, where senior bankers who have been pushed to extremes, staying awake for 36, 48 hours, have taken their own lives or died in their office or at home in the middle of trying to work despite being in a complete state of sleep deprivation.
In the movie, even a couple of days after people couldn’t fall asleep, society collapses. some people become very irritable and violent, others suffer from intense hallucinations, and very simple tasks are impossible to perform. would those be the precise side effects of intense sleep deprivation?
oh yes. There are really profound consequences of sleep deprivation, including accidents, car accidents, unintentional injuries, and even minor household chores become, in many cases, lethal. forgetting to turn off the burner, for example, and then your house is on fire. when we are sleep deprived we become irritable, anxious and much more likely to lash out at the people we love. and then we’re much less able to do something called perspective taking, which is really important. it is having a difficult conversation or confrontation and being able to think from another person’s perspective and not being completely overwhelmed by the idea of arguing with a spouse or escalating issues after a difficult conversation. those are smaller experiences within the context of our daily lives that we are much less able to do when we are sleep deprived.
In terms of productivity, it also takes us much longer to complete tasks when we are sleep deprived than when we are well rested. In the workplace we have a term for this called presenteeism. people show up at work, but drastically underperform. so it can also have economic consequences.
Obviously in waking, everything related to sleep deprivation is heightened to dramatic ends. when things get out of hand, some troops, who haven’t slept for days, start shooting at each other because a pineapple falls from a tree and a person yells “grenade!” escalates quickly, everyone thinks they’re under attack.
oh yes, and that’s not uncommon. hallucinating is another consequence of sleep deprivation. people start to see things. Going back to the example behind the wheel of a car, people will hallucinate behind the wheel, which can be quite dangerous.
Well, it’s nice to know that at least that part of the movie is somewhat accurate.
Watching wake up, I couldn’t help but think of a solution to the characters’ insomnia problem: intentionally knock someone out. but this is not my area of expertise. I guess there’s a difference between being unconscious and falling asleep when it comes to letting your body rest.
Absolutely, and this is similar to many questions we often get about sleep aids. there are some aids that often promise to get you to sleep, but they won’t use all stages of sleep, so people don’t get their natural sleep rhythms. each stage of sleep offers different benefits. some stages are important for our physical reiteration, our muscles and body, and others are really vital for the regeneration of the brain. being able to play every chord in the symphony of the night is crucial. sleep is a fundamentally different process than being unconscious.
If you don’t mind spoilers, can I tell you the movie’s scientific explanation for humanity’s loss of the ability to sleep?
No, I don’t care.
a scientist character says that an intense solar flare caused the electronic blackout, at the same time that it affected the electromagnetic wiring in people’s brains so that they can no longer sleep. the only way to go back to sleep is by dying and reviving, as it will reset the brain’s electromagnetic waves. what are your thoughts on that?
well I think that’s really cool, I’m not sure if we have a real scientific basis for that, and I’m a bit lost. that really is science fiction. but I think it touches on one of the questions we get all the time: “when will there be a treatment that will eliminate our need for sleep?” I think the film really addresses this core interest that we have and unfortunately it reflects a social view of sleep that is very pejorative. “Give me a cure for this condition that requires me to spend all this time sleeping, I’d rather be awake.” [editor’s note: no pun intended.]
As a sleep expert, do you have any ideas on how to make wake more scientifically accurate, should they make a sequel?
Well, first I would say that I love the interest and focus on the dream. it’s great for a movie to draw attention to this vital part of our 24-hour day and the consequences of not getting enough sleep when we deprive ourselves of it. this is my bias, but it would be great if the next chapter could tell the story of: there was this deprivation so deep that everyone suffered the consequences, and then everyone falls in love with the dream and makes it a priority in their lives, and then we are a well rested world how about that for a distinctive ending?
That sounds lovely. finally, here’s a hypothesis: would you rather deal with the premise of awake, where you’ve lost the ability to fall asleep, or a? nightmare on elm street, where you can sleep but freddy krueger tries to kill you in your dreams?
wait, am I supposed to choose between the two?
yes, what would you rather deal with?
how unfortunate because if someone tries to kill you in your sleep and you’re not able to defend yourself—
Well, you can fight him and run away in the dream world, and he loses his powers when you’re not afraid of him. and then in awake , I could go back to sleep if he briefly dies and someone resurrects him, but that requires a lot of trust in someone else.
I would choose the first, I think. awake, everything is unknown. so i will take the known, i will take my known abilities to fight freddy and protect myself.
This interview has been edited and summarized for clarity.