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.)
Undeterred by those failures, though, the streamer has cooked up 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 great) while also making it impossible for every person on Earth to catch some Z’s (really not great). Crankiness quickly devolves into societal collapse by way of highly agitated individuals shooting one another, while others embracing the inevitability of death start roaming around naked, which is arguably just as worrying. But, as these post-apocalyptic tales usually go, there’s a catch. One little girl can still fall asleep, and the American government is racing to find out why she’s immune—FYI: It’s not extra strength melatonin gummies—before nearly all of humanity perishes from sleep deprivation.
It goes without saying: Sleep is important, and not getting enough of it can have serious effects on the body. But is there any logical scenario in which a person can never fall asleep again, or is Awake just another in a long line of ridiculous apocalyptic films relying on shoddy science? While it’s probably the latter, I felt it was my journalistic duty to make sure that we’re not one blackout away from a worldwide and potentially incurable case of insomnia. To help break everything down, I called Dr. Rebecca Robbins, an instructor at Harvard Medical School specializing in sleep research. We discussed Awake’s ridiculous premise, what would really happen to the human body after days without sleep, and the importance of consistently getting a good night’s rest even if mass extinction isn’t in the cards.
In Awake, there’s this global electricity blackout, and suddenly all of humanity can no longer fall asleep. Is there any conceivable way for someone, or for a group of people, to just lose the ability to sleep?
There are a couple of instances where there’s been—literally I’m going back now in my mind to a psychology course I took 20 years ago in college. My professor recounted a tale, or a case study, that is largely anecdotal to my understanding. But this person had a very severe brain injury of some kind and after that, they did not appear to need as much sleep as before. It’s at the heart of a question we often get: What if we were to go without sleep, or will there be a treatment on the horizon that alleviates the need for sleep?
What we do know is that when we deprive ourselves of sleep for extended periods of time, we increase our risk of death. There are some numeral examples, unfortunately on Wall Street, where senior bankers who have been driven to extremes—staying up for 36, 48 hours—have either taken their lives or died in their office or at home in the middle of trying to do work despite being in a complete state of sleep deprivation.
In the movie, even within a couple days of people being unable to fall asleep, society falls apart. Some people get very irritable and violent, others suffer intense hallucinations, and very simple tasks are impossible to execute. Would those be accurate side effects of intense sleep deprivation?
Oh, yeah. There are really profound consequences of sleep deprivation, which include accidents, car accidents, unintentional injuries, and even minor household tasks become, in many instances, lethal. Forgetting to turn your burner off, for instance, and then your house is on fire. When we’re sleep deprived we become irritable, anxious, and much more likely to lash out at people we love. And then we’re much less able to do something called perspective taking, which is really important. It’s having a tough conversation or confrontation and being able to think about someone else’s perspective and not being completely overburdened by the thought of arguing with a spouse, or escalating matters after one tough conversation. Those are smaller experiences within the context of our daily lives that we’re much less able to do when we’re sleep deprived.
Productivity-wise, it also takes us significantly longer to accomplish tasks when we’re sleep deprived as opposed to well-rested. In the workplace we actually have a term for this called presenteeism. People show up at work, but they drastically underperform. So it can have economic consequences, too.
Obviously in Awake, everything sleep deprivation–related is heightened for dramatic purposes. When things spiral out of control, some troops, who haven’t slept for days, start firing on each other because a pine cone falls from a tree and a person shouts “GRENADE!” It escalates quickly, everyone thinks they’re under attack.
Oh yes, and that’s not uncommon. Hallucinating is another consequence of sleep deprivation. People start seeing things. To go back to the behind-the-wheel-of-a-car example, people will have hallucinations behind the wheel, which can be quite dangerous.
Well, it’s good to know that at least that part of the movie is somewhat accurate.
Very much so.
Watching Awake, I couldn’t help but think about a solution to the characters’ insomnia problem: intentionally knocking someone unconscious. But this isn’t my area of expertise. I’m assuming there’s a difference between being unconscious and falling asleep when it comes to your body getting rest?
Absolutely, and this is similar to a lot of questions we often get about sleep medications. There are some aids that often promise that you’ll sleep, but they won’t use all of the stages of sleep, and so people aren’t getting 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 regeneration of the brain. Being able to strike each chord in the symphony of the night is crucial. Sleep is a fundamentally different process than just being unconscious.
If you don’t mind spoilers, can I tell you the film’s scientific explanation for humanity losing the ability to sleep?
No, I don’t mind.
A scientist character says that an intense solar flare caused the electronic blackout, while also affecting the electromagnetic wiring in people’s brains so they can’t sleep anymore. The only way to fall asleep again is by dying and being revived, since it’ll reset the brain’s electromagnetic waves. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I think it’s really cool—I’m not sure if we have a real scientific basis for that, and I’m at a little bit of a loss. That really is sci-fi-like. But I think it does touch on one of the questions that we get all the time: “When is there gonna be a treatment that comes out that gets rid of our need to sleep?” I think the movie really gets around this core interest that we have and unfortunately it reflects a societal view of sleep that’s very pejorative. “Give me a cure for this condition that requires me to spend all this time sleeping, I’d much rather be awake.” [Editor’s note: No pun intended.]
As a sleep expert, do you have any thoughts on how to make Awake more scientifically accurate, in the event they make a sequel?
Well, first I would say that I love the…