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A Cause Exploration On Changing Our Sleep And Expanding the Moral Circle to Our Sleeping Selves


This post is written by Hans Gundlach. It is a cross-post from my blog Cosmic Censorship.

Given that our time asleep occupies about a third of our lives there is relatively little research into the ethical implications of dreams and sleep states and how to enhance or modify them. I want to pose a few questions that seem unaddressed in the EA community. For instance, what moral weight should we give to our time asleep? Should we eliminate sleep? What are the risks and benefits of engineering our time sleep? The answers to these questions could lead to novel ways of doing good. These implications and the relative neglect of these states make the enhancement and modifications a promising impact area to investigate for philosophers, scientists, and altruists.

Background on Dreams

Before we examine the ethical implications of dreams we should look at the current science. At first, dreams may seem to be nonsensical and constitute biological noise. Dreaming occurs in many animals including dogs and cats and likely serves as an important biological process.[1] Modern theories posit that dreams provide both reinforcement for lessons learned during the day as well as provide preparation for future hypothetical scenarios. Research seems to suggest dreams are associated with the REM stage of sleep which only occupy about twenty-five percent of our time asleep.[2] However, non-REM or NREM dreams are still under scientific consideration.[3]

Increasing Happiness In Our Dreams

Current research into dreams mainly addresses the impact dreams have on our waking state. However, little work is done on dreams as important entities in themselves. We feel a wide variety of emotions in dreams happiness, pride, love, and pain. Yet, there is little work on the reduction of pain in dreams. This is not to say that the dream state has the same moral weight as our waking state. For example, being murdered in a dream has less of an impact than being murdered in real life. Nevertheless, our perception of dreams is hindered by our memory awareness. People recall their dreams with much fewer details than in their normal lives.[3] The inability to recall dream events biases us to view the emotions and events of our dreams as much less significant. Medication already exists to treat nightmares associated with PTSD ie Prazosin.[4] However, the enhancement of dreams, as opposed to the simple reduction of nightmares could be a promising direction for impact.

Making Dreams More Productive and the Art of Dream Engineering

If dreams are responsible for learning is there any way to modify or improve the ability of dreams to aid learning? There already exist ways to encourage the onset of sleep i.e melatonin. People can be encoded with specific information during sleep including developing an aversion to Cigarettes. In one study, smokers were given the paring of cigarette smoke with rotten eggs. After this intervention, which the smokers were entirely unaware of, participants reduced their cigarette consumption by 30%.[5] Maybe methods similar to this could be employed to create sleep tuned to enhance specific skills i.e language learning. However, dream engineering also poses significant risks including the power to influence people to do negative actions without their consent. Therefore, I suggest caution and more thought on the issue among the EA community.

The Moral Status of Lucid Dreaming

Current assessments of dreams also overlook the variety of dream states. Lucid dreaming poses an interesting case for the appraisal of dreams. For example, are experiences in lucid dreams more valuable because the dreamer has greater awareness and autonomy? Recent research has shown that two-way communication between lucid dreamers and researchers is possible.[5]  Perhaps the lucid dreaming state is indeed closer to waking consciousness. If this is the case and waking consciousness is seen as a more valuable or rewarding state than sleep then work should be done to increase the lucidity or awareness of our dreams. There eventually could be a reliable method to induce lucid dreaming and scientist have attempted to use techniques like non-invasive electrical stimulation to cause it. Lucid dreaming is also to an extent a learnable skill.[3]

Further, if we value conscious states like dreams more than nonconscious states like coma or dreamless sleep, we should conduct research into increasing the dream content of our sleep. Could it be possible to increase the percentage of sleep in the REM stage which is associated with dreaming?

Should We Eliminate Sleep?

If consciousness is a much more valuable state at the margin compared to sleep or dreaming, should we completely replace sleep altogether? Many people including me would prefer to have one more hour awake than asleep all things being equal. Nevertheless, eliminating sleep could set off a competitive race whereby people enjoy less sleep due to competitive work pressures. Further, there does not seem to be any current stimulants or other medication that can remove sleep without side effects. However, there remains the possibility of drastically reducing sleep with little to no consequences. In particular, familial natural short sleepers have a specific genetic mutation allowing them to sleep several hours less than average with no apparent side effects.[6]  Progress in this area could significantly improve productivity and possibly leisure time if well-regulated.

Are We Different People When We Sleep?

The questions above also ignore the fascinating relation dreams have to notions of personal identity. Is our dream state another version of ourselves or a separate entity? Lucid dreamers can encounter lucid dream characters who have completely unpredictable behavior for the dreamer.  Could these lucid figures be seen as somewhat separate entities from the dreamer? John Locke thought dreams posed an interesting edge case in the theory of personal identity. Locke viewed personal identity as contingent on psychological continuity. According to Locke, if a sleep and waking person with the same soul have no memory of each other they are different entities.[3]  If the separate entity theory is correct, then we have further ethical concerns. In particular, we should think about the ethics of limiting, controlling, or removing our dream state.


Sleep and dreams look like relevant fields for effective altruists. Dreams are the most common but by no means the only altered state of consciousness worth addressing. There should be a greater scientific and intellectual investment into understanding our sleep state and its dream content. This could lead to developing our time sleeping for the greater good. As well as preventing us from making pitfalls about these conscious states. If dreams are important in themselves then I want to put forward the expansion of the moral circle to include our lives asleep.




  1. ^

    Linden, Sander van der. “The Science Behind Dreaming.” Scientific American. July 2011. Accessed March 30, 2023. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-behind-dreaming/.

  2. ^

    Colten, Harvey R. “Sleep Physiology.” Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation - NCBI Bookshelf, 2006.


  3. ^

    Windt, Jennifer M. “Dreams and Dreaming.” In Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2021. Accessed March 14, 2023. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dreams-dreaming/.

  4. ^

    El-Solh, Ali A. “Management of Nightmares in Patients with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Current Perspectives.” Nature and Science of Sleep Volume 10 (November 26, 2018): 409–20. https://doi.org/10.2147/nss.s166089.

  5. ^

    Zadra, Antonio. “Why and How Do We Dream?” Interview by Steven Strogatz. Quanta Magazine, August 24, 2022. https://www.quantamagazine.org/why-and-how-do-we-dream-20220824/.

  6. ^

    University of California San Francisco. “After 10-Year Search, Scientists Find Second ‘Short Sleep’ Gene | UC San Francisco.” After 10-Year Search, Scientists Find Second ‘Short Sleep’ Gene | UC San Francisco, August 27, 2019. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2019/08/415261/after-10-year-search-scientists-fi nd-second-short-sleep-gene.





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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:36 AM

Compare to "The best and worst experiences you had last week probably happened when you were dreaming."

tl;dr - Compared to waking life, dreams are pretty wild and emotionally intense. Example - in a dream last week all my teeth fell out which was pretty distressing, and nothing as interesting happened to me in waking life. How emotional/ extreme an experience is seems like a good proxy for how good or bad it is. So probably the best and worse experiences you've had last week were whilst you were dreaming.

And also gwern's comment: 

My own observation is that while my dreams are not infrequently quite unpleasant and nightmarish in content, a corresponding emotional reaction is not there. Many dreams ought to have one waking up in a cold sweat, heart pounding, unable to focus for the rest of the day. (Why aren't all bad dreams "night terrors"? Why does it decrease with age, and correlate with psychiatric problems?) But even if one were to write them down (and I did for a while in a dream journal) to block forgetting, I feel back to normal practically upon waking, and definitely within a short time. 

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