10 Amazing Sleep Deprivation Experiments

speakers playing loud music in a sleep deprivation experimentSleep deprivation is a fascinating topic, spawning a wide range of research and experimentation over the years.

Many of the experiments were rigorously scientific; there have also been some notably controversial and cruel tests done though, both by scientists and the military.

Then there are the handful of brave individuals who willingly documented themselves going through extreme sleep deprivation.

Some did it in the name of science, others to raise money for charity or to get their name in the Guinness world records book. Whatever the case, we’ve learned a lot from observing their steady mental and physical decline as the lack of sleep took its toll.

Note: in this article I’ll be looking at some of the more extreme examples of total sleep deprivation. They don’t necessarily reflect the kind of everyday sleep deprivation that many people suffer from.

If you’d like information regarding your own lack of sleep, you might like to read the introductory article about sleep deprivation.

1. Peter Tripp’s 201 hour DJ set

peter trippIn 1959, well-known radio presenter Peter Tripp decided to raise money for a children’s foundation. He did so by sitting inside a glass booth in Times Square and broadcasting his show for 201 straight hours.

He was observed by scientists and doctors throughout, along with the curious general public. At the outset, he seemed fine and in good spirits, cheerfully getting on with his show.

By day 3 though, he was cursing the people around him and hallucinating – he thought there were spiders in his shoes, even taking them off to check.

Scientists noted that his brainwaves appeared to mirror what would usually be the 90 minute REM sleep cycle, which is when we dream. He was hallucinating during those specific periods, so they hypothesized that he was seeing dream imagery whilst awake.

Despite struggling to keep a grip on reality, he managed to finish the experiment. He then slept for 13 hours, after which he reported that he had recovered well.

His family and friends disagreed though, saying he was a changed man and still suffering the effects of his experiment. Not long after, he got divorced, lost his job and eventually became a travelling salesman.

Here’s a fascinating documentary about Peter Tripp’s brave sleep deprivation experiment.

2. Randy Gardner’s sleep deprivation world record

It’s not totally clear who really holds the record for the longest period of time with no sleep at all. Despite numerous claims throughout history, most are anecdotal with no indisputable proof.

And despite once doing so, the Guinness World Records organization no longer registers this category because of worries about the damage people might cause themselves.

Perhaps the most interesting is a scientifically observed experiment in 1964. Amazingly, a high school student in San Diego called Randy Gardner stayed awake for 11 days and 24 minutes.

The experiment was observed and documented by professionals, including a Stanford sleep researcher. So despite more recent claims to have broken the record, this one stands out because it was carefully monitored.

During the experiment it was noted that he experienced diminished cognitive functioning and behavioral changes. He was moody, suffered from paranoia and hallucinations, along with memory and concentration problems.

Incredibly though, he still won a game of ping pong against one of the observers on day 10!

Randy was also able to hold a press conference at the end, in which he appeared to be well and healthy. And after two very long sleeps over the next few days, he seemed to fully recover.

3. Do you need your beauty sleep?

tired eyesPeople have long joked that they need their “beauty sleep”, and it seems that they might not be wrong after all.

In 2013, Swedish researchers looked into the effects of sleep deprivation on facial appearance.

They photographed 5 men and 5 women after a normal night’s sleep, and again after 31 hours of sleep deprivation.

20 men and 20 women were asked to judge the photos based on factors such as fatigue, facial cues of different emotions and sadness.

The study found that following the period of sleep deprivation, people were judged as having:

…more hanging eyelids, redder eyes, more swollen eyes, darker circles under the eyes, paler skin, more wrinkles/fine lines, and more droopy corners of the mouth…In addition, sleep-deprived individuals looked sadder than after normal sleep, and sadness was related to looking fatigued.

They go on to make the interesting point that humans use a variety of facial cues, such as the way the eyes and mouth look, to judge other people’s sleep history.

The social implications of this are potentially wide-reaching. For example, if someone seems fatigued to us, might that influence how much we trust them to do a particular task at work?

And in terms of beauty, well, I think it’s clear that if someone looks tired and sad, their perceived attractiveness will also suffer.

4. Can you die from sleep deprivation?

One of the most common questions about sleep deprivation is “can I die from it?” I’m happy to report that the answer for humans – as far as we can tell – is a firm no.

It appears that somewhere along the evolutionary trail, humans developed a safety mechanism that literally forces us to sleep.

It’s not a normal sleep by any means though. In fact, it will happen in short stints of just a few seconds, and neither you nor anyone else is likely to even notice it happened.

These brief episodes are called micro-sleeps, and are thought to be one of the main reasons that humans can survive prolonged sleep deprivation.

5. Can animals die from sleep deprivation?

image of a rat used in a sleep deprivation experimentWhilst humans appear to be resistant to sleep deprivation, rats aren’t so lucky. They will in fact always die if they’re kept awake for too long.

Experiments in 19831989 and 1995 have all confirmed this effect, with all the rats dying.

Rats do experience something similar to micro-sleeps, but it’s limited to one tiny part of the brain at a time. So without the safety mechanism that humans have, they usually die within 11 to 32 days.

Some people – myself included – will understandably find the rat experiments upsetting. It’s even more disturbing to think back to some of the earliest sleep deprivation experiments at the end of the 19th century.

In 1894 and 1898, experiments were conducted by Russian and Italian scientists in which dogs were kept awake by continual walking. All of the dogs died in under 2 weeks.

6. Why do they die?

So what exactly is it that causes animals to die from prolonged sleep loss? According to Indian researchers, the explanation could lie in one of the five stages of sleep.

They found that deprivation of only the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep seems to cause the brain cells of rats to enter into a natural “self-destruct” sequence known as apoptosis. Depriving them of any other sleep state fails to yield the same results.

The importance of REM sleep is reaffirmed by the presence of a mechanism in our internal sleep management system called REM rebound.

When we finally get to sleep after experiencing deprivation, humans, rats and many other animals will enter the REM stage of sleep sooner.

They then spend up to 20% more time in that stage on average until the lost sleep has been recovered. So the brain appears to prioritize REM sleep above all other stages.

A Positive Side to Sleep Deprivation?

There’s some evidence that small doses of sleep deprivation in a controlled environment can yield positive results – in very specific circumstances.

7. A natural anti-depressant

anti depressantsOne of the most well-known effects of sleep deprivation is a worsening of mood. However, it may be that it can temporarily have the opposite effect for some people.

A single 24 hour period of Sleep Deprivation Therapy (SDT) has been shown to significantly improve mood and behavior in people with treatment-resistant depression or bipolar disorder.

The improved mood was found to last for up to 48 hours or until the person falls asleep, after which the symptoms usually return. It’s of course impractical to use continual sleep deprivation as a means to ease depression.

However, based on research in 2013, Dustin Hines suggested in Scientific American that it could point the way to new drug therapies. These would hopefully mimic the effect on the brain that sleep deprivation has.

8. Healing of the Brain

human brainIn a 2015 study of 100 rats, short-term sleep deprivation was linked with brain cell growth (aka neurogenesis) in areas that had been damaged by a stroke-like event.

Neural healing is an exciting topic, and these findings are sure to raise some eyebrows. Keep in mind though that the experiment focused on a single small pathway in the brains of rats, and not on a complex chunk of the human brain.

Much more research would be necessary before the effect could be applied to help people suffering from brain injury. Still, it’s interesting to think that something that usually reduces our mental capacity could also have a positive effect.

9. Sleep Deprivation as Torture

If you’ve ever experienced a long bout of sleep deprivation, you’ll know that it can be a torturous ordeal. So it’s no surprise that it’s been used throughout history as a form of torture, and still is to this day, sadly.

Forced sleep deprivation has been used to extract information from captives and in brainwashing scenarios on many documented occasions (and by many nations), possibly dating back to medieval times.

Techniques include constantly moving prisoners around or making them change cells regularly. Sometimes prisoners are eventually allowed to fall sleep, only to be immediately woken up again.

sleep-deprivation-tortureIn 2005, the CIA admitted to authorizing up to 180 hours of continuous sleep deprivation during interrogations. That’s over a week without sleep.

In 2014, the United Nations committee against torture criticized the United States for continuing to use sleep deprivation as a form of torture, despite banning some other controversial techniques such as waterboarding.

The United States is by no means the only country to have engaged in this kind of torture though. Interestingly, a New York Times article reported that the US military adopted the technique after training their own people to cope with classic Soviet-style torture.

10. The Russian sleep experiment hoax

If you search the internet for information about sleep deprivation experiments, you’ll no doubt encounter the graphically disturbing Russian sleep experiment.

I’m not going to dedicate much space to it here, other than to say it never happened.

People still debate its veracity online, but the fact that it first appeared in a forum thread asking people to invent the best urban legend is proof enough, I think.

Final thoughts

Sleep deprivation is a complex condition that we aren’t even close to fully understanding yet, much like sleep itself.

Part of the reason there’s still so much to discover is that it’s hard to get volunteers for sleep deprivation studies; they tend to be quite disruptive to most people’s lives.

It’s also not so easy to get ethics boards to approve experiments which can result in ill-health and suffering for the volunteers.

What we do know though is that it will almost certainly result in mental and physical ill-health sooner or later.

As the sleep deprivation experiments here demonstrate, even if there’s a positive side in ultra-specific circumstances, for most people it’s something to be avoided.

Have you experienced sleep deprivation?

Have you ever spent one or more nights with no sleep at all? What were the circumstances and how did you feel?

Feel free to leave a comment below with your story and thoughts.

20 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I’ve always suffered from insomnia. Then In December 2014 I went into the hospital for spinal surgery. I did not sleep the night before. After 4-5 hrs of surgery I Awoke & didn’t sleep for 60 hrs (& i was on self administered dilaudid for a Day or so). As time progressed I could understand what was said to me but I had difficulty responding. I knew what I wanted to say but the wrong words kept coming out of my mouth & it was frustrating. This insomnia also caused me to stay in the hospital longer bc they couldn’t start physical therapy with me (Insurance didn’t approve the extra day). In general I’d love to be a part of some research study since I often find myself not sleeping for at least 2 days, it would be interesting to be filmed or see myself in an altered state seep deprived state & how I interact with the world.

  • For the last year plus I haven’t had what I would call a good nights sleep. I have a somewhat rare disease called adhesive arachnoiditis, no cure, chronic pain, and complicated by heart disease, diebetisis, severe sleep apnea. Approximately a year ago the VA in all their wisdom stopped my prescription of ambien, 2 night. Before ragging on me that it’s too much, that prescription was given by a sleep specialist over 10 years ago after exhausting all other options. So after 10 years it became too dangerous and was stopped. My life has been a nightmare since. What’s sad is I finally got help from the same sleep center only the doctor had died, people changed along with their name. They would only prescribe one a night which worked for a few days then over time sleep got more difficult back to short nights. I go days on no more than a few hours. Having seen me since last September they have nmcruel as can’t stay awake sorry. Latter.

    • Hi Frank
      Thanks for your comment. I got a bit lost in the final sentence there with the typo…but I go hope you manage to get the help you need, and find something that can help you sleep better. Going for so long without good sleep is exhausting!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Unfortunately myself and my disabled partner Suffered six-month sleep deprivation With the refurbishment of an underground station Adjacent to his bedroom wall For free of the six months it was 24 hours a day With the sound of the pneumatic drillsThe wall in question Has a metal sheet Because the station is bombproof For the three monthsIt wasn’t 24-hour is the day It would start at one in the morningAnd finish at fiveA.m.When the underground station was get ready to open again…. My life was destroyedI have no idea who I was any moreI was searching for Remnants Of my previous life Me and my partner separated Hating each other Uncertain levels But loving each other On the others Mentally it took meYearsTo find out who I was againAnd thankfully Before my quadriplegic partner with MS Died We had an unconditionalLoving relationship again.I’m still not who I was And I’m not sure that I ever will be But I am making progress The level of noise And watching what was happening to my partner Is indescribable… In some of the situations I found myself inLooking for you I was again Horrible… Thankfully I know who I am now At least.

    • Hi David
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your terrible experience. I’m very sorry for your loss, and for difficult time you’ve had to endure. It’s saddening to hear that you had such bad luck with the station being next door.
      I wish you well and hope you continue to recover from this ordeal.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • after 2 days of no sleep, I started drowning in my seat and the floor and people around me were no longer stable or horizontal, I started seeing some imaginary occurences, and it was a continuous falling sensation, sinking into my seat, until someone would talk to me, shortly after, the sensation and mild hallucinations would resurface. I almost always confuse my very realistic, close-to-experience, days-long dreams, with what is real. I know those distortions I experienced were not intense hallucinations, as I have, for a period of my life, heavily used psychedelics such as lsd and psilocybin. Does anyone experience anything similar to that dream-like state, ( bear in mind I have been sober for almost a year)? or could provide any feedback? I would like to understand more about the relationship between serotonin, sleep, thought patterns and perceptual distortions.
    thanks :)

  • I went through a bad time a few times when I had long periods without sleep 3 to 4 nights at a time, I tried everything natural that is. I tried reading, exercise, hypnotherapy land other herbal aids. None worked. I lost lots of weight and felt dizzy and almost jet lagged permanently. Fortunately this did get better. Yoga helped me not saying it cured it but it definitely helped me to relax. I have the odd night now but thankfully not as severe as previous. I think meditation may help lots with insomnia.

    • Hi Lisa
      Thanks for your comment. I totally agree that activities like meditation and yoga can help with insomnia. I know from my own experience that when I’m feeling stressed or my mind is too busy, I just don’t sleep well. So when I find myself in those states, taking some time to do some relaxation exercises can totally change my ability to sleep that night.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I’m a 51 year old bipolar male. I’ve suffered at times with bouts of a day or two without sleep. I’ve also experienced periods of mania where I slept for as little as an an hour or two a night for weeks on end. The strange part is it’s a very different feeling. The short term bouts with virtually no sleep leave me feeling disconnected, sort of surreal and floating outside myself. Whereas the mania sleep deprivation leaves me initially feeling great, euphoric and hyper focused. However, as it persists it starts to unravel. I start to doubt reality and lose simple abilities. It can often take some heavy medication to shake me out of a manic state. My experience convinces me that sleep is our tether to reality. I think most of us are so convinced of our sanity and our link to reality, but when you live with mental illness you come to see the fragile nature of those connections. I’m fascinated by sleep, what an interesting field of study.

    Regards,

    Jeff

    • Hi Jeff
      Thanks for your interesting comment. I think sleep definitely plays a key role in helping maintain good mental health. And you’re right, only when you experience ill mental health do you realize how our health can take a turn for the worse quite quickly.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I went 4 days without sleep due to self-induced stress during my initiation time in the military. I experienced dizziness that I combated by drinking plenty of water. I would pinch myself so hard sometimes I grew numb from the pain and the feeling of my nails sinking into my skin actually felt refreshing. Near the end of the 3rd day, I had an epiphany. Millions of thoughts that were floating in my mind suddenly sparked and all became clear. I was so hyped up from my vision, I tried to explain what happened to my superior officers. They described to me that I was speaking so rapidly they wondered what drugs I was on. I replied, that I was “high on life.” I felt tired, so some of my thoughts weren’t very organized and I had a lot to say at once, so it happen to just come out quickly. And I couldn’t concentrate on my point as one point would spontaneously lead into another train of thoughts. I couldn’t follow-through as I would forget what I was trying to say before. But I’d get excited about the new thought and continue on that track until I picked up another. My superiors couldn’t take me completely seriously. I could feel cool waves massaging my mind. It was relaxing but helped keep my brain alert. I could make extremely quick associations. One observation triggered a thought that would lead to a question. I was usually be able to answer the first question but the answer lead to 10 more questions. If, I was successful at answering any one of the 10 questions, that answer would lead to a 100 more questions and then my mind usually could not keep up afterwards.

    I finally couldn’t stay awake any longer, and it was the weekend. I closed my eyes and slept for 18 hours solid. When I awoke, I could only vaguely recall the accounts of what happened, but the experience completely changed my life’s perspective.

    • Hi In eui Hong
      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your fascinating sleep deprivation story. The rapid associations and thought train you experienced sound like they were probably your brain struggling to concentrate because of the lack of sleep. It doesn’t surprise me that you had those symptoms. Can I ask how it changed your life perspective?
      Regards
      Ethan

  • What is the mental illness of intentionally depriving a person of sleep to the point of heart attacks strokes and diabetes type 2. What is this illness called?

    • Hi McDougald
      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I completely understand the question though. Can you explain in a bit more detail the situation you’re talking about please?
      Regards
      Ethan

    • Hi Nicolas
      Thanks for your comment. How do you usually feel after that time? Are you able to function normally, or do you notice any difficulty with your ability to do things?
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Yes, I’ve experienced insomnia a few times in my life, each time seems to be longer/worse than last, and the most recent was 2015 (which I still feel I am getting over).

    But I wanted to comment mostly because in your article there are no deaths reported from insomnia. But I had recently heard of something rare called Fatal Familial Insomnia in which you apparently CAN die, but it has to be this exact condition (meaning, I guess, if you don’t have it, you won’t die from your insomnia). Here is a link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatal_familial_insomnia

    I might also say that death to yourself (or others) can result from insomnia if, say, you drive a car while sleep deprived. Of course that would be a secondary cause but worth mentioning.

    I also have wondered how strange insomnia is as a parasomnia since it is the only one where you are NOT asleep. Every other parasomnia or sleep disorder happens WHILE you are asleep, and by definition, if you are experiencing insomnia, you are not sleeping. Strange things can occur during sleep, but also things that happen while awake, such as walking, talking or urinating – but is only if these are done while asleep that there is a parasomnia. It would like saying that a lack of access to food is a “digestive disorder.”

    Maybe I am nitpicking, but it seems to me that insomnia should technically not be considered a parasomnia, or at least not in the same class as other sleep disorders.

    • Hi Jim
      Thanks for your comment. Fatal Familial Insomnia is a very rare condition which isn’t well understood at all. My point in the article is that the average person who doesn’t sleep for whatever reason will generally recover, once they’ve had some sleep eventually. And in most cases, sleep will inevitably come, like it or not.
      I’m not sure where you found the reference to insomnia being a parasomnia, but it isn’t. That should help clarify your concern about the classification. It’s also not true that other parasomnias and sleep disorders only occur while sleeping. There are many which occur when awake, for example in the transition into and out of sleep such as sleep paralysis, exploding head syndrome, sleep hallucinations.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I was using a relaxing pill (lorivan) for years, it really help me to get asleep but I become addict. So when in India I did an ayverdi c treatment for two weeks that include herbals pills and massages and could after six months leave completely my pills.
    Now I am having a very stressing sentimental time in my life and again couldn’t get asleep. The question is what is more prejudicial, not sleeping until the morning come ot taking again half of these pills that really help me?
    I tried melatonin, valerian and didn’t have any sleep help….

    • Hi Egle
      Thanks for your comment. That’s a very good question – and one that many readers have raised in the past in comments across this website. I think ultimately it’s a personal choice. You need to weigh up how much you’re willing to persevere with a lack of sleep if you don’t like the alternative of taking medication.
      I think if you were addicted to the lorivan, and it took you so long to stop taking it, it would be a shame to go back to it. I’d suggest talking it over with your doctor and seeing if they can offer you something which isn’t addictive.
      I’d also suggest trying to find ways to cope with the difficult period you’re going through at the moment. There are lots of self-help techniques that you could try, and that might help you stay relaxed during the day and at night. If you find it difficult to relax at night and sleep, then I highly recommend checking out an article I wrote about different relaxation techniques to help you sleep.
      Regards
      Ethan

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