Sleep deprivation is a fascinating topic, spawning a wide range of research and experimentation over the years.
Many of the experiments were rigorously scientific. But there have also been some controversial and cruel tests done, both by scientists and the military.
Then there are the handful of brave individuals who willingly documented themselves going through extreme sleep deprivation to add to the picture.
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: This article focuses on extreme cases of sleep deprivation, and is not an overview of sleep deprivation in general. If you’re having problems with your sleep, and it’s affecting your well-being, please speak with your doctor. I also recommend trying self-help for sleep, as there are lots of different techniques that can help.
1. Peter Tripp’s 201 hour DJ set
Way back in 1959, the radio presenter Peter Tripp came up with a unique way to raise money for a children’s foundation.
He decided to sit inside a glass booth in Times Square and broadcast his radio show for 201 straight hours.
He was observed in his giant goldfish bowl by scientists and doctors throughout, along with the curious general public.
At the outset, he seemed very much in good spirits. By day 3, however, he was cursing the people around him and hallucinating. He thought there were spiders in his shoes, for example, and took them off to check.
Dreaming while awake
The observing scientists noted that his brainwaves appeared to mirror what would usually be the 90 minute REM sleep cycle – the sleep stage when dreaming typically occurs.
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 traveling 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 clear who holds the record for the longest period of time with no sleep. Despite numerous claims throughout history, most are anecdotal and lack indisputable proof.
The Guinness World Records organization no longer registers this category because of worries about the damage people might cause themselves. So there’s no longer an organization that can answer this question once and for all, and sleep-deprivation hobbyists (if that’s even a thing!) will have to agree amongst themselves.
11 days and 24 minutes awake
One interesting candidate for the record 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 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.
Shattered – a controversial reality TV show
In 2004, a British reality TV show called Shattered was aired. 10 contestants had to stay awake for seven days, competing in challenges and tasks along the way.
The eventual winner was Clare Southern, who endured 178 hours of sleep deprivation, winning £97,000 for her efforts.
Despite numerous complaints about the concept behind the series, none of the competitors suffered any health consequences of note.
In 2018, the Guardian published an interesting article looking back at the show if you’d like to know more.
4. Do you need your beauty sleep?
People have long joked that they need their beauty sleep, and it seems that they might be right.
In 2013, Swedish researchers conducted a study of the effects of sleep deprivation on facial appearance.
They photographed five men and five 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.
5. If you look tired, will people avoid you?
In 2017, Swedish researchers again studied how people perceive others when sleep deprived.
122 people rated photos of 25 people after two days of sleep restriction. They found some startling results:
- They were less inclined to socialize with the sleep-deprived people.
- They were seen as less healthy, and more sleepy.
- They were judged as being less attractive.
- Interestingly, trustworthiness didn’t change.
So along with your physical appearance, could your social life also suffer if you don’t sleep well? Personally, I’d like to think my family and friends would still enjoy my company if I have bags under my eyes!
6. 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 most straightforward answer, at least for humans, appears to be no.
It seems that somewhere along the evolutionary path, humans developed a safety mechanism that literally forces us to sleep.
It’s not a normal sleep though: it will happen in short stints of just a few seconds, and you’re unlikely to even notice it just happened.
These brief episodes are called microsleeps, and are thought to be one of the main reasons that humans can survive prolonged sleep deprivation.
My personal view is that this simple and reassuring answer applies most to people who are in a relatively safe environment and just not sleeping.
But what happens if you don’t sleep for several nights and then drive a car or engage in other high-risk activities?
What happens if you’re responsible for someone else’s life in a way that requires you to be fully alert and capable of making good decisions?
I’ll leave you with those questions as food for thought!
7. Can animals die from sleep deprivation?
In contrast to humans, who appear to be resistant to sleep deprivation, rats aren’t so lucky.
Rats do experience something similar to microsleeps, 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 done by Russian and Italian scientists in which dogs were kept awake by continual walking. All of the dogs died in under two weeks. Sorry – I promise there are no more sad animal stories in the article!
8. A natural antidepressant
One of the established consequences of sleep deprivation is a worse 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) was shown in a study to 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.
In 2017, researchers published a review of 66 different studies into sleep deprivation and depression. They concluded that:
These findings support a significant effect of sleep deprivation and suggest the need for future studies on the phenotypic nature of the antidepressant response to sleep deprivation
My personal view, however, would be that intentionally staying awake for long periods of time and skipping sleep altogether on a regular basis is unlikely to be a cure for depression.
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 to extract information from prisoners and in brainwashing scenarios on many occasions (and by many nations).
Techniques include constantly moving captives around or making them change cells regularly. Sometimes prisoners are eventually allowed to fall asleep, only to be immediately woken up again.
In 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 criticized the United States for continuing to use sleep deprivation as a form of torture, despite banning 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 United States 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 online for 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.
Sleep deprivation is a complex condition that scientists still don’t fully understand 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. And it’s not easy to get ethics boards to approve experiments that can result in ill-health and suffering for the volunteers.
What we do know though is that it can result in mental and physical ill-health sooner or later.
As the sleep deprivation experiments here demonstrate, even if there’s a potential positive side in very 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?
Please leave a comment below with your story and thoughts.