Sleep 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
In 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?
People 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?
Whilst 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 1983 and 1995 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
One 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
In 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.
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 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.
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.