The Bizarre, Terrifying Effects Of Sleep Deprivation
Question: Why do humans -- or any animal, for that matter -- need to sleep? And what would happen if somebody just decided they weren't going to do it? The answer, as it turns out, is fucking terrifying. We know because people have tried it. And what happens is that your brain and body quickly turn on you in surreal, nightmarish ways.
Sleep Deprivation Is Literal Torture
For starters, sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique, and it's so horrific that the United Nations had to step in and specifically tell the U.S. government to stop doing it. To put it in clinical terms, staying awake even a little too long will fuck you up. A mere day of constant consciousness leads to the equivalent of being shitfaced drunk. The results of staying awake even longer than that -- for days on end -- we only know about due to publicity-seeking daredevils, mostly. That's because scientists aren't crazy enough to keep human subjects awake that long.
Arguably the most famous person to force himself awake indefinitely is Randy Gardner. In 1963, Gardner stayed awake for 11 days for a high school science project. (Couldn't he have just made a potato battery or something?) He netted himself first place, got a Guinness World Record, and most incredulously, claimed to suffer no ill effects from the stunt. But that was a big lie. He's since openly admitted that he felt nauseous the entire time, and was forgetful to the point that he later likened the experience to an "early Alzheimer's thing."
And then there were the hallucinations. There were reports that Gardner deluded himself an imaginary hat, claiming to have felt the pressure of it around his head. He often saw fog around street lights for the duration of the endeavor, regardless of weather. As early as the fourth day of not sleeping, he thought a street sign was a person, and then straight up believed that he, a lanky white teenager, was a large black professional football player.
This, it turns out, is pretty much what anyone can expect. After about three days of not sleeping, you absolutely will start hallucinating, and rarely in a fun way. Going long enough without sleep means your nightmares will simply come out to find you in the real world.
Related: 5 Banned CIA Torture Techniques Babies Use To Break You
People Keep Trying It For Fun (To Devastating Results)
Take, for instance, the contestants of Shattered, a reality TV show from the UK's liability-less stone age of 2004. In it, ten people were locked in a house and given mind-numbingly boring tasks, like potato peeling and watching paint dry, while they vied to stay awake as long as possible for a huge cash prize.
I bet that sounds like harmless stuff that you'd probably create a drinking game around. (Take a shot for every yawn!) Then you hear a runner-up say that sometimes "you felt like your life was going to end."
Did we mention that he also thought he was someone else at one point? No? Well, apparently, in between seeing nonexistent projectiles flying by his head and shadows crawling toward him along the floor, Chris Wandel began arguing with people, telling them that he was the Australian prime minister making a guest appearance on a long-running Australian soap opera. Another runner-up thought he was being hunted by a giant mouse.
But that just brings us to the granddaddy of all sleep deprivation freakouts: Peter Tripp. In 1959, the radio DJ attempted a 200-hour "wakathon" to raise money for the March of Dimes. He set up a booth in Times Square and was beset by press, doctors, and medical researchers, all eager to see "the kind of temporary psychosis that can be induced with sleep starvation."
Tripp did not disappoint. Things started well enough, but only two days in, he thought one of the scientists tending to him was wearing a blazer made of writhing, furry worms. He began seeing cobwebs and mice and kittens everywhere. He accused a technician of slipping an electrode into his shoe, which he thought, of course, was made of spiders. He forgot the alphabet. Then things got really weird.
Tripp opened a desk drawer to get something and immediately began panicking and calling for help. He thought the drawer was full of fire. He became combative and began accusing the doctors of setting the fire deliberately as a way to fuck with him. The DJ also claimed that the clock was, in fact, the face of a friend of his, and he was trying to figure out if he himself was Peter Tripp or that imaginary clock-faced friend.
Throughout the 200 hours, he remained convinced that his doctors were conspiring to send him to jail. Granted, he did go to jail later, but until sleep studies deem that a side effect of insomnia is accepting bribes under the table from record companies, the two events seem to be unrelated.
Eventually, You'll Just Die
As you might have noticed about all of the above, as well as every attempt afterward, these bouts of sleeplessness usually top out at around 11 days -- the upper limits of human endurance, it would seem. But what happens when you really, truly can't sleep?
Fatal familial insomnia is an extremely rare disease -- there are only about 40 families globally with any genetic predisposition for it -- which causes a person to stop sleeping forever. Which, in practice, ends up being about a year.
In addition to the aforementioned hallucinations and belligerence, victims of FFI can also look forward to "drenching sweats" and double vision. They all but lose control of their motor functions, and their muscles jerk about abnormally. Delirium and an inability to talk follows, then death. Basically, you slip into a delusional nightmare realm where you can't trust anything you see or hear, or even the actions of your own body.
So, uh, yeah. Maybe go ahead and take that nap.
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