Two years ago, after a 96-hour overdose on consciousness, I lost control of
my thoughts in such a way that my mind convinced me that reality was a
dream. I was attempting to remain awake for 120 hours. In this quasi-hallucinatory
state, I became belligerent and mildly violent towards the person
designated to make sure that I stayed awake for a particular stretch
of time. Once it was reestablished that the world was, in fact, real, the
revelation was so shocking to me that I broke down in tears and shortly
thereafter, unwillingly succumbed to the luxury of sleep.
There is shockingly little to be said about sleep deprivation that isn’t common
sense. It is a familiar experience for nearly everyone. Many have gone
through a class where they noticed a certain student’s head droop, only
to jerk back up in a fright before slowly descending yet again. Many of us
have been that student at least once in our lives. The risks involved with
such activities are hotly debated to this day.
Before my 96-hour stint, I contacted a doctor from the University of Rochester
who was more than willing to speak with me about the risks. During
my interview, his superior barged in unexpectedly to ask me a question:
“Are you stupid?” He then tried to talk me out of it.
Even the doctor who humored me was unwilling to “condone” my actions
by hooking me up to any of his fancy machines or monitoring me during
my feat. As optimistic as he was, he pointed out that if my family had any
history of mental illness there was a chance that in the late phases of my
stint I could become temporarily bipolar or schizophrenic.
Other symptoms fell into the duh factor, such as irritability, impaired motor
functions, drowsiness, and the inability to focus attention. The two
less obvious ones were ones that I had already suspected: increased metabolism
and decreased body temperature.
A night owl by nature who frequently pulls all-nighters, I’ve felt the sensations.
As the morning hours approach, you get hungry. It’s simple enough:
you stay awake, sitting, walking, thinking, typing, moving. The alternative
is lying on your back, snoring. You get the munchies. Sleep deprived
individuals sometimes eat too much, and weight gain is sometimes found
in subjects deprived of sleep.
For less discernible reasons, sleep deprivation just makes you cold. Peter
Tripp, who stayed awake for 201 hours in 1959 (see sidebar),
experienced chills and spent the later portion of his feat bundling up in
more and more clothes.
There is an image that still haunts me from the research before my 96-
hour attempt. A close up of a dead rat’s paw, swollen and covered with tiny
lesions. It looked diseased, ancient, and decrepit. Imagine a rotting apple
covered in concave bruises. Now imagine your body covered similarly.
This is the paw of a rat killed after being deprived of sleep for 29 days.
Before seeing this image, I had no idea that lack of sleep could kill. My
understanding, expressed by the doctor with whom I spoke, was that
the brain was powerful enough to stop me when I had to be stopped.
Mankind’s willpower can only contend with the mind so long as the mind
allows it. The idea that sleeplessness could kill was something new.
At the University of Chicago, Dr. Rechtschaffen created an experiment
called the “disk-over-water” technique. Imagine a steel turntable bisected
by two separate Plexiglas cages, each inhabited by a rat. The turntable
made up the flooring and covered a semi-circular area. If one rat were to
fall off the steel plate, it would plunge into a shallow pool of water and be
forced to reposition itself.
Each rat had a wire leading out of its skull to measure its brain waves.
The control rat was allowed to sleep whenever it wished. However, when
the experiment rat approached the state of sleep, it was awakened by the
turning of the turntable or by being knocked into the water. After 29 days,
the experiment rat died, looking dirty, grey, and unkempt. The control
rat looked just as young as when the experiment started, with a glossy
white coat of fur.
Many explanations and speculations state that it would take several more
months before sleep deprivation could actually kill a human being. One
theory is that one of the functions of sleep is thermoregulation. Due to
the sheer surface area of humans compared to rats, humans should be
able to last much longer.
Due to the risks involved, studies of humans in sleep-deprived states
are rare. The occasional all-nighter is pulled by a test subject; however,
in 1896, three subjects were kept awake for a period of time between 88
and 90 hours. The most obvious effects were the subjects’ impaired reaction
time and motor abilities. One of the subjects even expressed that he
Of course, you should not be concerned with the prospect of nearing the
triple-digits of wakefulness. An all-nighter here and a catnap there should
get you by without reaching the month-long expiration date of our rat
friend. Death notwithstanding, the reactions are similar: drowsiness, irritability,
and inability to focus.
Truth be told, staying awake is the easy part of the college student’s conundrum.
The tricky part is getting anything of intellectual value accomplished
when clocking in consciousness overtime. Reading becomes
near-impossible, particularly heady textbooks.
A Long History of Sleepless Nights
1959: Peter Tripp
Peter Tripp set the world record for staying awake during a
“wakeathon” to support the March of Dimes. His 201-hour
stunt was conducted while running his top 40 countdown
radio show from a desk in Times Square. In staying awake for
over eight days, Tripp experienced several hallucinations in
the late phases of the stunt. He became paranoid, believing
that someone dropped an electrode in his shoe and that certain
objects should be in his desk drawer that weren’t. After
setting the record, Tripp lost his job, his wife, and suffered
through a downward spiral, which some people (and at least
one documentary) have attributed to staying awake for 201
hours. However, it is worth noting that Tripp started taking
drugs like amphetamines to help him stay awake.
1964: Randy Gardner
Gardner set the bar at 264 hours (11 days) in 1964. He was a
17-year-old high school student at the time. Keeping his wits
to the end, Gardner was available for a press conference after
he reached his goal. At the conference, he seemed in perfect
health. He slept for 14 hours and 40 minutes after completing
the stunt, then stayed awake for a full day before shifting
back into a normal sleep schedule of eight hours a night.
Between Tripp and Gardner, Honolulu resident Tom Rounds
held the record, at 260 hours. Gardner was the last person to
carry the title in the Guinness Book of World Records.
May 2007: Tony Wright
In May of 2007, Wright set out to beat Gardner’s record and
prove his theory that each side of the brain requires a different
amount of sleep. Wright believed that by relying on the right
half of the brain, he could deprive himself of sleep for long
periods of time without ill effect. To achieve this, he remained
on a strict diet of raw foods and did his best to abandon conceptual
thought. To pass the time, he played pool at The Studio
Bar in Cornwall. His 266-hour feat beat Randy Gardner by
two hours, but the Guinness Book of World Records no longer
accepts attempts to break Gardner’s record for fear that the
stunt is too dangerous to pursue. There are speculations that
other records have been exceeding Wright’s between 1964 and
2007, but many are vague or unmonitored.
May 2008?: David Blaine
Although no official confirmation has been made, street illusionist
and endurance artist David Blaine is expected to attempt
a stunt in May 2008. He has stated that he has adopted
a diet similar to that of Wright and is known for publicity
stunts that push the limits of human physical capabilities.
In 2006, Blaine failed to set the world record for holding his
breath (8 minutes, 59 seconds) but set the record for most
days submerged in water (seven).
Sure, it isn’t so hard to wiggle your tongue or watch a Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtles marathon; but rarely do we push the limits of our endurance
to their threshold for such asinine things (not to say that The Turtles are
asinine). In fact, it is easier to play Smash Brothers Brawl after 48 hours
of sleep deprivation than it is to read Derrida. Lots of students look to
drug-based help for the latter.
Mmm...energy drinks. There are so many chemicals yet so little time
to consume them all. Did you know that taurine is synthetic bull bile?
Remember that next time you go to slam down a can of Red Bull. What
is mostly doing the trick in these drinks is far less mysterious than the
chemical names suggest. You can usually look to good old sugar for the
buzz, along with its close friend, caffeine. Then you can refocus on sugar
once again for the debilitating crash that occurs hours later. For these
reasons, I vowed to wait 48 hours before consuming energy drinks during
my stunt; but the things sure do work wonders for short stints.
However, when these drugs fail, drug abuse succeeds. This may lead to
an abuse of Adderall and Ritalin, which can increase awareness and focus
in persons not suffering from ADHD. Ritalin is sometimes prescribed to
narcolepsy patients to help them stay awake while Adderall has become
a popular “study drug” at major US universities. Unfortunately, potential
risks include loss of vision, vomiting, and confusion.
Sleep and Inebriation
In some ways, sleeplessness can be considered a poor man’s drink, at least
in the most undesirable ways. One study filled a group of people up with
alcohol, and deprived the other group of sleep. Each group member was
put behind the wheel of a car on a test course and each group performed
poorly at best. In some categories, the drunk drivers outperformed their
The number of drunk drivers on roads at night is already horrendous. It
is only worsened with drowsy drivers thrown into the mix. Perhaps the
most dangerous thing about drowsy drivers is that police enforcement
cannot take them off the road until they have already caused an accident.
There is no breathalyzer for sleepiness, but the symptoms are a recipe for
As strange as it may seem, arranging rides for oneself after an all-nighter
may not be a terrible idea. Finishing that final paper will not mean much
if you cannot submit it on account of wrecking your car during your morning
As tortured insomniac Axel Munthe once wrote, “An attack of insomnia
set in, so terrible that it nearly made me go off my head. Insomnia does
not kill its man unless he kills himself [...I]t kills his joie de vivre, it saps
his strength, it sucks the blood from his brain and from his heart as a
vampire. It makes him remember during the night what he was meant to
forget in blissful sleep. It makes him forget during the day what he was
meant to remember...Voltaire was right when he placed sleep in the same
level as hope.”
Do not let sleep deprivation take you down that road. Do not figure out
firsthand what 96 hours without dreams will do to you. For every hour
you deprive yourself of sleep, you accumulate a sleep debt. The hours you
miss must be made up before things are entirely returned to normal. By
the time you are out of college, this debt may look like the national deficit.
Unfortunately, if I tried to convince you that I wasn’t writing this at 3:45
a.m., I would be lying.