Every day, humans experience the irresistible compulsion to pass out, and then remain unconscious for hours upon hours. We simply accept this involuntary stupor as natural when we really ought to be mortified.

All told, we humans spend about one third of our lives lying very still with our eyes closed. That means if you live to ninety years of age, you’ll have slept through thirty years of your life. What a waste. But is it feasible to reclaim that part of your life by reducing or eliminating sleep, without unwanted side effects?

A Ukrainian man named Fyodor Nesterchuk claims that he has not slept since the mid 1980s, but the medical community expresses strenuous doubts on this claim, suggesting the alternate explanation that perhaps Mr. Nesterchuk has highly combustible trousers.

There are plenty of chemical ways to keep sleep at bay, at least for a time—but the sleep debt must always be repaid, or the body and mind will suffer. Modafinil, a drug used to treat narcolepsy (a disorder causing involuntary sleep during normal waking hours), has been tested on normal individuals, and shown to remove a person’s urge to sleep. It can also increase vigilance, which allows one to stay awake and active for several days without sleep, but like caffeine and other drugs, it only postpones the inevitable. The US military has conducted studies to test the benefits of Modafinil for soldiers.

It turns out that if one actively prevents sleep for a prolonged period of time, which some people have tried, severe side effects pile on rapidly. All symptoms increase in severity as new ones appear:

  • After missing one night of sleep, expect fatigue, reduced attention span and problems with short-term memory.
  • After missing 2 to 3 nights, one will also suffer poor coordination, muscle twitches, marked loss of concentration, impaired judgment, blurred vision, nausea, and slurring of speech. Often one will experience episodes of microsleep (briefly sleeping for a few seconds at a time, without being aware of it).
  • At about 4 to 5 days without sleep, expect extreme irritability, hallucinations, and delusional episodes.
  • After about 6 to 8 missed nights, add slowed speech, tremors in limb extremities, memory lapse, confusion concerning one’s own identity, unusual behavior, and paranoia to the list.
  • After 9 to 11 nights without sleep, fragmented thinking occurs (beginning sentences without completing them), and prolonged episodes of unresponsive “conscious stupor.”

The effects of full sleep deprivation in humans beyond eleven days have not been explored due to the health risks involved. Presumably, irreversible damage will soon follow, then death. This has been demonstrated in lab rats which died after being prevented from sleeping for two weeks. It is also evidenced by a very rare inherited prion disease called Fatal Familial Insomnia, where an adult individual slowly loses the ability to sleep, and the victims experience all of the above symptoms gradually over a few months. This disease eventually leads to dementia, permanent personality changes, and motor paralysis. Death usually occurs within 18 months of the initial symptoms.

Bruce McAllister (left) helps Randy Gardner (center) stay awake with the help of Joe Marciano Jr. (right).
Bruce McAllister (left) helps Randy Gardner (center) stay awake with the help of Joe Marciano Jr. (right).

Apparently, lack of sleep causes all of these adverse effects because it causes brain damage. During a normal day, the brain is slightly damaged by the body’s metabolism, and by free radicals. When one is asleep, the brain engages a repair center which slowly mends the tiny injuries, restoring the brain to its full potential. During the deepest phase of sleep, called REM, it is believed that the repair center itself is repaired. But the longer that sleep is prevented, the more damage one’s brain accrues, and the more sleep one will require to repair it. Too much damage, and it becomes irreparable.

The longest recorded stint of deliberate sleeplessness was a science experiment by seventeen-year-old Randy Gardner in 1965. He managed to stay awake for 11 days (264 hours) without the use of stimulant drugs, though he did keep assistants on hand to prevent him from sleeping. By the end, he had experienced the full gamut of symptoms, including hallucinations and stupor, but he was able to suppress these symptoms while presiding over a press conference on the final day. Researchers then attached EEG monitors to his head as he went to sleep, which took less than four seconds. He awoke after sleeping for about 14 hours, and said that he felt fine.

Getting too little sleep in general can prevent the brain from being restored to 100% effectiveness, and can keep an individual at a perpetually reduced potential. As a consequence, the brain must work harder to accomplish the same amount of work, which is detrimental to efficiency. The brain also uses sleep as a time to sort, process, and catalog all of the information it has absorbed throughout the waking period, which is why memory is adversely effected by lack of sleep. Creativity also suffers because the brain builds creative associations from memories while slumbering. As if that weren’t enough, the immune system will be weakened by insufficient sleep.

Interestingly, before the invention of the electric light bulb, the average person received nine of hours of sleep per night. The average night’s sleep for a young American today is a bit over seven hours.