What would happen if you stay awake, say, oh for 11 days straight? Would you suffer brain damage or even die? Here's the story of a high school stunt that turned into a real scientific research into sleep deprivation from Alex Boese's Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments.
On the first day, Randy Gardner woke at six A.M. feeling alert and ready to go. By day two he had begun to drag, experiencing a fuzzy-headed lack of focus. When handed series of objects, he struggled to recognize them by touch alone. The third day he became uncharacteristically moody, snapping at his friends. He had trouble repeating common tongue twisters such as Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. By the fourth day, the sand-clawed demons of sleep were scraping at the back of his eyeballs. He suddenly and inexplicably hallucinated that he was Paul Lowe, a large black football player for the San Diego Chargers. Gardner, in reality, was white, seventeen years old, and 130 pounds soaking wet.
Gardner, a San Diego high school student, was the subject of a self-imposed sleep-deprivation experiment. He had resolved to find out what would happen to his mind and body if he stayed awake from December 28, 1963 to January 8, 1964, a total of 264 hours - eleven days. Assisting him were two classmates, Bruce McAllister and Joe Marciano Jr. They kept him awake and tracked his condition by administering a series of tests. They planned to enter the results in the Greater San Diego High School Science Fair. But transforming the ordeal from a science fair stunt into one of the most widely cited sleep-deprivation experiments ever conducted was the arrival of Stanford researcher William C. Dement, who flew down from Palo Alto to be with Randy as soon as he heard what was going on.
Animal Study Ends in DEATH!
No one knew what Randy might experience, as more days passed, or whether he might cause himself permanent brain damage, because only a handful of sleep-deprivation trials had ever been conducted. One of the earliest studies in this field had come to an inauspicious conclusion. In
However, the few studies conducted on humans offered more hope. In 1896 doctors J. Allen Gilbert and George Patrick kept an assistant professor and two instructors awake in their lab at the University of Iowa for ninety hours. After the second night, the assistant professor hallucinated that "the floor was covered with a greasy-looking, molecular layer of rapidly moving or oscillating particles." But no long-term side effects were observed. Then, in 1959, two disc jockeys separately staged wake-a-thons to raise money for medical research. Peter Tripp of New York stayed awake for 201 hours while broadcasting from a glass booth in Times Square. Tom Rounds of Honolulu upped the ante by remaining awake 260 hours. Both Tripp and Rounds suffered hallucinations and episodes of paranoia, but after a few good nights' sleep they seemed fully recovered. It was Rounds's record Gardner hoped to beat, which is why he set his goal a 264 hours.
Meanwhile, Gardner valiantly pressed onward, struggling to stay awake. Nights were the hardest. If he lay down for a second, he was out like a light. So his high school friends and Dr. Dement kept him active by cruising in the car, taking trips down to the donut shop, blasting music, and playing marathon games of basketball and pinball. Whenever Gardner went to the bathroom, they made him talk through the door to confirm he wasn't dozing off. The one thing they didn't do was give him any drugs. Not even caffeine.
As more days passed, Gardner's speech began to slur, he had trouble focusing his eyes, he frequently grew dizzy, he had trouble remembering what he said from one minute to the next, and he was plagued by more hallucinations. One time he saw a wall dissolve in front of him and become a vision of a forest path.
To make sure he wasn't causing himself brain damage or otherwise injuring his health, his parents insisted he get regular checkups at the naval hospital in Balboa Park - the family's health-care provider since his father served in the military. The doctors at the hospital found nothing physically wrong with him, though he did sporadically appear confused and disoriented.
A New World Record!
Finally, at two A.M. on January 8, Gardner broke Rounds's record. A small crowd of doctors, parents, and classmates gathered to celebrate the event. They cheered wildly, and Gardner, busy taking calls from newsmen, responded with a V-for-victory sign. Four hours later, he was whisked away to the naval hospital where, after receiving a brief neurological checkup, he fell into deep sleep. He woke fourteen hours and forty minutes later, feeling alert and refreshed.
Gardner's world record didn't last long. A mere two weeks later, papers reported that Jim Thomas, a student at Fresno State College, managed to stay awake 266.5 hours. The Guinness Book of World Records subsequently recorded that in April 1977 Maureen Weston, of Petersborough, Cambridgeshire, went 449 hours without sleep while participating in a rocking chair marathon. However, Gardner's feat remained the most well-remembered sleep-deprivation trial. To this day, no on knows the maximum amount of time a human can stay awake.
As of 2007, Gardner remains alive and well, having suffered no long-term ill effects from his experience. Despite sleep deprivation being the source of his fifteen minutes of fame, he insists he's really not the type to pull an all-nighter and says he's maintained a sensible sleep schedule since his youthful stunt. He does admit to lying awake some nights, but attributes this to age, not a desire to beat his old record.
Ross J. (1965) "Neurological Findings After Prolonged Sleep Deprivation." Archives of Neurology 12:399-403.
This article, titled "Eleven Days Awake" is reprinted here with permission. The internal headings are added here for clarity and ease-of-reading on your browser.
In this book, Alex described real scientific experiments that are outrageous, amusing, and bizarre.
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