Eleven Days Awake

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.

Bruce McAllister (left) and Joe Marciano Jr. (right) help Randy Gardner
stay awake as he gets a checkup at the naval hospital.

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 1984 1894 Russian physician Marie de Manaceine kept four puppies awake almost five days, at which point the puppies died. She reported that the research was "excessively painful," not only for the puppies but for herself as well. Apparently monitoring sleepy puppies 24/7 is hard work.

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.

The Experiment

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.

Alex Boese, author of the popular book (and website) Museum of Hoaxes and Hippo Eats Dwarf, is back with another excellent read: Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments.

In this book, Alex described real scientific experiments that are outrageous, amusing, and bizarre.

Why can't people tickle themselves? Would an average dog summon help in an emergency? Will babies instinctively pick a well-balanced diet?

Find out the answers in Alex Boese's Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments! | Also available at Amazon

Awesome article, thanks for posting it! It's obvious from this article and most people's experience that we need sleep, but I haven't found any answers as to *why* we need sleep. What makes us go tired (and a bit loopy) when we're sleep-deprived? As far as I can see (with a quick google for research papers) biologists don't know yet.
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@ gert:
There're a few hypotheses: regeneration of organs, "recalibration" of organs, preservation of ecological balances and the processing of everything we experienced that day and discarding unimportant memories.

The loopiness, hallucinations and inability to remember things could be explained by that last point.
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Didn't Gardner technically stay awake for 268 hours if he spent 4 hours talking to the press? Not that it matters in the long run, but he would've beaten the kid from Fresno.
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You're right Geekazoid - thanks! I've corrected the post.

@Jerse: 236 hours more to go! Good luck!

@l'elk! - I've heard about Thai Ngoc. If that were true, that's crazy! Here's what Wikipedia wrote:

He is best known for his claim of being awake for 33 years (or 11,700 nights), according to Vietnamese news organization Thanh Nien.[1] At the time of the report, Ngoc suffered from no apparent ill effect (other than the fact that he cannot sleep). He was mentally sound and was able to carry 100kg of pig feed down a 4km road. It was said that Ngoc acquired the ability to go without sleep after a bout of fever in 1973. In April, 2007, however, Ngoc reported that he was beginning to feel grumpy due to the lack of sleep.[2]

@Kiera - good point. I don't know the answer to that. He probably dozed off for a little bit right before talking to the press and what not.
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Kiera, the celebration occurred at 260 hours, when Gardner matched Tom Rounds' record. Four hours later he was taken to the hospital. Making the total time awake 264 hours.
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I was awake for 53 hours once at a LAN-party, if you know what that is.. playing games, watching movies and stuff like that.. the last couple of hours i had no short term memory whatsoever, forgetting what I or my friends just said. I could'nt hear the music playing in the background. I spoke and i walked like i was drunk..

That was just 53 hours..

however.. I slept for 23 hours afterwards :)
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Thai Ngoc, the Vietnamese man who hasn’t slept since 1976? This is true and he has been checked out by doctors and he is well known in his village for working through the night, because he gets bored. He requires physical rest, but can not actually sleep. This began to happen to him after a brief illness with a fever.
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I'd be awful if this were a contest!! I need a lot sleep. I'd be better in waking-deprivation tests. I wonder how many days I can do without waking?
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I performed an 80 hour sleep deprivation experiment in 1984 for a high school science class with 7 or 8 close friends. I can attest that the hallucinations are very real, typically between 2 and 4 AM, and that you lose the ability to hold conversations or even recite the alphabet (I still have the recordings). Endless hours were spent in conversations like "Did a hand just wave in front of my face?", "No, is there a monkey outside in that tree?"...
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Hrmm.. i pulled close to 200 in '03 ....but that was when i lived a 'faster' lifestyle... my brain is probally worse for the wear, but the hallucinations were amazing and terrifying at the same time... it was just the voices that got rather draining and disturbing.... i think sleep keeps the frequency of conciousness slightly offset from the absolute frequency of this reality, too long awake and you start to synch up with things you dont want to know are there...
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Some one in the world some or the other time, his circumstances may lead him not to sleep for hours...pertaining to that if he knew, not sleep for hours wud place him in World record he wud certainly try for being awake for few hours more...its not tat impossible...in this regard 11days is not a big deal
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Heads up for all would be record setters, lack of sleep can be dangerous. I went for 190 hours with only four hours of sleep grabbed intermittently, and I ended up on the locked ward of a psychiatric hospital. It does not happen to everyone, but just because these folks did not suffer harm does not mean it is safe. Who knows exactly why, but your body needs sleep and going without can mess you up big time.
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Well, I've been without any sleep for 4 years. Just lying in bed with my eyes wide open. Does that count? Plus, I've managed to go to work and back, going to the gym and living a relatively normal life.

I win.
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Neuroscientist say that humans and animals need to sleep for two reasons:
the 1st one is simply logical: Vegetarian animals would be more in danger if they walked around at night, and predators would be much more inefficient during daytime. So its something like a hiding-enegry conserving mode.
The second reason is the two "modes" that parts of the brain works during awakeness and sleep. That means that parts of the brain (especially hippocampus, a part which is used for deciding what memory is important and storing it) work differently during awakeness and sleep. The hippocampus is during the awake phase in a "exploration" mode, where it focuses on retrieving new data, and storing it temporary. If you fall asleep it goes into "storing" mode where the hippocampus decides what data to throw away, and what should be kept.(for example order the TV ads that you have seen between two films yesterday is is not really important.)These two modes have even been obresved in experiments, different regions and inputs are active in the hippocampus. It has been shown by researchers that when you learn something youll be better in remembeing it in the next day.(better means more organized, youll see more coherences in what you learned).
PS sorry for my english im not from the usa.
PS2 im a hippocampus researcher
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@Brian K:

Pleeease put those recordings up somewhere!

I've become very interested in the effects of sleep deprivation for a while now... I started working two jobs and I had to quit my previous job as a grave shift security guard, since I'd constantly hear noises that just weren't there.
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The most I've ever stayed asleep was 36 hours.

I stayed a whole day awake, then went to school the next day without sleeping. I wasn't really sleepy, just tired. I could understand what people were saying, but I was slow on my comprehension and reflexes.

I wanna be a medical doll. To see how far I could go awake. Since I never got high or got drunk. I wanna know how a hallucination is like and feeling "outside of yourself" and not being fully yourself.
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Find someone reliable and take some psilocybin mushrooms. It's poison but that's why you trip, and it passes through your body the next day.

You'll know what it's like.
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I don't sleep much at night, but I have an office where I take cat naps to catch up on my restless nights. Also, a friend pointed me to Sleep.FM website which helps lull me to sleep and wakes me up, so my boss doesn't catch on.

THough one time he almost caught me, but my admin stalled him..thank goodness.

Interesting article!
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I have been up for over 5 days and 4 nights back when I used speed. I now have frequent tension headaches from damage caused to my eye muscles.
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Has anyone else ever watched this guy on Ripley's Believe it or Not?


He hasn't gone to sleep for the last 33 years!
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Really cool article, classic science is great. Man, 11 days must be insane, I've done a maximum of 3 days straight without sleep and still been fully functioning, but I was out like a light as soon as I let my mind get distracted.
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Ever heard of insomnia ? Ever heard of ww2 and nazi experiments? What is so special about 11 days ? Person will not die from a lack of sleep EVER its easy to confirm this (use google). So this whole affair is a joke.
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I have a hard time concentrating after just a few hours asleep?..cant remember doing a choir from just a few second earlier...can't a person die from lack of sleep??..
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Well I come from an interesting past and have stayed awake for over five days continously, suffered severe paranoi, hallucinations, blacked out constantly and had periods of extreme aggresiveness. On the other hand, other people I know have stayed awake for as long as a month at a time. An eighteen day run ended in a trip to a psych ward where my friend encountered another acquaintance, carried on a long meaningful conversation until his friend tipped his head back and was sucked down into the floor (he explained this as water going down a drain) and still didn't realize that his friend had never been there in the first place. Sleep deprivation is most certainley a drug in itself, a dangerous one at that and should not be attempted regularly (unfortunatley I did so, resulting in some not so great states of mental health) Eleven days is a long time for someone to be awake, that must have been tough for him but the sleep afterwards is so worth it :)
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When I saw ostriches every 1/10 mile with their heads in the concrete along side a nightime highway in IOWA, after not sleeping for 3 days, I knew it was time to pull over on the side of the road and get some winks. Things would have been fine except for the corn stalk praying manis that left by morning.
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As a NOW clean 'n sober meth head my longest 'run was 17 days without sleep. It as definitely interesting. The delusions were the most interesting part of the experience. I had many friends who imagined helicopters following them and 'tree people' spying on them altho I never spotted either. My favorite experience was imagining songs were following me around from store to store magically. "This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs." It wasn't pretty. Thank God for sobreity.
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ive been awake 40 hours here, just because i have a dead line in university, im functioning fine just wen i re-read my work, it doesnt make alot of sence and looking at a computer screen doesnt help either.
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I've been a speedfreeak since 1969, although the last 20 years or so have been pathetic, quality-wise. The hallucinations were always my favorite part. They really kick in around day 11 or 12. One of my sweethearts of the past once stayed up for a couple of years, but she was really crazy to begin with.
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I went to an art college that was pretty demanding and I pulled many all nighters, my longest being over 72 hours. The worst I experienced was loss of concentration, I would start a sentence and totally forget what I was talking about, lots of ums. When it came time to present my project I fell asleep standing up in front of the class. I'm glad those days are over and I get paid for overtime now.
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i feel this way when im in class or daydreaming. its actually kind of fun for a little while. i remember when i was 2-3 i used to hear little voices and i turned around it was halarious. lol. around that time i didnt sleep very well :S. i now often forget what i just said 2 secs ago and have to ask sum1.
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The longest I've stayed awake was on a cocaine and drink fueled binge of 5 days and 4 nights. I frequently go for 2-3 days without sleep and although I do lose concentration and forget things easily, I have never hallucinated.

On the other side of the coin, when I was 12 years old I got Beijing Flu and slept for 13 days without waking up. My mum was a junkie and didn't take me to the doctor until afterwards. The doc said I should be dead! lol.
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wow im sure a human cannot go 11 days without sleep.thats impossible man. i cant stay awake at night till 12 mid properly man.or maybe thats coz im a baby . . . . . . . . . . . goo . . . . . . . .
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2 days awake at the moment..I read that article about ten times slower than if Id been sleeping. I don't think that even made sense..So my psychology teacher totally lied then. He said that the record was 11 days but the person died..whata schmo
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How is it pissible to stay awake for 33 yeasrs? k..that word is a result of 2 days no sleep. Sleep deprivation= making up new words
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im on hour 44, and im screwed. ive been hallucinating voices. and i agree with the guy who says sleep keeps us away from paranormal. im scared as hell right now.
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I think the requirement for animals to sleep is an evolutionary device, which ensures that the body has time to regenerate and heal itself at a more intense level than it would were it awake and moving. Ever notice how you can feel sick all day long, but often times upon waking the problem has completely disappeared? Emotional stress is also lightened considerably after even a moderate amount of sleep.

If there were a way to "deactivate" the need for sleep for life, rest assured our average lifespans would be shortened considerably, and our health problems would mount to the sky (more than they already have).
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I have 3 more hours until i can go to sleep, then i will have been awake for 28 hours. The longest I have ever stayed awake was 73.5 hours. Right now im trying to stay awake to get my sleeping schedule back to normal(10pm - ~6am) as I have been going to sleep around 12pm and waking up between 8pm - 12am.
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I agree with the guy that said you start to sync up with things you don't want to know are there. So you say the paranormal is impossible? Tell me this, do you believe in god?
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wow i have tried to stay awake for 24 hours but i fell asleep at like 23.5 i couldnt do it i was just to hard.My eyelids felt like they were 2 tons i had to holdthem to stay awake
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woow! that is so cool! anyway,I always use this as an excuse for not going to school so I would try to stay awake for 2 nights then on the third day I would get a headache, and I won't be going to school for 4 days.yey!!I am just worried when I'm old I'm going kuku...anyway, its an interesting article.
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I'm going to try to beat gardners record right now. I've been up for 18 hours and I'm about to go to school. Im probably gunna be walking around like a drunk.
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I have had problems sleeping as far back as I can remember and it's gotten to where I don't sleep two to three nights per week, and it's common for me to go 60 hours (e.g., Monday morning to Wednesday night) or more. The longest stint I've gone in the last few years was 134 hours; I got up on Monday and finally fell asleep on Saturday night, but only after I forced the issue by taking some medication. Oddly enough, I felt fine the entire time.

Outside of having some muscle soreness from sitting too long I have never suffered any obvious ill effects either physically or mentally--no cognitive impairment, problems concentrating, memory loss, depression, etc..
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Interesting! I wonder what the record is now. 449 hours equals 18.7 or so days. Did the guy have to stay up without any "aids" to help? Coffee? Caffeine soda/pills? Or drugs coke/meth?

I'm guessing he did it without breaking the law...but without coffee or "something"...I don't believe that. Also IF he used "something", ie: coffee or other aids wouldn't that negate the result? Because, I stayed up EASILY over 18 days...18 days 10 hrs on meth once. NEVER again...and I'm happy to say THOSE days are LONG GONE. Clean and sober, never to do anything like that again. BUT, it was interesting. I didn't experience anything bad, hallucinate, or get sick. I did lose close to 30 or so pounds because I hardly ate or drank anything. And my face and body resembled shrink-wrapped...plastic spread out over too much surface. But my mind was sharp and clear headed. I worked the whole time...I was a waiter. Worked double shifts MOST of the time. Went home...stayed home playing Xbox360 or PS3, listened to music. Then started all over again.
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