No Sleep Until a Week From Friday

If you’re anxious about the upcoming United States elections, maybe you’ve half-jokingly wished that you could take a nap and magically wake up a week or so from now, once the results are known. But absent a very serious medical condition — one worse than election anxiety, for sure — that’s not going to happen. On the other hand — and please, do not try this — if you really, really wanted to stay awake for the next ten days or so, you can. Or, at least, someone has.

And it is a really bad idea.

In 1974, a 17-year-old named Randy Gardner entered into the San Diego Science Fair and really wanted to win. Instead of doing the time-honored science projects like “which cheese conducts electricity the best?” determining the odds of getting an A if you guess on every answer on a multiple-choice exam, Gardner decided to not do something. Specifically, he decided to not go to sleep. The record at the time was 260 hours — more than 10 days — without sleep. Gardner, doing some quick multiplication, decided to go for 264 hours — exactly eleven days. And as the Washington Post reported, “With the help of two friends who took turns keeping him awake, marathon pinball sessions and a growing circus of television reporters, Gardner stayed awake 264 hours and achieved his record.” Some photos of him awake can be seen via Discovery, here.

The experiment, though, wasn’t that straightforward in its results. A few days into his intentional sleeplessness, Gardner caught the attention of the press and ultimately, the science community. And it’s a good thing, too, because the side-effects of not sleeping weren’t minor. As ScienceAlert reports, “after just two days of zero sleep, Gardner’s eyes struggled to remain focussed, he showed some signs of ataxia – an inability to repeat simple tongue twisters – and he found it difficult to identify objects based purely on touch. According to researcher John J. Ross of the US Navy Medical Neuropsychiatric Research Unit, who was responsible for monitoring the effects of Gardner’s experiment, by day three, he became moody and uncoordinated, and by day five he started hallucinating.” And there were still six more days to go. Gardner described the experience  to NPR as “almost like an early Alzheimer’s thing brought on by lack of sleep,” and per some reports, at one point couldn’t even count backward from 100 without forgetting what he was doing. 

The good news for Gardner is that the long-term damage, at least first, seemed minimal at worst. After his 11 day bender was over, he checked into a hospital for monitoring but was basically able to recover on his own; he slept for more than 14 hours straight and then, within a few days, was back to his normal sleep habits. However, later in life, he experienced insomnia, which he attributes (without scientific evidence) to his sleep experiment decades beforehand. Oh, and the really good news? He came in 10th in the all-city science fair.

Garner also set the Guinness World Record for the longest period without any sleep, which may be a bigger honor than that tenth place finish. But you won’t see him, or anyone else, listed in the Guinness World Records books in the sleep deprivation category. And the negative health impacts of Gardner’s well-document experience has something to do with that. Per NPR, “The Guinness Book of World Records has done away with the category of going without sleep because of the health dangers of severe sleep loss.”


Bonus fact: According to a 2015 CDC report, “more than two-thirds of high school students do not get enough sleep.” The culprit? School start times. Per the report, the American Academy of Pediatrics “recommended that ‘middle and high schools should aim for a starting time of no earlier than 8:30 a.m.'” but “forty-two states reported that 75%–100% of their public schools had early start times (before 8:30 a.m.).”

From the Archives: The Village in Kazakhstan That Can’t Stay Awake: The title summarizes it well, but doesn’t say why; you’ll have to click for that. The bonus fact features a researcher who also monitored Gardner.