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Burnt Out on Both Ends: How Long Can You Go Without Sleep?

Burnt Out on Both Ends: How Long Can You Go Without Sleep?

Those who suffer from insomnia know that sleep deprivation is an absolute pain. Despite what some may think after watching Fight Club,, insomnia doesn’t really result in anything that exciting, but it can lead to or exacerbate mental health issues. Those suffering from depression can be hit the hardest by sleep deprivation, and even those who are lucky enough to bypass this issue together will still feel a whole host of negative or downright perplexing effects.

But how long can the body, or rather the mind, ride consciousness before the cracks start to show?

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The Dreads of an All-Nighter

So, as adults, we should be getting an average of eight hours sleep every night to let our brains recover. Despite the fact we’re not really 100% sure why we need to sleep, doing an all-nighter once in a while isn’t too problematic. You can stay up for two, even three days in a row and have no long-term effects, only having to deal with a lack in concentration, an increase in being susceptible to agitation and generally feeling groggy during these days.

It’s after this amount of time, however, that things get a little hairy.
Since the days of psychology before the 1980s cannot be properly conducted nowadays, we can’t really be scientifically sure of how long sleep deprivation will take before one would slump off of this mortal coil.

Some studies found that rats died within 11 to 32 days of not getting any sleep.. They finally managed to close their eyes forever because they didn’t possess as sophisticated a ‘safety net’ as we humans do; an odd phenomenon known as ‘micro-sleeping’. It’s because of this built-in feature that, along with ethics, we’re not sure how long humans can really go without rest. Even in extreme studies (such as the ones we’ll get onto soon) it is found that during drastic sleep deprivation humans can often slip into these short burst of REM sleep, the period of sleep that’s deepest out of the four stages of sleep and the one in which our brain fully starts to shut down and recover.



Day by Day

Moving on, a look at various case studies showcases a fairly regular timeline with sleep deprivation, with most studies deciding not to push the boundaries too much and simply aim to stay conscious for just over a week. This is understandable, granted that most of the cases on record are self-inflicted.

Day 1: To no one’s surprise, day one passes by without any noteworthy effects. In regards to the experiments, people are neutral and normal at this point.

Day 2: Though nothing’s seriously gripping people after a missed night’s sleep, they start to feel understandably tired. Movements and thoughts are a little weighed down by fatigue, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed by a cup of coffee or three.

Day 3: It’s at this point that most people start to really feel exhausted. Moods sour, concentration wanes noticeably and the effects of coffee are starting to weaken. Some have reported, paradoxically, that they experience some form of ‘second wind’ and feel more alert and awake than they did at the beginning of the experiment, whereas most have stated that this is the point that they start asking for people to help keep them awake.

Day 4: And now the hallucinations start. These range from minor and miniscule shapes in the peripherals to slight and small oddities popping up here and there. Of course, people are more or less sleepwalking at this point too, with concentration and mental functions suffering a fair amount.

Day 5: Though they may not be literally sleepwalking, most people at this point are.. That, or they are completely unable to react to anything or anyone in any way other than irritated, aggravated or generally cantankerous. Some have even stated that they lose any and all feelings, including hunger or thirst. Hallucinations become more and more defined, with some starting to report audio hallucinations to boot.

Day 6: No matter what form they took previously, most agreed that at this point any hallucinations were impossible to ignore. Some reported, worryingly enough, that they could only see silhouette style, humanoid shapes that consistently whispered to them. Mere flights of fancy conjured by the mind and genuine elements of reality tend to become confused. Naturally, after this much sleep deprivation the previous reports are exacerbated, such as negative moods and lack of feeling.

Day 7: By this point, virtually everyone who goes through this amount of sleep deprivation is pretty much a shell of a being, requiring nothing less than around the clock care, whether it’s for remaining awake or for conducting the smallest of tasks. Concentration and cognitive functions are essentially out of the window, and people are either completely numb emotionally or erratically angry. It’s at this point that the negative effects of sleep deprivation don’t change, they simply get worse the longer an experiment goes on. There’s also the risk of long-term damage at this point, so if the sleep deprivation is self-inflicted, for whatever reason, it’s highly suggested that any experiments end here.

Post-Sleep Deprivation: After a long, long sleep (people of different ages say that they’ve slept for a period between 14 and 22 hours) people may still feel somewhat groggy, yet should more or less be back to normal. Another day and another bout of regular sleep should completely reset the mind, per se, but despite feeling back on form it’s rare that people recall much, if anything, from their sleep deprived time.




How Long People Went Without Sleep

These are mostly regular people discussing their experiences though, with most deciding to pull the plug on any experiment or seek medical assistance after about a week. The real studies that push the limits of human endurance are much more interesting, and much more telling of what the mind can take.

Whenever people talk about past experiments that discuss sleep deprivation they may mention Peter Tripp, a New York-based radio personality, who decided to do a stretch of eight days and eight nights with no sleep; all being witnessed live in a glass booth in the middle of Times Square. The 50s were a bizarre time for publicity stunts.

The first few days flew by, with Tripp acting more or less how any of us would when subjected to several days of no sleep; he began normally enough, continuing his radio show with jokes and cheer, eventually growing more sluggish and then becoming somewhat hostile. It was by the fourth day however that things got a little scarier, with his mood souring to downright hostile behaviour, paranoia that his physicians were conspiring against him running rampant and, worse yet, experiencing hallucinations that quickly became indistinguishable between mere frights and macabre reality.

When hour 201 passed he was taken to be bed. He slept for almost 24 full hours and, upon waking, seemed well enough to get back to work.


Some might say that for his effort, at least he had broken the world record, yet alas this achievement would soon be quashed. Not long after Tripp’s torturous 201 hours the Jacksonville based DJ Dave Hunter beat the record with a 225 hour long ‘wakeathon’ (which, yes, was somewhat of a trend back in those days) and six years after was utterly left in the dust by Randy Gardner’s 264 hour, or a whopping 11 day long, stint.

Gardner was the subject in a Stanford sleep experiment, overseen by Dr William C. Dement, and often entailed the likes of cognitive tests, such as subtracting numbers from 100, and even physical tasks, including playing (and subsequently beating any challengers of) pinball. Still the record holder to this day, despite being beaten several times (the record can no longer be broken as the Guinness World Records don’t accept any record-breaking attempt that seriously risks a person’s health), Gardner told the press that he had agreed to take part in the experiment to prove, ironically, that sleep deprivation does no long-term harm.

The long and short of it is that, really, sleep deprivation should be avoided at all costs. It’s not exactly a revelation, but some of the results are rather shocking. Had any harrowing brushes with insomnia? Know of any great ways to combat it? Tweet us, find us on Facebook and tag us on Instagram with your thoughts!

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