What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without sleep? A day or two? How did you feel? How was your thinking? Do you remember much of it?
Back in 1959, a New York radio DJ named Peter Tripp stayed awake, in a glass booth in Times Square, where everyone could see him, and went live, on the air, for 200 hours.
Yes, that’s more than eight days straight (and it’s not even the record anymore, that’s 264 hours, or 18.7 days).
Why would anybody do that, you ask? Well, he wanted to raise money for the March of Dimes and get some publicity while he was at it. Why would anyone let him do that? Researchers thought this would be an excellent opportunity to learn what happens to us on no sleep, and with a willing and eager subject, they didn’t pass it up. Throughout the eight days, the researchers and doctors took shifts staying with him making sure he was awake and ok.
What happened to him? First let’s take a quick look at what happens when we sleep, so it will make a little more sense when we see what happened when he didn’t. When we fall asleep, sleep, then wake up, our body and brain go through a pretty predictable pattern.
For starters, our breathing and heart rate become nice and regular, with our body starting to cool down a little while we ease into the deeper sleep stages. In the deep sleep stages, everything really slows down, so our body can go into growth and repair mode – things it can’t do when we’re alert and active. Our muscles relax, blood pressure decreases, breathing slows even further, and the immune system goes to work making necessary repairs. During this period, brainwave activity looks smooth and calm on EEG (electroencephalogram), which leads to the next stage, REM (Rapid Eye Movement), when the brain starts appearing to go into overdrive. This all takes about 90 minutes after falling asleep, and the whole pattern repeats several times through the night, with REM taking up a progressively greater portion of each cycle. During REM, the brain becomes very active (we dream), and our eyes can be seen moving around under our eyelids (hence the name, REM). Energy is being restored and we are being once again prepared for daytime activity. It’s during this time, paradoxically, our body becomes almost paralyzed, probably to prevent us from endangering ourselves by physically engaging in our dreams (that’s the best guess at this point). Eventually, our sleep cycles taper off and we become gradually more alert, waking up after five or six cycles (assuming we sleep through the night). If you want to know more details about sleep, go here: https://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/what-happens-when-you-sleep.
So what happened to Peter Tripp when he went so long without sleep? Well, keep in mind the reasons (what we know, at least) for the brain doing what it does when it sleeps. Initially, he seemed ok, staying friendly and upbeat, his usual DJ personality intact. Pretty soon, his body temperature started dropping, and through the entire process, continued to go down. According to researchers, “the lower it went, the crazier he got”. Remember that first portion of sleep? Yep, his body really wanted to force the issue by cooling off, to no avail. After three days of keeping him awake, he inevitably became more and more irritable. He started berating and cursing at long-time friends, and his thinking got quite confused. As you recall, the REM stage seems to be important, since it takes up a longer portion of sleep each night. What goes on during REM? Dreaming. If his body was trying to cool off, it probably wanted to dream too. Imagine a brain that’s trying to dream but is still awake.
Enter the hallucinations. There were spiders in his shoes, and flames coming out of a drawer , (and much, much more!). Since he was awake, his body wasn’t inhibited from “engaging” in the dream, so he was up and fully involved. What do you do when a nicely dressed guy in black comes in the room? You assume he’s the undertaker comin’ to get ya, and you RUN. Right into Times Square. Well, that’s what Peter did, at least. The interesting thing about these hallucinations and crazy behavior? It came and went in about 90 minute cycles. Coincidentally (not), it’s the same as the sleep cycles we go through. That told us quite a bit about sleep and sleep deprivation, didn’t it? Our body and brain need that sleep and will do whatever it takes to get those processes in, darnit.
How did it end? He managed (with lots of help) to stay awake for 201 hours, then they let the poor guy crash. Twenty-four hours later he woke up and was just fine, so he said. The people around him, however, begged to differ. His marriage suffered then failed, he lost his job (related to a financial scandal that happened before the stunt), and he couldn’t keep another radio job, eventually changing careers. Peter Tripp passed away at age 71 in 2000, and a tribute to him was in the NY Times, describing the stunt, his scandal, and the road he took in the end.
What’s the takeaway? We really, really need to sleep, and if we can be changed by one extreme period of sleep deprivation, imaging what chronic sleep deprivation can do.