At 18, Seth Maxonwas troubled by the thought that he would spend a third of his life asleep. So on “little more than impulse” he decided to conduct an experiment to see how many days he could go without sleep.
Armed with will-power and espresso he managed to stay awake for at least four days (after which he became so befuddled that he can’t remember just how long he stayed awake).Seth’s experiment nearly killed him!
Going in to the experiment, Seth thought he’d just tough it out and stay awake for as long as he could. He figured when his body had had enough, he’d pass out, sleep it off and be fine. He didn’t understand that you don’t just “catch up” on sleep.
While Seth denied himself sleep, he documented his experience. Well before the fourth day, he fumbled with slow reaction times, was unable to concentrate, and became clumsy and weak. He also began experiencing severe psychological effects that are common with sleep deprivation including hallucinations, rambling, and loss of focus.
No wonder sleep deprivation has been used so effectively as a means of torture!
Seth’s behavior became erratic and irrational. He did and said things totally inconsistent with reason or his personal values. At one point, he convinced himself that he could jump out of a moving bus on the freeway, land running, and sprint away. Fortunately, the bus driver refused to open the doorand let him jump!
Seth’s experiment with sleeplessness prompted his parents to admit him toa hospitalwhere he spent a week recovering. He slept as if in a coma for the first two days. When he awoke, he was still dizzy, shook uncontrollably, could not concentrate and kept jumbling his words. He also found holes in his memory and his logic.
After depriving himself of sleep for four days, it took him four months under medical and psychological supervision to recover the negative effects—some of which he suspects have never left him. Nine years later, Seth admits, “I feel like I might have more trouble concentrating, but it’s unclear whether this trouble stems from sleep deprivation.”
Seth thought that by staying awake for consecutive nights, the effects on his mind and body would differ from a single sleepless night only in degree. Sadly, he discovered his line of thinking was way off.
Though few have ever tried what Seth did, countless Americans inadvertently deny themselves sleep night after night. They’ve self-imposed a form of chronic sleep deprivation (consistently trying to get by on less than six hours of sleep per night).