How long can humans stay awake?
J. Christian Gillin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, conducts research on sleep, chronobiology and mood disorders. He supplies the following answer.
In 1964, as a 17-year-ancient high school student in San Diego, California, Gardner stayed awake for 264 hours (11 days) with the help of friends, TV reporters, and shooting hoops His stunt was part of a school science project on sleep patterns.
The effects of sleep deprivation on Randy Gardner included grumpiness, problems with concentration and memory, paranoia and hallucinations. After four days, he had the delusion that he was a well-known American football player winning the Rose Bowl. He also mistook a street sign for a person.
On the 11th day, he was questioned to subtract seven repeatedly, starting from 100. He stopped when he got to 65… and said he had forgotten what he was doing.
On his final day without sleep, Gardner presided over a press conference where he spoke without slurring or stumbling his words and in general appeared to be in brilliant health. “I wanted to prove that terrible things didn’t happen if you went without sleep,” said Gardner. “I thought, ‘I can break that (Peter Tripp’s 1959) record and I don’t reckon it would be a negative experience.’” Sleep experts now believe that such sleep deprivation stunts are perilous.
After his marathon, Gardner slept for nearly 15 hours and returned to a normal sleeping pattern within days. Unlike Peter Tripp (who incidentally used stimulants to stay awake) there were no reports of any long term personality changes.
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