I don’t know why, but whenever I have trouble sleeping, my mind seems to go into manic overdrive.
I start thinking about the most random of things. I start having various conversations with myself all at the same time. I literally let my mind do anything it wants other than letting me go to sleep.
On one such sleepless night I even spent several hours thinking about the question I posed in the title of this post.
So, that led me to do some research and today I‘d like to share my findings with you.
And No, before you ask, I didn’t lie in bed Googling on my smartphone, that’s a definite no-no when it comes to struggling with sleep as I do. No electronics in the bedroom please.
11 Days is The Longest Someone Has Gone Without Sleep
And you thought you had problems with insomnia.
Mine and your sleep worries seem to pale into insignificance after reading that I guess.
But hold on, there’s more to this story.
In fact, believe it or not, the person in question intentionally tried to stay awake for as long as possible.
Say Hello to Randy Gardner
Between December 1963 and January 1964, 17-year old high school student, Randy Gardner, stayed awake for 264.4 hours (11 days and 24 minutes to be precise), to see how he’d cope without sleep.
On the second day his eyes stopped focusing. He started to show signs of ataxia, the inability to repeat simple tongue twisters.
Next he lost the ability to identify objects by touch. By day 3, Gardner was moody and uncoordinated.
By the end of the experiment he was struggling to concentrate, had trouble with short-term memory, became paranoid, and started hallucinating.
John J. Ross, from the US Navy Medical Neuropsychiatric Research Unit, was responsible for monitoring this experiment.
He found Gardner had to be encouraged to talk, he displayed diminished mental abilities, and had an extremely short attention span.
In fact, Ross conducted a test where he asked Gardner to start with the number 100 and count downwards by subtracting seven each time. Gardner got as far as 65, so 5 subtractions in total, before he stopped.
When asked why he stopped, Gardner replied that he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to be doing.
It is interesting to note that Gardner played pinball on day 10, and even managed to beat Stanford University researcher, William Dement.
Gardner then went through a period of sleep recovery, which was observed by sleep researchers, who wished to note the changes in his sleep structure following such an intense period of sleep deprivation.
Gardner slept for a total of 14 hours and 40 minutes and then woke up naturally at 8.40pm. He stayed awake until 7.30pm the following day and then slept for an additional 10.5 hours.
Randy Gardner is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest someone has gone without sleep.
However, is this really the case?
The Other “Record Holders”
Peter Tripp and Tom Rounds
In 1959, Peter Tripp and Tom Rounds, both DJs, held separate wake-a-thons to raise money for medical research.
It is reported that Jim Thomas, a California State University Freshno student, beat Gardner’s record just two weeks after it was set by reportedly staying awake for 266.5 hours.
However, unlike Gardner, this “experiment” wasn’t monitored and therefore wasn’t recognized by the Guinness Book of Records.
One edition of the Guinness records states that Toimi Soini from Finland was the “official” record holder and went for a total of 276 hours without sleep, from February 5th to February 15th, 1964.
But there is very little information available about Soini’s record-breaking feats.
The “real” record holder is Maureen Weston, of Peterborough, Cambridge, UK. In 1977, she held a rocking-chair marathon and is believed to have stayed awake for a whopping 449 hours.
Once again, however, there was no scientific and medical monitoring of Maureen’s effort, and even though the Guinness Book of Records did at one time recognize her feat, it is Gardner who still holds the distinction.
The most recent attempt to break Gardner’s record was made by Tony Wright from Penzance, Cornwall, UK. He sat in Penzance’s Studio Bar without moving and was monitored for a total of 266 sleepless hours by a webcam and CCTV cameras.
So, why all the confusion as to who the actual record holder is?
The main reason that Randy Gardner’s attempt still stands out to this day is because it is the most extensively documented case of sleep deprivation.
The accuracy of all the other attempts is extremely difficult to determine as they were never officially observed, and therefore they may have been prone to short micro sleeps, which even the participants themselves may not even notice.
Additionally, due to the reports and findings from Gardner’s experiment, the Guinness Book of Records has completely stopped listing any records for sleep deprivation. They feel it would be irresponsible to encourage any further world record attempts.
You’ll be pleased to hear that Randy suffered no long-term psychological or physical effects from his sleep deprivation experiment, and he is still alive and well today.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone.
The Man Who Died After Going 11 Days Without Sleep
The Sanxiang Metropolis newspaper of Hunan province reported that the man died from exhaustion on June 19, 2012, after going 11 days without sleep.
In order to protect his family’s identity the man was given the false name Jiang Xiaoshan.
Due to the time difference from Poland and the Ukraine, where Euro 2012, was being held, most Chinese fans were watching games between 1am to 3am.
The Sanxiang Metropolis spoke to Dr. Liu Zhiling of the People’s Hospital’s emergency room in the aftermath.
Dr. Zhiling reported that Jiang was in generally good health, but staying up night-after-night had affected his immune system, and drinking beer and smoking tobacco while watching the games had compounded the health risks.
Jiang, who supported England and France during the tournament, returned home after watching Italy beat Ireland 2-0.
He took a shower and headed for his bed at 5am and subsequently died in his sleep that night.
Please Don’t Try This at Home
So, there you have it – Randy Gardner is still recognized for the longest someone has gone without sleep.
However, the tragic case of Jiang Xiaoshan is the real story here.
In most cases of “voluntary” sleep deprivation, participants haven’t reported any serious health effects, but the same cannot be said in a real-life scenario,
The negative effects from a lack of sleep are well documented and can lead to some serious potential problems.
These include, weight gain and obesity, lower sex drive, depression, high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure or stroke, and diabetes.
Chronic sleep deprivation is certainly no laughing matter.
If you are someone who suffers from this debilitating affliction and would love to enjoy a peaceful night’s rest then please check out my review of Peter Litchfield’s Six Steps to Sleep Program.