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cientists have examined sleep deprivation to come to the clear conclusion that a person going without sleep for more than 72 hours will suffer major health and psychological problems. Sleep is a very important part of our life as well as well being just like staying hydrated and fed.

However, there have always been people that just want to push the limits of the human body despite any risks implicated. In 1964, a 17-year-old by the name of Randy Gardner attempted to stay awake for exactly 264 hours during the Christmas break.

Why so many hours specifically? One of the main reasons why Gardner wanted to attempt this challenge was to beat the world record of 260 hours with no sleep which at the time was held by a DJ in Honolulu, Hawaii. The person who came up with the idea was Bruce McAllister, a friend and colleague of Gardner, who thought that this would be a great experiment for the science fair at their local high school.

Details of the experiment

The experiment was originally supposed to focus on the effects of sleeplessness on paranormal ability but the students realized there was no good way to measure such a hypothesis.

“We realised there was no way we could do that and so we decided on the effect of sleep deprivation on cognitive abilities, performance on the basketball court. Whatever we could come up with.” (Quote by Bruce McAllister)

The scientific experiments which were attempted at that time stated that a person who goes for more than five days without sleep has a high chance of going clinically crazy, however, teenagers will always be teenagers who didn’t check for the side effects or risks implicated. Their only previous knowledge was the record holder who was fine after his attempt of 260 hours.

There have also been many experiments in the past with animals that have been kept up awake until they passed away. Various animals have been kept awake for 10 to even 15 days upon the point where they would pass away, the Harvard Gazette goes in more depth about these experiments.

What shows, even more, the lack of professionalism within the experiment is them flipping a coin to chose which one would stay awake. McAllister was relieved to have escaped the experiment, although he was in charge of monitoring Randy for most of the time. This had also lead McAllister towards sleeplessness as for the first three days he didn’t sleep whilst he noted anything important.

That is when the students realized they needed one more person to monitor as the other rests. Therefore, the two teenagers called a friend by the name of Joe Marciano to help with the experiment.

Seeing that their scientific knowledge, as well as expertise, was at an amateur level at best, they looked for someone who was an expert in the field. Therefore they reached out to Professor William Dement from Stanford University.

From left to right/ Bruce McAllister, Randy Gardner, Professor William Dement, and Joe Marciano. (Source: San Diego Historical Society)

Professor Dement was the creator of the Sleep Research Center at Stanford University and he is known today as the father of sleep medicine for his prolific scientific research in the field and the great results he obtained. When he heard about what the boys were attempting he flew as quick as possible to them.

“I was probably the only person on the planet at the time who had actually done sleep research”. (Quote by Professor William Dement)

The professor made sure that the experiment was as unbiased as possible by assuring that Randy’s diet would not be based on any psychostimulants. The only thing that he did drink a bit of before the professor came to help was Coke which contains caffeine, apart from that no other types of drugs were used by Randy.

Whilst the experiment was going on the media in America was exploding about the Vietnam war. Some of the local journalists in San Diego made a report about the experiment which got national attention, making the media in America shift their attention from the war to the experiment for a short period of time.

The story managed to somehow even surpass the popularity of John F. Kennedy’s assassination at some point in time.

Sleeplessness effects

Randy was constantly checked for signs of possible side effects provoked by sleeplessness and the way his cognitive abilities were affected by the experiment.

The first signs came after the fourth day as Randy started to lose his taste, smell, and hearing abilities. Occasionally, Randy and his friends went outside to play basketball in order to see if sleeplessness affected his performance at the game. To their surprise, he was able to play at the same performance but was becoming extremely exhausted only after two minutes of playing.

Randy having his smelling abilities tested on the 5th day of the experiment (Source San Diego Historical Society)

The sports, as well as activities, were not only used to measure the efficiency of his cognitive abilities, but also to keep him active and awake. If Randy would close his eyelids for even a second to rest he would have immediately fallen asleep just because of how tired he was.

Randy mentioned that after the first week his need for sleep kind of went away for some time. He was so tired that he wasn’t even able to feel tiredness. In order to test his touch senses, McAllister kept pitching him from time to time to a point where he was not feeling anything without injuring him.

This showed the professor that although he was awake, most of his body apart from his organs was shutting down, this was displayed by the loss of his cognitive abilities. Although our heart and lungs have never taken a single break, the rest of the organs need to rest in order to function at 100%.

No other side effects have been reported during the experiment apart from increased stress which is self-explanatory based on the risks taken.

The aftermath of the experiment

In the end, Randy Gardner was able to go on without sleep for 264 hours. Although he said that he was able to go for longer the professor as well as other people involved decided that it was enough as the record was broken.

Right after the experiment had ended, Randy was taken to a hospital where his sleep could be analyzed. In his first sleep session, he went for 14 hours straight. What is very strange is that on his first night, his REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep was at about 70%! A normal person with an 8-hour sleep schedule gets around 20% REM sleep.

After a week of sleep, his REM sleep percentage turned back to normal. The boy showed no mental or physical health problems post-experiment, that is why he even got out from his 14-hour long sleep and went straight to school as if nothing had happened.

Other records made during the experiment by Professor Dement were sent to a hospital specialized in sleeplessness in Arizona. Once the results got back everything made sense:

“The results concluded that “his brain had been catnapping the entire time… parts of it would be asleep parts of it would be awake.’” (Quote by Bruce McAllistar)

Since this attempt, Guinness World Records refuses to accept any further participants at breaking this record as it is too dangerous.

In the years that followed, Randy stated in many interviews that his physical, as well as mental health, had not been impacted by the experiment.

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