What It Did to His Brain

Sleep is essential for our health and well-being, but how much do we really need? And what happens if we don’t get enough?

These questions have fascinated scientists for decades, and one of the most famous experiments to explore them was conducted by a high school student named Randy Gardner in 1964.

Randy Gardner was a 17-year-old who wanted to break the world record for the longest time without sleep. He decided to stay awake for 11 days and nights, or 264 hours, with the help of two friends who monitored his condition and kept him entertained.

He also agreed to be observed by a sleep researcher named William Dement, who later became a pioneer in the field of sleep medicine.

The experiment was a success in terms of breaking the record, but it also revealed some alarming effects of sleep deprivation on Randy’s physical and mental health.

As the days went by, Randy became increasingly irritable, moody, and paranoid. He had trouble concentrating and remembering things.

He experienced hallucinations, such as seeing a street sign as a person or thinking he was a famous football player. He also suffered from blurred vision, slurred speech, nausea, and tremors.

Dement and his colleagues measured Randy’s brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG), which records electrical signals from the brain.

They found that Randy’s brain showed signs of microsleeps, which are brief episodes of sleep that occur involuntarily while awake.

Microsleeps can impair performance and increase the risk of accidents. They also found that Randy’s brain waves changed over time, indicating that he was missing out on different stages of sleep that have different functions.

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One of the most important stages of sleep is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when we dream and process memories and emotions. REM sleep usually accounts for about 20% of our total sleep time, but Randy had almost none during his experiment.

Dement speculated that this could explain some of his psychological symptoms, such as mood swings and hallucinations.

After the experiment ended, Randy slept for 14 hours and 40 minutes, which was not enough to make up for his sleep debt. He then resumed a normal sleep schedule, but it took him several weeks to fully recover.

Dement followed up with him over the years and found that he did not suffer any long-term consequences from his experiment. However, he advised against anyone trying to replicate it, as it could be dangerous or even fatal.

Randy Gardner’s experiment was one of the first to demonstrate the effects of extreme sleep deprivation on humans. It also sparked interest in the scientific study of sleep and its role in our health and well-being.

Today, we know that chronic lack of sleep can increase the risk of various diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression. We also know that getting enough quality sleep can improve our mood, memory, creativity, and productivity.

So how much sleep do we need? The answer may vary depending on age, lifestyle, and individual factors, but the general recommendation is to aim for seven to nine hours per night for adults.

If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you may want to consult a doctor or a sleep specialist for advice. And if you ever feel tempted to pull an all-nighter or skip sleep for a long time, remember what happened to Randy Gardner and think twice.

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