How long can a person go without sleep?

One of the many mysteries of the human body still being studied is our need for sleep. Experts have never really come up with a successful explanation of why we need to sleep every day. Sure, the easy answer is that we “need to recharge our batteries”. But the truth is, no one really understands why we need to recharge our “batteries”, and why and how they even deplete in the first place.

Sleep deprivation is more fatal than deprivation of food. It means that sleep is not only necessary but essential for life. In experiments done on rats in Chicago University in the US when the rats were deprived of sleep most of them gave way after 21 days. Even if the daily quota of sleep is cut down gradually it would prove harmful over a period of a few days. It would increase the chances of heart disease, diabetes, stroke attack, and as recent research shows, also cancer.

Let alone for days, if one is deprived of sleep even for 17 hours then one’s concentration, muscle energy, judgement, cognitive ability etc. would reduce to the level of a person under influence of alcohol. This condition is very common in present times, for which we should “blame” the inventor of the light bulb, Thomas Edison. Before the invention of light bulb, the average person slept for 9 hours, whereas today owing to numerous factors like television, internet, 24/7 work culture etc. the average person sleeps for about 7.5 hours.

Below are a couple of examples of how deprivation of sleep can sometimes lead to grave consequences –

1) In 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Russia, the experts conducting some important testing post-midnight were not in their best state because of their day-centric biological clock. As a result, due to their negligible inattention the nuclear plant exploded. A perfectly alert person would not have committed such an error.

2) In 1989, near the coast of the state of Alaska, north of the US, a giant oil vessel named Exxon Valdez was sailing. There was only one person operating it from the control room and he was on duty for over eighteen hours straight. Because of the long stretch of wakefulness his concentration was wavering. As a result, the giant vessel met with an accident and 40 million liters of oil was spilled over the ocean. For environmental harm as well as for negligence the vessel’s owner company had to pay 5.29 billion Dollars in penalty.

Looking at the above two examples where hours of sleep deprivation caused gigantic disasters, one would find it hard to believe that the world record of wakefulness is in days. The record is official and unbroken for over fifty years. In the decade of 1960’s a 17-year-old youngster named Randy Gardner spent 11 days staying awake. He started the marathon by waking up at 6 AM on December 28, 1963 and went back to sleep not before January 8, 1964, going without sleep for 264 hours.

There is no fixed answer as to how long a person can stay alive deprived of sleep. Though Randy Gardner holds the record for 11 days, other controlled experiments have also been conducted, with individuals going without sleep for 8 – 10 days. There are also reports of soldiers having had to remain awake for days on end during constant battle.

If we are to look at lab rats – which almost always mimic human results perfectly – they are able to go without sleep for up to 2 weeks before they succumb to whole-body hypermetabolism and die. Though we might be able to stay awake for up to 10 days without any serious side effects, people are known to start hallucinating shapes, figures, and voices after the first two sleepless nights.