The only thing stranger than the need to sleep is what happens when it is ignored. In 1965, a San Diego high school student named Randy Gardner stayed awake continuously for 264 hours, an eleven-day feat documented by a team of researchers from Stanford University who happened to read about his attempt beforehand in the local newspaper. For the first day or so, Gardner was able to remain awake without any prompting. But things went south quickly. He soon lost the ability to add simple numbers in his head. He then became increasingly paranoid, asking those who had promised to help him stay up why they were treating him so badly. When he finally went to bed, he slept for nearly fifteen hours straight. And yet a few weeks later, he was as good as new. To this day, he continues to be a minor celebrity in Japan.
So what’s going on under the hood when you stay awake this long?
Within the first twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation, the blood pressure starts to increase. Not long afterward, the metabolism levels go haywire, giving a person an uncontrollable craving for carbohydrates. The body temperature drops and the immune system gets weaker. If this goes on for too long, there is a good chance that the mind will turn against itself, making a person experience visions and hear phantom sounds akin to a bad acid trip. At the same time, the ability to make simple decisions or recall obvious facts drops off severely. It is a bizarre downward spiral that is all the more peculiar because it can be stopped completely, and all of its effects will vanish, simply by sleeping for a couple of hours.
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