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How long can we stay awake?

BBC Future How long can we stay awake

People start to hallucinate and go a bit crazy — Atul Malhotra, University of California


Stashed in: Sleep!, Health Studies, Health, Health

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We sleep 25 years of our first 78 years of life.

It’s surprising how we spend our lives. Reach your 78th birthday andaccording to some back-of-the-envelope calculations, you will have spent nine of those years watching television, four years driving a car, 92 days on the toilet, and 48 days having sex.

For every hour of sex, 68.4375 hours watching TV.   

Wow. Too much television!

Exactly why the urge to sleep is so strong remains a mystery. 

"The exact function of sleep is still to be elucidated," says Hanlon. She adds, however, that there is something about sleep that seems to “reset” systems in our bodies. What’s more, studies have shown that routine, adequate sleep promotes healing, immune function, proper metabolism, and much more – which is maybe why it feels good to arise refreshed after a serious snooze.

I like the thought of sleep as reset. It's why it's good to do important things after sleep not before. 

Along these lines, animal sleep deprivation experiments provide more evidence that a lack of sleep in its own right might not be deadly, but what prompts it may well be.

Studies by Allan Rechtschaffen at the University of Chicago in the 1980s involved placing rats on discs above a tray of water. Whenever the rat tried dozing off, as revealed by changes in measured brain waves, the disc would rotate and a wall would shove the rat towards the water, startling it back awake.

All rats died after about a month of this treatment, though for unclear reasons. Most likely, it was the stress of being awoken – on average a "thousand times a day" says Siegel – that did the rats in, wearing down their bodily systems. Among other symptoms, the rats exhibited body temperature dysregulation and lost weight despite an increased appetite.

"That’s the problem in interpreting sleep studies in humans and animals: You can't thoroughly deprive a person or an animal of sleep without their cooperation and not impose a fair amount of stress," says Siegel. If death occurs, "the question is, 'is it the stress or the sleep loss?' It's not an easy distinction."

All of this may well put most people off exploring the limits of our capacity to go without sleep, but the question remains: how long can we stay awake? The most widely cited record for voluntarily staving off sleep belongs to Randy Gardner, at the time a 17-year-old high school student in San Diego, California. For a science fair project in 1964, Gardner did not hit the hay for 264 hours straight, or just over 11 days, according to scientists who monitored him towards the end of his vigil. Numerous other, less credible accounts abound, including one of a British woman in 1977 who won a competition to continuously rock in a rocking chair (presumably by a landslide) by doing so for 18 days.

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