November 16, 2007 at 7:33 am #26029
note: this piece covers a range of topics of interest to dream adepts.
‘TRAUMA AND DESPERATION’: THE SERIOUS EFFECTS OF A SLEEPLESS NIGHT
By Nick Watt
November 14, 2007
LONDON – Tony Wright was tired, and with good reason. He’d been awake for 11
days, two hours — a world record.
“I tend to feel better in my body when I’ve been awake 4, 5, 6 days,” he
Wright, a 43-year-old gardener from Cornwall, England, thinks sleep
deprivation might open a world of enhanced brain function. Most sleep
researchers strongly disagree.
Try sailing round the world on your own, and you’ll suffer from sleep
“I was so tired,” said Ellen MacArthur, who broke the world record for the
fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in 2005. “Oh, God, it was just
Doctors also suffer from sleep deprivation. “I was so tired I prescribed 20
times the right dose,” one doctor said.
In our own very small way, even journalists suffer. Covering the tsunami,
the combination of what we witnessed and a heavy workload kept us awake for
days. This reporter looked and sounded drunk while doing a live shot from
“Researchers have compared the effects of alcohol intoxication to the
effects of sleep deprivation,” said professor Derk-Jan Dijk of the
University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Center.
But when you get right down to it, we don’t know exactly how or why sleep
revives us. What we can spend nearly one third of our lives doing, we know
very little about.
“Sleep has been ignored by part of the scientific community and part of the
medical community,” said Dijk. “It’s so much easier to study wakefulness.”
At the University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Center, they’re trying to make
up for lost time by analyzing the brain waves of sleeping volunteers like
They wired me up one morning at the center. I thought I’d had a good night’s
sleep and I drank four cups of coffee with breakfast, but within minutes, I
fell asleep. Like many people, I’m sleep deprived without even knowing it.
And sleep deprivation has a profound effect on how you function.
“You will find it very difficult to concentrate,” said Dijk. “You will find
it difficult to pay attention. You might find it difficult to speak and to
construct sentences that make sense. Logical reasoning will certainly be
Researchers at the university test brain function with psychometric tasks,
such as identifying colors. They’ve discovered that a gene called “period 3”
might be crucial. People with a short version of the gene did well picking
yellow or green in the early hours. But 10 percent of humans have a long
version: They struggled with the test and even struggled to stay awake.
After just 24 hours without sleep, everyone suffered mental impairment
equivalent to being too drunk to drive a car, and researchers thought it
unethical to push their human guinea pigs any further.
“It’s clear that in animals sleep deprivation will ultimately lead to
death,” said Dijk. “If you keep rats awake for several weeks they will die.”
Die of what?
“That is something that is not entirely clear,” said Dijk.
Tony Wright has pushed it as far as any human we know of; he thinks his
secret might be the raw food diet he’s followed for 16 years.
“It was 1995,” Wright recalled. “I decided I’d stay awake and see what
At his first attempt Tony managed a weekend, 80 hours.
“I mostly felt very relaxed and a kind of mild feel-good factor, which is a
surprise for most people because their experience of staying awake is of
trauma and desperation,” he said.
This summer, in a bar in England, he lasted 11 days.
“From about day five to about day nine, I was playing a lot of pool during
the small hours,” he said.
There were peaks and troughs, though. He says the “last couple of days” were
very difficult, and when he passed the previous record, he said he lost
focus and closed his eyes.
“It was somewhere between 5-and-a-half and 6 hours and that was it,” he
said. “I woke up and it was back to normal for me.” But Wright believes
what’s normal for him isn’t what’s normal for everyone else.
“I don’t know if I’ve felt totally normal for a long time,” he said.
Wright’s theory that sleep deprivation might bring a higher state of brain
function is strongly disputed.
“In the brain we will see that the brain waves will become slower and slower
as if the brain doesn’t function optimally anymore,” said Dijk.
Eventually we will shut down. We will fall asleep before we die like a lab
rat — but that can also be fatal. Last month a woman in Colorado drove 30
miles at speeds of up to 70 mph. All while dipping in and out of sleep. A
fellow driver on the highway, Christian Pruitt, caught the SUV on his video
“I turned on my video camera as we pulled alongside her. She nearly clipped
us in our lane. She was asleep,” he said.
Amazingly no one was killed. Dozy drivers cause 100,000 accidents a year in
the United States, which result in 1,500 fatalities. And most sleepy drivers
The Simple Solution
“And this is because — and this may surprise you — it’s much easier to
keep an older person awake during the night than it is to keep a young
person awake during the night,” said Dijk. “Because the older probably needs
Older people do seem to require less sleep, but doctors don’t know why.
“If we knew that we’d probably know more about the function of sleep,” said
Dijk. “Undoubtedly [it] has to do with changes in the brain that occur as we
grow older. But what those changes are and what the function of those
changes are, is unclear.”
Caffeine and other stimulants can lengthen the attention span of an
underprepared student the night before a big test, but they don’t solve the
“Here still, is that need of recovery,” said Dijk. “It’s not that by
drinking coffee you can completely remove the need for sleep. Of course
there may be an ideal drug to develop.”
The U.S. military is trying to develop ways of keeping sleepy soldiers alert
without using stimulants, in part by trying to figure out how migratory
birds remain aware of predators on long flights. Apparently birds have a
natural resistance to the ravages of sleep deprivation.
The military discovered that some parts of the human brain are more
resistant to the ravages of sleep deprivation than others. Could soldiers be
trained to use those parts of the brain? They say chocolate and leafy green
vegetables might also help with alertness.
But Dijk has a much simpler solution for how to stay alert: Get enough
“Going to bed is always a wonderful solution and it’s a wonderful
countermeasure,” he said.
So, how can you get that good night’s sleep? The researchers suggest keeping
your bedroom at the correct temperature — in the sleep labs it’s 59.9
degrees. A little chilly for me, and personal preference plays a part here.
Also, your room must be dark.
“Most importantly,” said Dijk, “you need to take the time for sleep. If your
sleep is interrupted very frequently you will feel still very tired in the
morning. For sleep to be restorative it has to be deep and it has to be
We might not know much more than that about sleep. But one thing is for
certain, very few of us enjoy being woken up.
CORNISHMAN AVOIDS SLEEP FOR 11 DAYS (5/24/2007):
VIETNAM MAN GOES THREE DECADES WITHOUT SLEEP (2/17/2007):
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