You’d think this would be a fairly simple fact to ascertain, what with google search and all. But depriving oneself of sleep to set a record is a slightly murky business, being that impostors can lay claim to the throne. These are the documented facts. And as they say, don’t try this at home.
In 1964, a 17-year-old named Randy Gardner stayed awake for 11 days for a school science project. Not only did he set the bar pretty high for subsequent science fairs at his San Diego high school, he also set a record for the longest anyone had voluntarily gone without sleep.
The previous record for staying awake had been set in 1959 by Tom Rounds, a Honolulu disc jockey who stayed up 260 hours (10 days) as a radio station publicity stunt. Earlier that year, a fellow D.J. named Peter Tripp conducted a highly publicized “wake-a-thon” for charity in New York City, going sleepless for 201 hours (8 days), much of that time broadcasting from a Times Square storefront.
Unlike Tripp, who was prescribed stimulants by observing doctors, Gardner relied on sheer willpower and the help of two friends, who made sure he didn’t nod off at any point. When googled, he shows up as the on-the-books record holder.
Why the hell would someone do that?
While Tripp, who used the stunt to raise money for charity, and Rounds both stayed awake for publicity, Gardner’s motivation was simple. The self-described “geek” told Esquire in 2007 that he just wanted to win the science fair.
Has anyone tried to break that record?
Several people lay claim to breaking Gardner’s record, including Jim Thomas, a Fresno State College student who, in 1964, two weeks after Gardner, chose to go without sleep for 266 1/2 hours (11 days), according to local news reports. That same year, Toimi Soini of Finland made The Guinness Book of World Records, going 276 hours (11 1/2 days) without any shut-eye. Clearly, 1964 was a big year for sleep deprivation experiments.
In 1977, Maureen Weston of the U.K. voluntarily stayed up for a whopping 449 hours (18 days), and made it into the 1978 Guinness Book of World Records.
But because staying awake for such long stretches poses so many physical and mental health risks, Guinness chose to no longer acknowledge sleep deprivation records. So Weston’s (pre-viral internet) feat got lost in the dusty book pages and was all but forgotten.
During the past decade, several contenders claimed to have broken previous records, but they’ve been hard to verify.
How come Gardner didn’t disappear from memory?
One of the reasons we still hear about Gardner is that his school project drew the attention of renowned sleep researcher William C. Dement, M.D., Ph.D, who observed the teen the last few days of his sleeplessness. Thanks, in part, to the research by Dement, currently a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, Gardner’s story hasn’t been forgotten.
He is still sometimes contacted for interviews — mostly from Japanese news outlets — but occasionally there’s a request from the New York Times or Esquire. There’s even a YouTube clip of Gardner after his 1964 claim to fame on the TV game show, To Tell the Truth.
Just how dangerous is extreme sleep deprivation?
It can be fatal. In 2012, a Chinese man died from exhaustion after going 11 days without sleep. The 26-year-old, identified as Jiang Xiaoshan in news reports to protect his family’s identity, wasn’t attempting to break any records. The soccer fan was working a full day and then staying up to watch the European Championship games (which broadcast in the middle of the night in China due to the time difference).
Though he was said to be in good health, doctors blamed the effects of marathon-esque sleep deprivation coupled with celebratory drinking and smoking for Xiaoshan’s death. After watching the last match with friends and finally falling asleep, he didn’t wake up.
Did any of the record holders suffer side effects after their stunts?
They sure did, and were noted by attending medical personnel (another reason we know more about these guys).
Tripp, the New York City DJ, not only was observed by radio listeners and passersby in Times Square, he was under constant surveillance by physicians and scientists. Three days in, doctors noticed Tripp’s cheerful demeanor had shifted, as he started snapping at those around him. As his body temperature declined, the mental effects increased. Tripp hallucinated visions of kittens and mice, and became convinced there were spiders in his shoes. Thinking one of the doctors was an undertaker, at one point he ran into the street.
When the medical team studied Tripp’s brainwaves, they realized his hallucinations mimicked a 90-minute cycle of REM dream sleep and concluded Tripp was essentially having dreams and nightmares while awake. While the stimulants he took to stay awake could have played a role in his delusions, it’s unlikely.
By the final night, the doctors became so concerned about his behavior, they nearly called off the experiment. (However, after he pushed through and reached his goal of 200 hours they — being doctors and scientists — asked the weary DJ to stay awake one additional hour so they could perform some final tests.) Tripp capped off his wake-a-thon with 13 hours of sleep. It’s not really known if Tripp’s sleep deprivation had permanent effects.
As for Gardner, he told Esquire that after the fun of the first few days — playing basketball in the wee hours, going to doughnut shops, listening to surf music — the project became a “real bummer.” By day four of no sleep, he suffered from paranoia and, at one point, the 130-pound white teen became convinced he was Paul Lowe, an African-American halfback with the San Diego Chargers. By day six, Gardner was slurring his words and having trouble forming sentences.
After a press conference and some sleep, Gardner didn’t report any lasting side effects. However, when the New York Times caught up with Gardner about five years ago, he admitted one thing he occasionally suffers from, something that bothers a lot of people when they get older: He has trouble falling asleep.