Can going without sleep drive you nuts? [Credit: Molika Ashford]
The big test is tomorrow, and you just opened the book to start studying. Alas, all that procrastination has a price: It’s time to pull an all-nighter. As the wee hours of the night pass by, your mood changes from giddy to cranky and back again. Concentration becomes nearly impossible, and you’ve only been up a few hours past your bedtime. As you desperately fight off the urge to sleep, you wonder: How much more of this can I take? If I stave off sleep long enough, will I go insane?
Despite some urban myths that suggest the contrary, the answer is no.
The idea that sleep deprivation has psychiatric consequences stems from the discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep more than 50 years ago. According to Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, researchers had found that some people began “hallucinating” when awakened from REM sleep. However, scientists soon realized these people weren’t hallucinating at all—they were dreaming.
“Dreaming actually occurs during wakefulness,” Mahowald says.
The classic example is Randy Gardner, who in 1964 at the age of 17 stayed awake for 264 hours (11 days) straight. While he did experience some dreamlike escapes from reality, he made it through the week-and-a-half without any mental problems.
Another problem with linking sleeplessness and insanity is that without scanning brain activity, it’s impossible to prove someone has been awake for extended periods of time. When people are sleep deprived, they tend to experience brief episodes of sleep known as microsleep. So even if someone supposedly stays up for days on end, he still may have gotten small doses of sleep. These short “naps” can prove extremely dangerous when they occur during activities like driving because the person usually doesn’t realize he’s zoning out.
While depriving oneself of sleep cannot lead to a psychotic episode when awake, it may lead to problems once that person finally gets some shuteye.
Mahowald is a consultant for Sleep Forensics Associates (SFA), a group dedicated to investigating the role of sleep disorders in criminal and civil trials. Many of these cases concern people who say they had no control over their illegal actions, including rape and murder, because of sexsomnia (sexual behavior during sleep) or sleepwalking. Mahowald says sleep deprivation can trigger sleepwalking episodes.
While sleep-deprived people still have fully functional brain activity, sleepwalkers only have part of their brains in a state of wakefulness. “Sleepwalkers are capable of amazingly complex behaviors, but they may not be aware or responsible for what they’re doing,” says Dr. Michel Cramer Bornemann, SFA’s lead investigator. He says sleepwalking is difficult to describe in legal terms—it doesn’t fit the definition of insanity because there is no mental disorder involved. “About 5 percent of adults sleepwalk,” he says. “So that would mean 5 percent of the population is temporarily insane.”
The possibility of doing something terrible in your sleep is extremely small, but just because sleep deprivation won’t drive you insane doesn’t mean you should pull consecutive all-nighters. “A lot of things go bad when you don’t get enough sleep,” says Michael Twery, Director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research in Bethesda, Maryland. Failing to get enough sleep may be associated with poor concentration, memory lapses, loss of energy and emotional instability—not to mention some chronic diseases.
The moral of the story: You may not be heading for insanity, but go to sleep anyway—here are some sheep to count if you need help.