How Sleep Deprivation Decays the Mind and Body

No doctors or psychiatrists suggested that this had all happened because of sleep deprivation. They were sure it was something endemic that had caused the hallucinations and the existential rambling. I spent much of that summer alone, learning to trust my mind again by reading and writing and speaking with my family. I left for college in the fall, off medication, unsure of how my foray into sleep deprivation and its ensuing madness would affect me, and I worried it would creep up on me again. In the nine years since then it has not. I feel like I might have more trouble concentrating, but it’s unclear whether this trouble stems from sleep deprivation, or from that vortex of distraction, the Internet.  

Sleep remains mysterious to researchers like Walseben and Feinsilver. Despite the negative effects they have observed and others have researched, the definitive reasons why people need to sleep remain unknown. We only know some of the negative effects that occur over time, and that we require sleep to survive.

“Clearly, even though we cannot tell you why you need to sleep, you must sleep,” Walseben said. “It’s a basic physiological function that none of us have been able to get away without. Even though you may think you can, bad things tend to happen.”

Anyone who has endured one night without sleep knows that functioning through the next day can be uncomfortable and frustrating. It is fair to call a sleepless night a common experience. But I believed that in staying awake for consecutive nights, the effects on my mind and body would differ from the one sleepless night only in degree. Obviously, I was wrong. It seems to me that this common experience and misunderstanding — and the things that researchers still do not understand about sleep — has created a public that all too readily sleep deprives itself and cavalierly imposes sleep deprivation on others. In keeping ourselves and our prisoners awake, we do not really know what we are doing. We are fumbling in the dark.

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Seth Maxon is a journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared on NPR, Columbia Journalism Review, and In These Times.

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