In 1989, at the University of Chicago, researchers observed rats which died after being kept awake non-stop for several weeks. (According to a 2009 Slate article, specialists who have looked at the 1989 study dispute which effects of sleep deprivation ultimately killed the rats. It could have been hypothermia brought on by decreased body temperatures, illnesses that arose from damaged immune systems, or severe brain damage.) In July 2012, Chinese soccer fan Jiang Xiaoshan died after staying awake for 11 days to watch all of the European Football Championship. In August, a Bank of America intern died after three days of sleep deprivation.
Feinsilver directs the Center for Sleep Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. He speaks precisely and often adds cheerful “maybes” and “I wonders” into his sentences, taking care to not overstate anything. More than 30 years ago, Feinsilver learned first-hand the toll that sleep deprivation can take. One autumn, when he was an intern in an intensive-care unit, he had to work through every other night for six straight weeks.
“The reason I know it was October was there was a pumpkin at the nursing station, and I hallucinated vividly the pumpkin was talking to me,” he said. “It’s the only time I’ve ever hallucinated in my life.” Ah, he thought for the first time, sleep deprivation resembles psychosis.
According to Walseban, sleep loss can cause psychological damage because sleep regulates the brain’s flow of epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, chemicals closely associated with mood and behavior.
“Mood and sleep use the same neurotransmitters,” she said. “It’s very hard to tell if someone has sleep loss or depression.” Walseban added that when these neurotransmitters are disrupted by sleep loss, the chemical changes in the brain can also result in manic feelings and behavior similar to bi-polar disorder: high highs of ecstasy and low lows of depression and anger.
This aligns with my experience; while sleep deprived, I swung from profound bliss and satisfaction, laughing at Renaissance frescos, to deep sadness and rage, grunting like a gorilla one night in a Lucerne hotel room where I chucked empty glass soda bottles at my best friend’s head.
When I tried to stay awake for as long as I could, I was an aggrieved, angst-filled teenager. I did it to show that I could, to prove something about myself, and to conquer some adolescent frustrations. I felt that I did not have much time on Earth, and death scared me. I did not really believe in an afterlife, and my fears made me wish I had more hours and years to live. Needing to sleep a third of each day bothered me, and I started staying up late to watch television, read, and write. Eventually I was only sleeping four or five hours each night. One day, I told myself, I would prove how much time sleep stole from us by staying awake for as long as I could and documenting everything I did and accomplished. I imagined that when I could not take it anymore, I would pass out, then sleep long and deep to make up for the extra time awake, and that would be the end of it.