In 1963, two teenage boys from San Diego embarked on a groundbreaking science fair project that would capture the nation’s attention. Randy Gardner and Bruce McAllister decided to test the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive abilities and basketball performance. Little did they know that their experiment would push the boundaries of human endurance and shed light on the consequences of sleeplessness. Randy stayed awake for a staggering 11 days, breaking records and facing unexpected challenges along the way. We explore the remarkable story of Randy Gardner’s sleepless journey and the lasting effects it had on his life.
Where It All Began
Randy Gardner and Bruce McAllister from San Diego, CA were enjoying a Holiday break from High School when they came up with an idea for a school science fair project.
The young men initially wanted to see if sleeplessness could somehow increase paranormal activity but eventually decided to make their project about testing the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive abilities and basketball performance.
Staying Awake For 11 Days
The boys had decided that one of them would stay awake and the other would monitor. They flipped a coin and decided that Randy would be the one to stay awake with Bruce monitoring. In 1964, Randy stayed awake for 264 hours (11 days and 24 minutes) without the use of stimulants, other than Coca-Cola.
The experiment started well, but after 3 days of Monitoring Randy, Bruce was starting to suffer the effects of sleeplessness. Bruce found himself writing notes on a wall at one point. They realized they would need help to complete the experiment.
Finding Help To Complete The Experiment
The boys enlisted the help of a friend, Joe Marciano, to assist them with their project. News about the experiment reached a sleep researcher working at Stanford University, William Dement. He was intrigued by the experiment and joined the project to help.
Randy’s parents were relieved to have a professional sleep researcher involved with the boy’s project since they were worried about what might happen to Randy. The only stimulant that Randy used during the experiment was Coca-Cola, which contains caffeine.
Can Lack of Sleep Kill You?
There was some concern among the sleep researchers that Randy could die from a lack of sleep. Previous studies had shown mixed results with sleeplessness, so this was an unknown factor that needed to be addressed.
Previous studies regarding lack of sleep had largely been on animals. In one study, a group of cats had been kept awake for 15 days successfully, through the use of stimulants. Unfortunately, that experiment didn’t turn out well for the cats, and there was fear that Randy might suffer similar effects.
World Record For Staying Awake
On January 8, 1964, Randy Gardner stayed awake for 264 hours, or 11 days and 26 minutes, beating the previous record by a good margin. A radio DJ in Hawaii was the previous record holder, staying awake on the air for 260 hours.
The entirety of the experiment, Randy and his friends kept track of his mental state with cognitive and sensory tests. After two days, he began having problems with simple tongue-twisters, and his senses seemed to dramatically increase. He started hallucinating on the fifth day, and his short-term memory ceased to function, proving the dramatic consequences of sleep deprivation.
The Consequences Appeared Short-Lived
Others observed Randy’s cognitive difficulties during the experiment as well. The doctor monitoring the experiment reported significant changes, including moodiness, paranoia, and difficulty concentration. Randy wanted to prove there were no consequences to sleep deprivation, but his study showed that wasn’t entirely true.
After staying awake for 264 hours, Randy went to bed and slept for 14 hours. When he woke up, he stayed awake for about 12 more hours. Randy went back to his regular sleep routine and school as if everything was fine.
Brain Activity During The Study
The results recorded from the sleeplessness study were sent to Arizona to be analyzed. Upon review, it appeared that Randy’s brain had been “catnapping” during the experiment, with parts of the brain sleeping while other parts stayed awake.
This information makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. In the past, humans would have been required to stay awake for much longer periods of time as a survival tactic. It stands to reason that our brains would have developed ways to get the rest it needs, even if sleep is not within reach at the time.
Health Effects Of Sleeplessness
Even a modest lack of sleep can cause health consequences. In studies done on the transition of daylight savings time, the change in time has been shown to result in higher occurrences of heart attack and stroke. Mental issues such as mood disturbances and suicidal ideation have also been observed from the transition between standard time and DST.
The long-term side effects of a lack of sleep can be serious. Lab rats deprived of sleep die within a month, and people with the rare hereditary disease fatal familial insomnia (FFI), who lose the ability to sleep, can meet the same fate within three months.
Guinness Book Of World Records
The Guinness Book of World Records stopped certifying attempts at sleeplessness, deeming it too dangerous of a health risk. According to Guinness, “In 1997, we stopped monitoring the record for the longest time to stay awake.” The record holder at the time was Robert McDonald, who went 453 hours 40 minutes (18 days 21 hours 40 minutes) without sleeping in 1986.
Despite Guinness no longer certifying attempts at breaking the record, Gardner’s record has been beaten several times according to various reports. Randy’s case is notable due to the extensive documentation done during the experiment. This is important because accurately determining the amount of sleep deprived is difficult without careful observation.
Effects Of The Experiment On Randy’s Health
Sometime near when Randy was 44, he began to suffer long-term severe insomnia due to the experiment. “I was awful to be around. Everything upset me. It was like a continuation of what I did 50 years ago,”
Finally, after years of unbearable insomnia, Randy has regained his ability to sleep. He’s regained the ability to drift off, but only for about six hours a night. Despite the world-breaking nature of his study, Randy ultimately said he regrets having done the experiment.