How long can one survive without sleep?

June 23, 2022

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Terror, hallucinations, paranoia, psychosis. The effects of sleep deprivation are not just devastating, they can last for life – but just how long can you survive without any sleep?

24 hours with no sleep

Most people have gone a full day without sleep several times in their lives. You know you are prone to becoming irritable with people the longer you go without sleep, so you do your best to stay away from others. You immediately close your Facebook and Twitter tabs, because you definitely do not have the patience to argue with your uncle who still thinks covid is a hoax. You are trying to catch up on school and work, but you are finding even simple questions difficult to answer. It is definitely taking you longer than it should to answer which Union army general went on to become president after the Civil War – you keep reading the question to yourself trying to make sense of it. Worse yet, you know that you just reviewed this material a day ago, but you are having a lot of trouble with your short term memory.

30 hours with no sleep

You gave up on school work; it is impossible to concentrate right now. You sit down to watch some TV and are shocked to discover an entire hour’s gone by in what seems like just a few minutes. On the flip side, that Postmates you ordered was supposed to take 25 minutes to get here and is taking an eternity. However, when you check the app only ten minutes have passed. 

This is making you even more irritable, and you are snapping at friends and family at the slightest provocation. Sleep may not come, but that does not mean life does not go on. You drive yourself to work and you are terrified to realize that you have driven entire stretches of road and have no memory of it. Were you asleep, or is it just more short-term memory problems? The fact that you do not know is terrifying and you are extremely relieved when you finally pull up to work. You have no idea how you are getting through the next six hours, your back and shoulders are aching something fierce and when you hold your hand out in front of you it is shaking noticeably.

36 hours with no sleep

You had to leave work early. It was either that or tear off a customer’s head. Concentrating on people’s orders was almost impossible, requiring every ounce of willpower you had just to get a simple order right. It did not help that every single entitled customer likes to treat fast food employees like they are human trash, when they are just trying to earn an honest living. The thought makes you absolutely furious – which is why your manager told you to clock out. Are you fired? You have no idea, you did not even bother asking. Honestly, you do not even care. Because you do not care about much right now. By some miracle you manage to drive home without wrecking your car, but again you are alarmed at just how little of the trip home you actually remember. You hope it is just your ever-worsening short-term memory, and not because you fell asleep behind the wheel. You should eat, but you are not really hungry anymore. You are just tired, but amidst the exhaustion you suddenly get a small jolt of energy. That is your body pumping sugar reserves into your system to boost your abilities temporarily. At this point, even your body has started to realize that something is seriously wrong – it is switching to fight or flight mode believing you are in a life-threatening situation preventing you from sleeping. 

42 hours with no sleep

The short-lived energy boost is gone. All that is left is a sense of apathy. It is becoming difficult to concentrate on anything, even your favorite shows. Everyone in your house is giving you a very wide berth, because you are not just irritable anymore, you are downright obtusely stubborn. Things are definitely your way or the highway, as your ability to cooperate and reason with people all but evaporates. Your lack of sleep is effectively shutting down your higher brain’s ability to function, and you are reverting to a more base, primitive state. If you cannot sleep, you can at least boost your energy – you need some Red Bull. It does not matter that the store is several blocks away, or that you almost crashed your car a dozen times on the way home; you need that Red Bull and you need it now. It takes you a few attempts to get the key into the ignition, your hand-eye coordination is seriously off, but soon the car’s revving to life and you are off to the store. Luckily, it is all residential roads to the store, and traffic is extremely light. For a moment you panic thinking about a kid’s ball bouncing out into the street, and the unaware kid rushing out after it right in front of you. You try to be hyperalert, and replay the imaginary incident over and over in your mind until finally, in your mental fog, you suddenly are not sure if you were imagining it or if it really happened and you just do not remember it. In a blind panic you pull the car over and rush outside to inspect the front of the car, and a wave of relief washes over you as you realize that there are no dents. It was just in your head. 

As you drive back home from the store though you swear that you are starting to see that kid and his ball playing in the yards of the homes you are passing by. It does not matter that physically speaking this same child could not possibly be in different yards at the same time, it does not matter that none of this makes any sense – to your sleep-starved brain, this kid and his ball are as real as the car in front of you. You do not even realize that the other car has hit its brakes until you smash right into the back of it. In a blind panic, you put your car into reverse and speed off! Wait, what? Did you just flee the site of an accident? Why did you not just exchange insurance information? What in the world are you even doing? None of this helps, and instead just makes you more panicked and paranoid. You gotta get home, and you gotta get home fast. And you gotta hide the car.

48 hours with no sleep

You just dozed off. You wake with a startled jump – what just happened? You were trying to do the dishes and just sort of dozed off. That is when the pain hits you – you left your hand in the running hot water. But, if you are honest, it does not even hurt that much. Just like your other senses, even your ability to feel pain has dulled. From the sink you can see out the kitchen window and into the driveway, where you hastily parked and threw a tarp over your car. Why did you do that? Oh, that is right. You hit a kid on the way home. Huh – no! You got into a fender bender. Wait, why did you run away from a fender bender? It does not matter. Well, it does, but your brain cannot process the consequences right now. Your family is gone, took off for the weekend and decided you and your bad attitude could use the time alone.

Where did they go though? Try as might you cannot quite remember. Well, it does not matter. Might as well see what is on the … (long period of silence) … huh? Oh, you fell asleep again. These microsleeps are lasting 30 seconds to a minute, and are totally out of your control. Your brain is literally hijacking control away from you in a desperate bid to save itself. You are more of a passenger than the conductor right now. 

60 hours with no sleep

You do not know this, but inside your body an infection is taking hold. Luckily it is just the common cold, but the immune system cells responsible for destroying foreign invaders are not reacting as quickly as they should be. It is like every function of your body is experiencing the same sluggishness and confusion that you are, leaving your immune system greatly compromised. You are healing things. Sometimes you will hear snippets of conversation that you remember from long ago, and for just a moment you believe you are back in that time and place. Only to turn around and instead of seeing the speaker standing there, there is nothing. You are hearing ghosts created by your own slowly degenerating brain. The barriers between memory and the present are getting muddled. 

You are also starting to sense presences that are clearly not there. You have heard ghost stories before, and people speaking about being able to sense the dead in the room with them, despite not being able to see anything. It is a lot like that, and you can swear that there are people in the room with you, even whirling around expecting to catch them standing right behind you. But there is no one, it is all in your sleep-starved mind. Your brain is starting to lose its ironclad grip on reality, misinterpreting sensory data and sometimes creating completely false data of its own. You are turning into a very badly glitching computer.

72 hours with no sleep

You have an unbearable urge to sleep, and yet for some reason are unable to. At this point you know most people cannot prevent themselves from sleeping anymore as the brain literally shuts down. For some reason though, your brain refuses to allow you to sleep. Your mood is impossible, and you are glad that nobody is around. The slightest provocation will set you off, even if the only other humans to interact with are the ones on the TV. It does not matter, because even their offenses are as real to you as if they were physically in the room with you. You try to take a break and play some video games, but your hand-eye coordination is all but completely lost. You are hungry, but not nearly as hungry as you should be, and you find that you are rarely eating.

96 hours with no sleep

You do not quite recall the last time you used the bathroom. You do not really know when the last time you ate. Maybe a day ago? It does not matter, you are not that hungry. Or thirsty really, despite your dry, cracked lips. You are dehydrating, and soon you will begin starving, but you honestly do not care. You do not even feel like you need to eat anymore. Besides, if you need a meal you can just ask your roommate or mom to make it for you. He or she is standing right there in the kitchen, leaning against the closet door. He or she has been standing there for hours, but when he or she does not answer your questions and you go to ask him or her why, you realize you have been staring at a broom the entire time. There is something funny about that, and you giggle. Normally experiencing such a dramatic hallucination would be alarming, but honestly, you just do not care anymore.

168 hours with no sleep

How long was your family saying they would be gone for? Just the weekend, right? Sure seems like they have been gone a long time. You have no idea how many days have passed, but you are pretty sure it has been more than three. You are fully in the grip of sleep deprivation psychosis at this point, and your hallucinations are just as real as the physical world. They do not always make sense, and they do not always materialize in dramatic fashion – sometimes it is just strange sounds you hear. More often it is you confusing household objects for people, like the old coat and hat on a coat rack trick from cartoons. Your sense of smell seems to be off as well. The garbage has been stacking up for a while now – you totally forgot which day was garbage day – but it is almost like your nose chooses to focus on only specific scents and ignore the rest. It is not all that bad really, you can smell the citrus smell of oranges coming from the garbage, while blocking out the smells from all the rotting food. You do not even realize that the house absolutely stinks now. Or you, you have not showered in weeks. Or is it days? You are not sure, you are just sort of confused all the time. 

264 hours with no sleep

You just realized why your family’s weekend getaway is taking so long – you do not live at home anymore. In fact, you live alone, without roommates. Which is a good thing, because both you and the house are in horrible disrepair. Also, you are pretty sure you are fired from your job. You are not really awake but definitely not asleep – you exist in a sort of twilight state. Normally it would alarm you to realize that you basically invented a false reality of still living at home with your parents, but you are not nearly aware enough to care. At least you are eating, but only because you have to. Thank God for postmates, because the thought of cooking is overwhelming to the point of being painful. Your confusion is so intense, you find yourself stopping in the middle of tasks with no memory of starting them – or why. The hallucinations have become so frequent that you have basically learned to simply ignore them. They are mostly auditory, with past conversations replaying so vividly you could swear they were happening right now, and random tones and sounds that make no sense but are completely real to you. You are well past the stage of microsleeps, you are drifting into moments that can at best be described as ‘wakeful sleepness’. Your body and mind are definitely awake, and you just sort of drift into nothingness as you stare blankly ahead of you, but it is not the sleep your brain so desperately needs. You do not know how long you can keep this up, and honestly, neither does science. You have officially reached the world record for sleep deprivation, and every hour ahead of you is uncharted territory.

What is known from animal experimentation is that sleep deprivation will without a doubt, eventually kill you. Brain functions break down to a degree that organs begin shutting down. Just like a faulty computer network, the brain gets increasingly glitchy, until finally, it simply cannot command the organs to continue life-preserving functions. How long until you simply shut down and die? Nobody knows for sure, but to your confused mind it does not really matter. 

References:

Eske, J. (2019). The effects of going more than 24 hours without sleep. From https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324799

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