How long could you manage without sleep? The current record-holder is Randy Gardner, who as a 17-year-old Californian high-school student back in 1964 managed a staggering 265 hours – or 11 days – without so much as a nap.
“I wanted to prove that bad things didn’t happen if you went without sleep,” Gardner explained. In fact, by the time he finally broke the record, Gardner had endured crippling exhaustion, forgetfulness, dizziness, slurred speech and blurred vision. He’d been moody and irritable, and unable to concentrate on the simplest tasks. He’d even experienced hallucinations and delusions (on one occasion, for instance, imagining that he was the legendary San Diego Chargers’ running back Paul Lowe). “We got halfway through the damn thing and I thought, ‘This is tough. I don’t want to do this any more,’ ” Gardner recalled in 2006. “But everybody was looking at me so I couldn’t quit.”
Of course, you don’t need to have made an attempt on Randy Gardner’s record to know that lack of sleep can have some pretty unwelcome consequences. Anyone who has ever had to suffer a sleepless night will know just how disruptive it can be. The following day we’re tired, irritable, a little miserable, and generally out of sorts. And the longer sleep problems go on, the more wretched we feel.
The consequences don’t end there. It’s long been known that people with psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) don’t sleep well. Until recently, it was assumed their sleep difficulties were a product of the psychological problem. But research suggests that the process may also work in the opposite direction: persistent sleep problems may help cause and exacerbate a number of common mental illnesses.