What happens when we don’t get enough sleep?

An increasing number of studies are finding that teenagers simply aren’t getting enough sleep, with some suggesting that up to a half of all teens are now suffering from sleep deprivation. But what exactly is it to be sleep deprived and what impact does it have on the body? Three A-level Psychology students attempt to unpick some of the evidence and discover that the situation is more complicated than many might at first believe.

Looking at the evidence – Florence Roberts-Graham

UT 85: D6109 Gardner sitting biting on unidentified object

Randy Gardner during his attempt

Sleep deprivation is the condition of not having enough sleep. A few studies into sleep deprivation have been conducted to find the effects of sleep deprivation on the body and how long you can be deprived of sleep.

Randy Gardner holds the scientifically documented record for the longest period a human being has intentionally gone without sleep not using stimulants of any kind. Gardner (18years old) was a high school student at the time and stayed awake for a total of 264 hours (eleven days) as part of a school science project. At a press conference, on the final day he said, “I wanted to prove that bad things didn’t happen if you went without sleep,” said Gardner. “I thought, I can break that record and I don’t think it would be a negative experience.” Stanford University’s sleep researcher William Dement observed Gardner’s ‘science project’.

After the experiment Gardner slept for 14 hours 40 minutes, which isn’t a huge amount of sleep after the 11 days he’d been awake for! Overall Gardner only made up 11 hours of the 90 hours he lost. Surely his body would have needed to catch up on all the sleep he had missed to follow the restoration theory. The restoration theory (Ian Oswald, 1966) is the theory that the purpose of sleep is to restore the body during inactivity. However the sleep that he did make up, made up a disproportionate amount of SWS4 and REM.
* 68% Stage 4
* 53% REM
This therefore supports Oswald’s restoration theory of sleep.

The picture of results from the sleep deprivation is confusing. It is often claimed that Gardner’s experiment demonstrated that extreme sleep deprivation has little effect, other than the mood changes associated with tiredness. Dement claims that there was very little in terms of cognitive dysfunction to Gardner. This is primarily due to a report by researcher William Dement, who stated that on the tenth day of the experiment, Gardner had been, among other things, able to beat Dement at pinball. However, John J. Ross, who monitored his health, reported serious cognitive and behavioral changes. These included moodiness, problems with concentration and short term memory, paranoia, and hallucinations.
No long-term psychological or physical effects have been observed since Garners ‘school project’ took place.

Another study into sleep deprivation is a study of Peter Tripp who was a radio DJ. He did the experiment as part of a radio program to raise money for charity. Tripp stayed awake for 201 hours and 10 minutes (8 days). Although unlike Gardner, Tripp was under the influence of drugs for the last 66 hours. This means that the study isn’t as reliable as Gardner’s study. He used drugs to get through the experiment as he was doing it in the face of the public.

After the experiment Tripp slept for 13 hours and 13 minutes, this also isn’t a lot of sleep compared to the amount he had missed.

The results from Tripp’s experiment aren’t as reliable as Gardner’s as Tripp also experienced hallucinations but as Tripp was using drugs, it isn’t clear whether it was the sleep deprivation or the drugs causing the hallucinations. Tripp also started seeing things that weren’t there after just a few days. After watching his brain waves, doctors found that even though Tripp was awake, his brain waves and hallucinations shadowed the 90minute REM cycle, and he was having hallucinations instead of dreams. Also over the time, Tripp’s mean body temperature declined and he because abusive to everyone around him including people who he had known for years.

Weeks later after the experiment was all over, Tripp himself believed he had completely recovered back to his normal self and was suffering no effects from the experiment, although close people around him including his wife didn’t agree with him and they soon after got a divorce. As well as his divorce, Tripp’s career nose-dived after becoming embroiled in a scandal. Tripp had hoped that the experiment would boost his career but found the opposite happening. Tripp blamed the sleep deprivation for his fall from grace.

With both these experiments you can’t generalize the results over the whole population for the results of sleep deprivation, as they are both single person experiments and these case studies aren’t very reliable to generalize. But they have given us some valuable points and results about some cases of sleep deprivation.

Randy Gardner and Peter Tripp- The truth behind sleep deprivation – Tom Acaster

For a long time people have argued about the effects of the deprivation of sleep, both cognitively and physically. Some argue that, without sleep, our bodies cannot cope with hassles of everyday life. Others argue that, whilst the deprivation of sleep has an effect, it is not significant enough to affect the functions of everyday life.
The truth behind this debate lies, as always, with evidence. More specifically, case studies have the answer as to how humans react to sleep deprivation, while experiments from the minds of Rechtschaffen and Jouvet tell us how animals behave when confronted with sleep deprivation.

An important study into the effects of sleep deprivation comes from Huber-Weidman, who performed a meta-analysis to find out the effects of sleep loss on humans. He came up with a table, which showed the varying effects of nights without sleep. He came to the conclusion that it would only take 6 days for someone to be contracted with “sleep deprivation psychosis” which essentially means that the person becomes depersonalised, and loses they’re sense of self identity. There are also case studies showing the effects of a lack of sleep.


Radio DJ Peter Tripp used drugs to keep him awake

Peter Tripp was a radio DJ who, as a publicity stunt, decided to see how long he could go for without sleep. He lasted 201 hours and 10 minutes, before succumbing to sleep. After a few days, he began to hallucinate, seeing cobwebs, mice, and kittens; looking through drawers for money that wasn’t there and insisting that a technician had dropped a hot electrode into his shoe. Randy Gardner also did something similar as part of a science project. He stayed up for 11 days, during which time it was said that he hallucinated, had blurred vision and extreme paranoia.

There are also several animal studies that show the effects of sleep deprivation. These are Jouvet and Rechtschaffen. Rechtschaffen et al placed rats on a metal disc in water. Every time its EEG suggested it was falling asleep, the disc began to spin. A second rat was used as control, but was allowed to sleep. After 33 days the rats died. Jouvet also did a similar experiment that later became known as the “upturned flowerpot” experiment. Kittens were kept on an upturned flowerpot, and when they began to fall asleep, they fell off. They soon realised they had to stay awake to not fall off. The cats died after 35 days.

However, there are obviously some issues when considering these results as definite proof. The problem with Randy Gardner comes from the witness accounts. The man who observed him claimed that there was no real difference between him and his normal functions, whereas the paramedic claimed that he was suffering with extreme paranoia and slurred speech as well as hallucinations. Therefore the accuracy of the accounts can question the reliability of the study.  Peter Tripp was also on drugs for the last 60 hours of his experiment, so we don’t know if his hallucinations and such were because of the effects of drugs. It also hard to generalise the studies on a larger scale, when only one participant was involved. There also clear problems with generalisability in the animal studies, and the animal studies have ethical issues associated with them as well.
In conclusion, it’s incredibly hard to successfully pinpoint the exact effects of sleep deprivation. The animal studies show that sleep deprivation is undeniably bad… for cats and rats. As for humans, it isn’t so easy. The evidence we do have is tainted by drugs and inaccurate witnesses, which makes it increasingly hard to successfully decide the true effects of sleep deprivation. We may have some understanding, but we don’t have anywhere near enough.

The Sad Case of Peter Tripp – Rachel Gilby

Sleep deprivation is an ever growing problem with over half of all teenagers sleep deprived according to experts.

Sleep is important for cognitive functioning

Sleep is important for cognitive functioning

Not only is lack of sleep evident in young people and having a negative impact on their achievements, but many adults also aren’t getting enough sleep. Many car accidents in fact (around 3,000 deaths and serious injuries on UK roads each according to the AA) are caused by overly tired drivers at the wheel. But why is sleep so important and what are the true risks of sleep deprivation?

Sleep is an altered state of consciousness. It is a naturally occurring process of many stages including different stages of slow wave sleep and REM sleep. There are a number of different theories as to why sleep is needed. It is said that a good theory of sleep needs to: provide a plausible explanation as to why sleep is found in such a variety of different animals, explain the findings of research studies into sleep deprivation and be able to explain the differences that exist in sleep patterns between different species. The 2 main theories of sleep are the restoration theory and the evolutionary theory. The restoration theory by Oswald suggests that sleep is needed to restore our brain and body to help them function properly. His research suggests that slow wave sleep may restore the biological processes in our body and REM restores the brain. The opposing theory is the evolutionary theory, including the hibernation theory by Webb. In this it is suggested that humans and animals need to sleep to conserve energy. The theory is very much based on what is needed for survival, with diet predators and food availability all being factors influencing the amount of sleep an animal can have.

Studies into sleep deprivation provide much of the evidence as to why we really need sleep; if we know whathappens if we don’t sleep, we are able to piece together why we need it in the first place. The 2 main human studies used are those of Randy Gardener, a school boy who stayed awake for 264 hours as part of a school project, and Peter Tripp, a radio DJ who stayed awake for 201 hours as part of a record breaking wakeathon publicity stunt. Randy Gardener, who was observed by Stanford university sleep research William Dement, was claimed to have not suffered cognitively during the exercise, though medical staff did disagree with this claim. Afterwards he slept for 14 hours and 40 minutes with the total sleep he made up only accounting for 11 hours of the 90 he lost. This showed that it is not important to make up sleep lost. However it was found that he did make up a disproportionate amount of Slow wave sleep 4 and REM suggesting that these forms of sleep may be the most important to the body, also supporting the restoration theory of sleep. Peter Tripp on the other hand was seen to have suffered cognitively as a result of his sleep deprivation. During his stunt, which involved him staying in a glass box in Times Square for much of the time, Tripp experienced hallucinations within the first 6 days, worsened further by the fact his last 66 hours were spent under the influence of drugs to keep him awake. After the stunt he slept for 13 hours and 13 minutes suggesting again that you do not need to fully catch up on the hours of sleep that you have lost. After the event Tripp’s career nose dived with him being involved in many scandals, his involvement of which he put a strong emphasis of blame on the wakeathon stunt and its psychological impact.

Many other studies into the impact of sleep deprivation have also been conducted. A meta analysis (study of studies) by Huber-Weidman provides us with a better picture of overall what symptoms a lack of sleep appears to bring. Below is a table of their results.

As you can see the impacts of sleep deprivation show that sleep really is something that is needed, even if it isn’t something that needs to be caught up on. Whichever way you look at it, sleep is clearly important and the ability to concentrate it brings, needed especially for the tasks we do in day to day life such as driving, as well as for the learning of the many sleep deprived teens in the UK.


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