How Sleep Deprivation Drove One Man Out Of His Mind

In 1959, 32-year old popular radio personality Peter Tripp decided to stay awake for 8 days and nights as part of a publicity stunt aimed at raising money for charity. It was the most daring sleep deprivation ever attempted, and virtually every researcher and physician warned Tripp against the idea. But Tripp was determined, and so on a cold January morning, he placed himself in a glass booth in the middle of Times Square so that curious onlookers and fascinated scientists alike could observe his activity as he went for 201 consecutive hours without sleep.

Tripp beginning to feel the effects of sleep deprivation

At first, Tripp seemed to cope well without sleep. He was, after all, considered to be a normal and well-to-do man by his family, friends, and listeners. His initial broadcasts during his experiment were entertaining as he remained cheerful and humorous as usual. By day four, however, Tripp began experiencing terrifying hallucinations, imagining spiders crawling in his shoes and mice scampering around him.

Tripp experiencing visual hallucinations

At times, his psychotic symptoms were so severe that physicians were unable to test his physiological functioning. Tripp also grew increasingly hostile; for example, he became convinced that the physicians monitoring him were conspiring against him, and would experience angry outbursts during which he would attack them. By day eight, Peter Tripp could not differentiate between his hallucinations and delusions, and reality. He had in fact, essentially “lost his mind”.

Attendants putting Peter Tripp to bed at the end of his “wake-a-thon”

Eventually, Tripp was able to endure over eight days of sleep deprivation — thereby breaking the world record — and upon completing his feat, slept for twenty-two hours straight.

He awoke seeming to have recovered from the wake-a-thon and resumed his radio job; however, it was later evident that this experience did not come without long-term consequences. Tripp continued to show psychotic symptoms beyond the charity event, lost his job, divorced his wife, and was rarely heard of by the public ever again.

What was the reason underlying some of Tripp’s psychotic symptoms? As psychologists studied Tripp’s downward spiral, they realized that his visual hallucinations were following a pattern of occurring roughly every 90 minutes, a cycle that mimics the timing of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. As we enter REM sleep, our brains become very active as it synthesizes and interprets different signals, and it is during this stage that we dream. Tripp experienced what psychologists believe were “waking dreams”, when his mind followed a regular pattern of dreaming while the body remained awake.

Scientists noticed that Tripp’s delusions cycled roughly every 90 minutes, which is the same length as a cycle of NREM-REM sleep

What can we take away from Peter Tripp’s story? Sleep deprivation can have irreversible, damaging, and long-lasting consequences on one’s social, cognitive, and behavioral functioning.

Just your typical student depriving himself of sleep for the sake of academics

At this point, you are probably not yet convinced that sleep deprivation could be really that bad for you. After all, many of us have felt the worst of an all nighter. You spend the next morning irritable and before noon, you blow off your classes for a long-awaited, three hour nap. Perhaps you are already consistently sleep-deprived because you are in the midst of midterm season, and you thrive off of caffeine on a daily basis. It’s okay, though, because you’ll survive. You’ll just “catch up on sleep” once you’re less busy. They say that sleep is for the weak, right?

Right?

“Split between the demands of “Work” and “Play,” there is no room for “Rest.” Many students admit that rest feels like failure, a marker of incompetence and underachievement. At college, “Rest” has the greatest stigma of all. — Riley Griffin

In a society where we value productivity and efficiency in competitive environments, it can be easy to fall victim to popular mindsets like “sleep is for the weak”, or jokes like “sleep is for the weak”. Unfortunately, those statements couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“The evidence is overwhelming, it is irrefutable. Sleep is the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body health each and every day” — Matt Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley

In the next few posts, we will discuss sleep and its powerful effects on outcomes such as memory, learning, & cognition. We’ll share fascinating research that has been done to show how sleep (or lack of it) has profound impact on our emotions and mental health. We’ll talk about what the quality of our sleep has to do with our diet and eating patterns. Lastly, we’ll share a few tips on how to get high quality sleep.

Our hope is that you can wake up to the truth: Sleep is worth your time.

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