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What If You Didn’t Need To Sleep At All?

What if you didn’t need to sleep at all?

All of us have experienced a disturbed night’s sleep at some point. The longer you toss and turn the further away rest can seem, leading to a groggy and miserable morning; held together by copious doses of coffee. However irascible you may have been on that day, most of us will eventually be able to catch up and recover. Spare a thought then for those who can never sleep at all – a small handful of medical miracles who have completely lost the need for sleep often for decades!

The most famous case of “lifetime insomnia” was a Hungarian man named Paul Kern, who lost part of his frontal lobe in WWI. After waking up in hospital Kern appeared to have made a dramatic recovery, until he discovered he no longer had the desire, or necessity to sleep. For over 40 years Kern worked in his country’s pensions department, at no point showing signs of sleep deprivation which “should” have killed him. Kern’s nights were devoted to reading and study and no doctor was ever able to satisfactorily explain the condition.

As inexplicable as sleep may be to scientists, it had become widely accepted that at least some sleep was a basic requirement for animals. Trials on rats showed that they would die if deprived of sleep for over 2 weeks, with no exceptions. When humans (willingly or otherwise) deprive themselves of sleep for extended periods the mental and physical deterioration is both rapid and frightening. For example, when Radio DJ Peter Tripp voluntarily broadcast a 201 hour wakeathon he began to report paranoia and hallucinations; there is little doubt that he would have died had the session continued indefinitely. There is also strong circumstantial evidence that Tripp induced long term brain damage by his sleepless antics.

But the human brain is a remarkably complex and adaptable organ. Often coma patients who have suffered traumatic brain injury are able to regain crucial functions as the brain’s “plasticity” allows it to reassign functions and reform new connections.

One biological function of sleep is to remove waste products which are cleared by cerebrospinal fluid. How could Kern’s brain remain functional despite years of waste build up? One possibility is that the damaged frontal lobe became less active, shrinking neurons and allowing clear up while conscious. It is also conceivable that Kern’s brain, when genuinely incapable of sleep, “devised” a new way to keep him healthy.

In a more recent case a Vietnamese farmer named Thai Ngoc claims not to have slept since 1973. Ngoc has been widely studied by scientists, who accept he is not a fraud but agree on little else. After being constantly monitored for days, Ngoc showed no decline in tests of mental function (as most people would if deprived for sleep for that period). Some have argued that Ngoc has a brain aberration which allows him to do without sleep, while others insist he must be unconsciously taking “micro naps” throughout the day to stay alive.

Even if that is the case, Ngoc cannot be sleeping for more than a few minutes each day. If his sleeplessness is caused by extreme, psychologically triggered, insomnia Ngoc has still adapted to a sleep regime which would eventually kill most of us. Understanding exactly how Ngoc’s brain has adapted to his sleep regime could tell scientists a lot.   

Often it is the medical curiosities, strange, inexplicable and sometimes bizarre cases that teach doctors most about the human body. Where would we be, for example, without Alexis St. Martin whose stomach injury allowed gigantic strides in the study of digestion? Military forces and other high pressure fields are already experimenting with “sleep minimisation” programmes using stimulants are scientific sleep regimes to keep participants alert and functioning for extended periods. Maybe they could learn a thing or two from the handful of human beings who seem to have cut sleep from their lives altogether!

Despite the study it is fair to say most of us need sleep to survive so make sure you check out our full range of beds to help you get the perfect night’s sleep