'Trauma and Desperation': The Serious Effects of a Sleepless Night

"I mostly felt very relaxed and a kind of mild feel-good factor, which is a surprise for most people because their experience of staying awake is of trauma and desperation," he said.

This summer, in a bar in England, he lasted 11 days.

"From about day five to about day nine, I was playing a lot of pool during the small hours," he said.

There were peaks and troughs, though. He says the "last couple of days" were very difficult, and when he passed the previous record, he said he lost focus and closed his eyes.

"It was somewhere between 5-and-a-half and 6 hours and that was it," he said. "I woke up and it was back to normal for me." But Wright believes what's normal for him isn't what's normal for everyone else.

"I don't know if I've felt totally normal for a long time," he said.

Wright's theory that sleep deprivation might bring a higher state of brain function is strongly disputed.

"In the brain we will see that the brain waves will become slower and slower as if the brain doesn't function optimally anymore," said Dijk.

Eventually we will shut down. We will fall asleep before we die like a lab rat -- but that can also be fatal. Last month a woman in Colorado drove 30 miles at speeds of up to 70 mph. All while dipping in and out of sleep. A fellow driver on the highway, Christian Pruitt, caught the SUV on his video camera.

"I turned on my video camera as we pulled alongside her. She nearly clipped us in our lane. She was asleep," he said.

Amazingly no one was killed. Dozy drivers cause 100,000 accidents a year in the United States, which result in 1,500 fatalities. And most sleepy drivers are young.

The Simple Solution

"And this is because -- and this may surprise you -- it's much easier to keep an older person awake during the night than it is to keep a young person awake during the night," said Dijk. "Because the older probably needs less sleep."

Older people do seem to require less sleep, but doctors don't know why.

"If we knew that we'd probably know more about the function of sleep," said Dijk. "Undoubtedly [it] has to do with changes in the brain that occur as we grow older. But what those changes are and what the function of those changes are, is unclear."

Caffeine and other stimulants can lengthen the attention span of an underprepared student the night before a big test, but they don't solve the problem.

"Here still, is that need of recovery," said Dijk. "It's not that by drinking coffee you can completely remove the need for sleep. Of course there may be an ideal drug to develop."

The U.S. military is trying to develop ways of keeping sleepy soldiers alert without using stimulants, in part by trying to figure out how migratory birds remain aware of predators on long flights. Apparently birds have a natural resistance to the ravages of sleep deprivation.

The military discovered that some parts of the human brain are more resistant to the ravages of sleep deprivation than others. Could soldiers be trained to use those parts of the brain? They say chocolate and leafy green vegetables might also help with alertness.

But Dijk has a much simpler solution for how to stay alert: Get enough sleep.

"Going to bed is always a wonderful solution and it's a wonderful countermeasure," he said.

So, how can you get that good night's sleep? The researchers suggest keeping your bedroom at the correct temperature -- in the sleep labs it's 59.9 degrees. A little chilly for me, and personal preference plays a part here. Also, your room must be dark.

"Most importantly," said Dijk, "you need to take the time for sleep. If your sleep is interrupted very frequently you will feel still very tired in the morning. For sleep to be restorative it has to be deep and it has to be continuous."

We might not know much more than that about sleep. But one thing is for certain, very few of us enjoy being woken up.

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