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Sweet, Sweet Oblivion: An Overview of Sleep

By Caitlan Burns

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Sleep is something we need. Most creatures need sleep, save mayflies and single-celled organisms. There’s a good reason for this. Sleep is when the body fixes itself. It’s when information is transferred from short term to long term memory, when the stomach can finish digesting and when the body relaxes, reaching a point where it’s no longer under stress. During sleep, nightmares and other dreams are had and serve their own purpose, hopefully allowing your subconscious to work through all sorts of nasty things. Getting a good amount of sleep on a regular basis reduces the risk of suffering many illnesses such as diabetes, heart problems and high blood pressure. There’s so much that sleep is good for and yet, it’s often considered an enemy, preventing the completion of tasks and cutting the day short.


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Facts About Sleep

Sleep usually occurs for humans once during every 24 hour period. The amount of sleep needed per person differs because of age, genetics and activity/stress level. An exhausted or sick person can sleep for much longer than they normally would. A small child (up to 12 or 13 hours) needs more sleep than a tween (probably around 10) and a teenager (9 or 10) needs more sleep than an adult (7-8). Sleep is the period when the body slows down and when a person isn’t aware of their surroundings. During this period they go through periods of REM (Rapid Eye Movement), which signify dreams and where memories of the day become more ingrained in the brain, and Non-REM sleep, where dreams are less likely to occur. It’s still not clear all that occurs during and as a result of sleep.


Going without sleep will result in irritability, reduced performance both physically and mentally and, eventually, hallucinations. The final result of sleep deprivation, at least among rats and among those who are physically unable to sleep due to a disease, is death. but it takes a while, from weeks for rats to months for humans. For those who choose to stay up for long stretches, hallucinations and periods of amnesia are actually a good thing. They’re a sign of dreaming trying to happen whether the person wants it to or not.


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Challenging The Boundaries Of Sleep

Despite the fact that sleep is an important part of being alive, there are those who have decided to flout the requirement even if it means the swift descent into madness. Everybody wants to show that they can do without something that other people need, I guess. To be fair, no one would do something so unpleasant unless people were eager to see them do it. The amount of publicity these stunts get and the fact that they’re sometimes performed for charities shows that the fascination people feel for watching others hurt themselves is not a new phenomenon. Here’s a blog with a list of DJs who’ve challenged the boundaries of good sense for a slice of fame.


Here are a few notables on the path to thwart Hypnos (The Greek god of sleep).


A Radio DJ named Peter Tripp stayed awake as a publicity stunt and to raise money for, The March of Dimes. He went temporarily insane, seeing fire and a spider crawling in and out of his shoes, among other things.


Dave Clark, the first DJ I found that had performed this stunt, worked for KVI-AM and stayed awake for 104 hours. He said he experienced periods of amnesia where he was speaking but didn’t remember anything he said. Here’s the link to the story.


In 2004 there was a British reality tv show called Shattered where contestants tried to stay awake together in a house for seven days. They had to perform tasks to show the effects of the deprivation as well as to avoid elimination. It wasn’t a true sleep challenge as, at one point, contestants were allowed to sleep for two hours to try and reduce the potential damage of the stunt. The show was considered dangerous and not well received. As with others who have gone without sleep, contestants experienced hallucinations.


In 1963 high school student named Randy Gardner stayed awake as his science project. He also hallucinated but managed to make it to 264 hours. In his old age, he began to experience insomnia. Here’s the NPR transcript of an interview with him.


The Dick Van Dyke Show did a dramatization of a Stay-Awake-athon in Season 4 episode 27; One Hundred Terrible Hours. Rob Petrie, Van Dyke’s character, stayed awake and on the air for 100 hours.  He broke into tears reading a news report on a cat up a tree. The episode is available to watch streaming on Netflix.


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Sleep Disorders

Sometimes people don’t get to choose whether they’re going to not sleep. Sometimes it’s a desperate struggle to keep sane and rested night after night after night. Insomnia and the other side of the coin hypersomnia (perpetual tiredness) are probably best known, though sleep apnea (breathing problems during the night), sleepwalking/sleep behaviors and night terrors are definitely in the public consciousness to some extent.

There are other lesser-known conditions. Circadian rhythm disorders are more likely to be viewed as aberrant behavior or misdiagnosed. Non 24-hour sleep disorder involves a circadian rhythm that is longer than 24 hours. A sufferer will sleep around the clock, going to bed progressively later and later. Someone with a delayed circadian rhythm will prefer to go to sleep later than others and will function better if allowed to do so. There’s even a disorder where sufferers will prefer to nap instead of sleeping. You can read about Circadian rhythm disorders here. 


Methods Of Getting To Sleep


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There are many ways to get to sleep and they don’t all work for everybody. You can take supplements such as melatonin or magnesium, though those should be treated with care. A nice cup of Sleepy Time tea will sometimes do the trick. People who prefer methods that aren’t substance based can try self-hypnosis or visualization. If you’re adventurous, desperate or have money to burn you could even try some nifty gadgets to get to sleep. There’s also another article here that deals with other methods of drifting off.


Everybody has some issues with sleep. Even knowing that it’s necessary and beneficial it can be annoying and even when we want to sleep we can’t always, especially with all the electronics around with their buzzing on the edge of hearing, and all the lights of the modern age. Bad diet, stressful activities and rigid schedules all take their toll and sometimes your body just won’t let you get a good night’s sleep at the right time. Still, sleep is important, so try and relax and enjoy it. Making something that should restore one’s body into an ordeal to be overcome will only make things worse.