The Russian Sleep Experiment
It has become a permanent fixture in the fabric of Internet lore: the Russian Sleep Experiment, an account of a horrific experiment said to have been conducted in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. The subjects were five political prisoners, placed into a sealed chamber and exposed to a gas which prevented them from sleeping. After fifteen days the researchers entered the chamber, and found the men — sleep deprived beyond any human experience — had committed horrors that could scarcely be conceived. Today we're going to look into the story, and into the facts of sleep deprivation. Might something as grotesque as the Russian Sleep Experiment truly be within the scope of human possibility?
According to the story, the researchers cleared the gas from the chamber and entered, finding one of the five men dead:
Those questioning whether or not this was a true story didn't have to do very much work. It's a widely published fact that the Russian Sleep Experiment was a piece of fiction, posted anonymously in 2010 to Creepy Pasta, a website that showcases scary fictional tales. Despite this, there are always conspiracy minded people insistent that the story is true, or was leaked from some secret government lab; but no matter how strong their desire that this be the case, nobody has ever turned up anything like that. Sometimes a creepy story is just a creepy story.
But that's not the interesting part. The interesting part comes when we ask whether the story is plausible. What would happen to people if they were forcibly deprived of sleep for that long? Would they go crazy, attacking and eating each other like zombies? Let's open our books of medical research and see how close to the truth the Russian Sleep Experiment might be.
We're hampered by the fact that experiments like this are unethical and would be hard to conduct today, so there isn't a lot of research out there. But fortunately we are saved by the patron saint of unethical human experimentation: the military. Most world powers would love to have supersoldiers who can be active 24/7 without a vulnerable period of daily sleep, so most of them have invested in experimentation. During the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, American special forces battled Somali fighters who chewed khat, a plant that is a powerful stimulant. This allowed the Somalis to be ready to fight at any time and to remain active well past the time the Americans became fatigued. The world's militaries took note.
In 2008, the Pentagon released an independent study commissioned by their Office of Defense Research and Engineering, titled simply Human Performance. It said that 86 different drugs have been tried (oh where would human experimentation be without the military?) with "a small number" showing promise. Caffeine, for example, was found to confer resistance to slowed performance on tests of reaction speed and mental acuity, even after three straight days (72 hours) of high intensity training with no sleep; but other skills like marksmanship declined almost as much as for those who took no caffeine.
The importance of this to potential combat situations is clear, and from that perspective, it's entirely plausible (in fact, almost certain) that something like the Russian Sleep Experiment would have been tried. The Pentagon report also describes results of a psychomotor vigilance test, which is where you react to a visual stimulus on a computer screen by pushing a button or doing some such thing. In unspecified testing, subjects were allowed either unrestricted sleep, or 8 hours of time in bed per day, or 6, or 4, or zero. The test ran 14 days. Subjects allowed 8 hours in bed, which seems ample, still scored 3-4 times as many errors on the tests after 14 days than did the unrestricted subjects. The 6 hour group scored 11 times as many errors. The 4 hour group scored 16 times as many. What about the group that was allowed no bed time at all? That experiment was terminated after only 3 days, at which time that group was also making 16 times as many errors as the unrestricted sleepers.
Another test found that elite Army units who slept no more than 3 hours a night over a 53-hour field combat exercise scored several times worse on the tests than did people who were drunk. Clearly, you don't want to be a sleep deprived soldier.
Or an astronaut. Research done in China in 2015 tested the effects of sleep deprivation on astronauts (in simulated environments). After three days of sleep deprivation and confinement, astronauts were run through a battery of tests. Their psychomotor skills were greatly diminished, but their perception and their judgement changed to a much smaller degree.
But these people all stayed awake no more than three days; Russian Sleep Experiment subjects are said to have gone two full weeks. About the closest thing to this time span in the non-fictional science literature was an experiment in 1968 that subjected four young men to 205 hours of enforced wakefulness at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. Psychophysiological tests were given four times a day, and scientists noted their mood, behavior, and other indicators around the clock. Personality and logical thinking tests were administered. After a few days they began having increasing "lapses" — periods where they would appear to sleep for a few seconds even with their eyes still open, then jolt awake. By the fifth day they reached a turning point, where they began to recover somewhat from irritability and other symptoms. The worst that happened was one subject began seeing hallucinations of Humpty Dumpty and a gorilla, from a recurring dream he'd had as a child. After eight and a half days, the researchers concluded they'd reached all their objectives and noted:
Disappointingly, nobody ate anybody. Neither did young Randy Gardner, a 16-year-old who set a Guinness World Record in 1964 by staying awake for 260 hours while under constant monitoring. Gardner suffered no ill effects other than irritability, paranoia, memory lapses, and trouble concentrating. Several other people are documented to have broken Gardner's record, but Guinness stopped the category due to the perceived health risk.
Healthy people don't seem to have any serious problems when sleep deprived. What about unhealthy people?
There are at least two pathologic conditions that can interfere with, or even eliminate, the ability to sleep. One is a condition called Morvan's Syndrome, though it's very rare with fewer than 20 cases known. It affects the central nervous system, and seems to be caused by abnormal antibodies that affect voltage-gated potassium channels in the cells. This results in severe muscle cramping and twitching plus pain, weight loss, excess sweating and salivation, and waking dreamlike hallucinations. Patients may fall into what's been described as "subwakefulness". They may sleep as little as two hours per day, or sometimes not at all. Encephalograms indicate they never reach slow-wave sleep, but rather they go through much of the day with their EEG showing persistent stage 1 NREM sleep (non rapid eye movement sleep) with many brief lapses into full REM sleep even while apparently awake. They have "autonomic activation" episodes, basically sleepwalking and performing activities while not aware of it. This extreme lack of normal sleep is called agrypnia excitata. Morvan's Syndrome has generally been found to be treatable with steroids, with recovery taking place within a couple of weeks.
The other condition is more frightening. It's called Fatal Familial Insomnia, and as its name suggests, it is an inherited condition that affects families. Those with the defective dominant gene pass it along to half their offspring, and it is always fatal, with no cure. It is a prion disease, in which a defective protein self-replicates, builds up in the brain, and converts brain tissue into a useless spongiform mass. This brain damage is what causes people with FFI to have the symptoms and ultimately die. The effects usually appear in middle age and the average survival is 18 months after the onset. The first symptoms are confusion, paranoia, memory loss, and insomnia; followed by panic attacks, hallucinations, and increased insomnia; and finally progressing to unresponsiveness, total sleeplessness, and complete dementia. The patient often remains in this terrible state for several months before death. Fortunately FFI is extremely rare, having been identified in only about 40 families worldwide.
So whether the sleep deprivation is the result of disease or is imposed by circumstances, in neither case do patients eat people or otherwise experience radical changes in personality or value systems. Certainly none of the subjects studied have ever been found to be a danger to themselves or to others.
All of this, taken together, tells us one thing: the Russian Sleep Experiment is not representative of what's known to happen when people are sleep deprived. It's pure fiction. Sleep deprivation brings a battery of penalties, but changes to morals, judgement, and overall behavior are not among them. Chalk up one more piece of evidence that the story isn't true. But as is the case with so many urban legends, what we can learn from studying the science behind them is almost always more interesting than the legend itself.
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