On April 26, 2020, I woke up at 8:54 AM. My goal was to not sleep for the next 96 hours (four days).
Why Am I Doing This?
No real reason. I’m just curious to see if I am the willpower to succeed and how I’ll feel.
- The challenge begins when I wake up on April 26, 2020.
- I cannot sleep for 96 hours (initial)
- Eventually revised down to 72 hours
- I may use any means necessary to keep myself awake
- I must at least attempt to record how I’m feeling every 12 hours
- I may not receive direct help in staying awake from any other people
(This section was written before I embarked on the experiment. I have not edited it since except for grammar.)
Prior to the start of the experiment, I need to get as much sleep as possible, especially valuable REM sleep which primarily comes near the end of a typical sleep stretch. So the night before starting the experiment, I will not set an alarm, and I will wake up naturally. If my sleep that night is insufficient, I will push the start-date for the experiment to another day.
Caffeine will be crucial to keeping myself awake, but I have to be careful in how I use it. Too much, too fast could cause me to crash and fall asleep. Plus I’m worried about declining short term potency. For context, I normally drink two cups of coffee per day, around 10 AM and 3 PM.
During the experiment:
- I will consume no caffeine for the first 30ish hours. I hope this will frontload some struggle, but increase caffeine potency during the rest of the timeframe.
- I will alternate between coffee and sugar-free Monster energy drinks. Hopefully this will also boost potency, either due to psychological effects or different nutrient reactions. But that could be entirely bullshit.
I have to be very careful with what I eat. Low blood sugar leads to drowsiness and is a common cause of mid-day sleepiness. Low blood sugar often occurs after spiking blood sugar, so I need to avoid eating too much in one sitting, especially carbs. After the first 24 hours I will try to transition away from meals and into snacking throughout the day. This will also serve as a source of mental stimulation.
I will not consume any alcohol.
I believe this is the key to the whole ordeal. I need to keep myself as entertained, engaged, enthralled, in-the-zone as possible throughout the 96 hours.
For the first 24 hours, I should be fine going about my normal daily activities. But after that point, I need to dive into highly stimulating activity which ideally keeps me in a flow state for long stretches of time. I actually hope to be quite bored for the first 24 hours to heighten the anticipation, and therefore the stimulative potency of my activities for the other three days. I have planned:
- Video games:
- Baseline game to carry me for many hours – The Game of Thrones mod for Crusader Kings 2.
- Roguelikes for a few hours of heightened attention – FTL: Faster the Light, Into the Breach, and Halcyon 6. Could also do some XCOM if I get desperate
- For emergencies, highly kinetic games that will jolt me awake – Furi, Thumper, and Enter the Gungeon
- Video chats with friends
- This will not violate Rule 5. I may communicate with people as long as I don’t tell them about the experiment and ask that they initiate contact to keep me awake.
- Online Settlers of Catan with friends
- Walking around the house explaining the plots of complicated stories to myself
- Emergency Measures
If I am in imminent danger of falling asleep, I plan on:
- Walking around outside
- Sucking on ice cubes
- Taking a cold shower
- Pinching myself
I am clearing my schedule for hours 24-96. I will not do any work or anything important that requires critical thinking or motor skills, like driving a car.
- I need to avoid darkness, especially at night. I’m leaving the lights on all the time.
- I am going to set an alarm to go off every hour after I hit the 48 hour mark, just in case I nod off.
The following is a summary of notes I took during each twelve-hour block of wakeful time.
Start Time: April 26, 8:54 AM
Goal: April 30, 8:54 AM
Hours 0-12 (8:54 AM – 8:54 PM, April 26)
I woke up feeling refreshed after a full eight hours of sleep (I usually get seven). I went about normal daily activities, but didn’t drink coffee like I normally do at 10 AM and 3 PM.
I found myself anticipating the days of sleep deprivation ahead. I wasn’t going to force myself to write or do any work for the next four days, just play video games, including some which I had been greatly looking forward too. I had purposefully stopped playing video games three days prior to further increase anticipation. Morale was high.
I started playing Halcyon 5 at 11 AM. I hoped that I would become highly engaged with the game, and that would amplify its stimulative effect later on when I really needed it. But… including some breaks, I got bored of the game by 8 PM. Bad strategy on my part.
Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere for the next three days (I currently live in the middle of the woods in the middle of nowhere), I drove to a local convenience store. I bought four sugar-free Monster energy drinks, though I probably should have gotten more.
For dinner, I had four hamburgers. This was probably not a great way to avoid the blood sugar crashes I was dreading, but I figured it was fine this early in the experiment.
Hours 12-24 (8:54 PM April 26 – 8:54 AM April 27)
I felt tired for the first time around 1 AM. Normally, I take 5mg of melatonin at 11 PM and go to sleep between 12:30-1 AM.
I had my first caffeine at 4 AM, a Monster. Up until that point, I had been browsing Reddit and doing random internet stuff. But then I started playing Crusader Kings 2. According to my Steam account, I have put more time into CK2 than any other game, and being extremely engaged in particular playthroughs has cost me nights of sleep in the past. Now I was going to weaponize that effect.
I played CK2 until 7:45 AM. Once I stopped, I finally started to really feel the tiredness. From past experiences with all-nighters, it was right around then, when the sun came up, that I tended to crash.
I took a shower at 8:30 AM. In the 45 minutes between CK2 and showering, I nearly fell asleep in front of the tv with my computer on my lap. But the shower woke me up. I was definitely tired, but it wasn’t too bad. I was confident I could handle the next 12 hours.
Hours 24-36 (8:54 AM – 8:54 PM April 27)
The shower wore off quickly. By 11 AM, I felt like death.
I was very tired in a familiar way. My body felt heavy and slow. Whenever I sat down, I wanted to lay down. I felt cold. Everything was telling my body to go to bed.
I was craving caffeine, both because I usually have a coffee at 10 AM and because I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. But I decided not to have one just yet. I needed to pace myself, especially in the first half of the experiment. I had to spread out caffeine consumption.
I had coffee at 12 PM. It helped immediately and immensely, so much so that I decided to give video games a rest and go back to lower-stimulation activities. I watched tv and messed around on the internet for a while.
Around this time was when I first noticed a decoupling of tiredness and sleepiness. Tiredness = low energy, heavy body, desire to rest, etc. Sleepiness = falling asleep.
I found that the sleepiness came in waves throughout the day. It would consistently be worst in the late morning after being up all night, and also maybe flare up a bit in the late afternoon. The tiredness tended to be a constant unless combated directly with stimulation. Around 4 pm, the caffeine had worn off enough to the point where staying awake was once again a struggle. This is when I first noticed the incredible short term stimulative effects of video games. If I was struggling to keep my eyes open and/or felt exhausted, I could turn on CK2, and within 5-10 minutes, I would feel wide awake. The alertness would persist for as long as I played, at least by this stage in the experiment.
By late afternoon, I felt ok. Not good, but ok. I was past the worst of the sleepiness while the tiredness was at manageable levels. Even when I took a break from CK2, I was cruising.
But I didn’t think I could maintain this level of energy for long. I was concerned about the long night ahead.
Hours 36-48 (8:54 PM April 27 – 8:54 AM April 28)
This is when shit got real.
From 8-10 PM, I played Settlers of Catan online with friends, with a concurrent phone call for the requisite negotiating, arguing, shouting, and accusations of collusion. I felt wide-awake the entire time. Even the background tiredness faded. I found the potency of this stimulation even was even greater than CK2.
At 10 PM I had another coffee. Between Catan and the caffeine, I had surprisingly high energy levels for more than 36 hours without sleep. Although I had planned on not doing any work after the first 24 hours, I decided to do some freelance writing work. I finished by 1 AM, and went back to internet browsing and tv.
At 2:45 AM, I crashed. Everything felt heavy and my mind fell into a fog. I felt dazed and bleary as I stared into a long night ahead. Staying awake became a minute-by-minute challenge, but… not in quite the way you’d think. It was sort of analogous to what I wrote for my Carnivore Experiment –
You know how you normally feel hungry, then you eat food, and then you feel full? That doesn’t happen on the carnivore diet. The full feeling doesn’t exist anymore. You just feel hungry, eat, and then stop feeling hungry.
At this point, I didn’t feel the pull of sleepiness. I was just awake, and then would start to fall asleep. There was no inbetween. You know how when you watch tv late at night you might randomly nod off without noticing. I was stuck in that state indefinitely.
Because of this, the nature of the challenge of staying awake was different than what I expected. I expected it to feel like ever-increasing jetlag where I would have to will my body to wakefulness against a constant onslaught. Instead, I had to jump from stimulation-to-stimulation, with the empty spaces in between acting as traps I might fall into. Weirdly enough, despite all I’m about to write, I found staying awake during the experiment easier than expected.
However, I encountered an entirely unexpected challenge – time.
The problem with time was that I had too much of it. My days were seven hours longer than usual. Which sounds great, except what I could do with my time had shrunk considerably, both because many of my waking hours were when everybody else was asleep, and because my exhaustion was limiting my own capabilities. I couldn’t read, listen to podcasts, or watch tv without falling asleep, and even CK2 was starting to lose viability. At the same time, I always needed to be doing something or else I would nod off to sleep. But the only things left that I could do tended to be things that didn’t last for long, like short, high-impact video games or pacing around the room.
So I had tons of time, but not much I could so with it, but I always had to force myself to do something or else my experiment would fail, but the only things I could do took up short time frames. It was a strange, completely novel state-of-being for me.
I tried throwing myself into CK2 and then FTL: Faster than Light, but it was getting harder. My attention span was shot. I couldn’t focus on the games enough to enjoy them. I found myself switching them off after 40-60 min and going back to Reddit and tv, but then I would always start to nod off. I began forcing myself to bounce between different activities every 30 minutes or so, including CK2, FTL: Faster than Light, Furi, brief bouts of Reddit, and occasionally walking around my house while drinking water. Every time I stopped one activity, I felt the alertness rapidly drain from my body, and the brain fog take over, and my mind grow fuzzy, and my eyelids start to close, and I would have to fight through it to start the next activity.
The impact of stopping playing a game is hard to overstate. I could feel my body’s wakefulness and attention plummet as soon as I quit the game. It felt like someone was doing me with tranquilizers.
I had another Monster at 4 AM, but this time the impact was certainly blunted. It barely reduced tiredness.
By the end of the night, I was even falling asleep during CK2 and Reddit. Around 6 AM, I gave up on CK2 for good, and I tried to remember when I had started playing… but I couldn’t. The memory of me beginning playing the night before was gone. I had to check my notes.
I began to notice larger physical effects. The background tiredness intensified. My vision wasn’t quite blurred but it was sort of fuzzy. Lights seemed to glow more. When I moved my head around, it felt like it took half a second for my brain to catch up to my eyes.
I began microsleeping. I would briefly fall into it between stimuli and then shake myself back to wakefulness. By my best estimate, it took about two or three minutes of doing nothing after shutting off a video game for me to be at risk of falling into microsleep.
I think I also began to experience mental effects. I started (irrationally) worrying about the long-term health impacts of my experiment. I vaguely recalled some scientific claim that not sleeping caused some sort of toxins to build up in one’s brain and I worried if that would seriously hurt me. I began reading online articles about the effects of sleep deprivation (my worry sufficiently boosted the fairly low stimulation of reading to keep me awake) and soon started freaking myself out. I even found an article (which I can’t find now) written by some guy who stayed awake for over a week who claims his memory was permanently damaged by the experience.
At one point I decided that staying awake like this was basically giving myself short-term brain damage, and I wondered if that could become long-term brain damage if I stayed awake for long enough. When I floated these theories to Alexey Guzey, he strongly implied that my worries were idiotic.
Also, I found myself dwelling on an even more irrational thought… that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. As I said, I stopped feeling the pull of sleep even though I was constantly in danger of falling asleep. That combined with not having slept in almost 48 hours triggered the bizarre thought that maybe I had lost the ability to sleep. Like, if I laid down in bed and closed my eyes, I would stay conscious indefinitely.
Maybe I just had too much time alone with my thoughts. I didn’t communicate with anyone throughout that 12 hour stretch after the Catan game. Sitting in a single room, badly sleep deprived, with the entire internet, can certainly drive one mad.
I began debating with myself whether I should continue the experiment for the full 96 hours. I went back and forth, and eventually settled on a mere 60 hours, or 2.5 days. So I would only have to stay awake throughout the next day. Yes, I chickened out.
From roughly 7 AM to 9 AM (bleeding into the next section a bit), I entered a new phase of exhaustion. I turned off whatever game I was playing, briefly went on Reddit, and then… I just sort of zoned out for maybe two hours.
I remember the movie, Spaceballs, came on tv in the background. And I remember it ending. I don’t remember too much inbetween.
I didn’t sleep, except maybe some microsleep, but saying I was awake probably was a stretch. I was in a dazed middle ground. I didn’t have the energy or alertness for even basic functioning, yet some sort of latent willpower kept me from passing out.
And that’s 48 hours without sleep!
Hours 48-60 (8:54 AM – 8:54 PM April 28)
The quasi-fugue state ended around 9 AM, so I could once again muster a modicum of focus, but I didn’t feel better overall. There was more heaviness, more exhaustion, slower reflexes, more sight-delay, and an overwhelming fuzziness to everything. This period from 9 AM to 11 AM may have been the toughest yet. I wasn’t as dazed, but sleepiness levels hit all-time highs to compound the tiredness. Staying awake was once again a moment-by-moment challenge, and tougher than ever.
After 9 AM, I went back to video games for stimulation. I was falling into microsleeps faster and more often than ever, so I upgraded to more kinetic games. Along with Furi, I started playing Cuphead and Thumper, the last of which had the strongest effect, as you can see here.
I still felt the rapid increase in alertness when I started playing games, and an even faster plummet in alertness when I stopped, but the height of alertness had definitely declined. I started to zone out occasionally while playing. I had to fight to pay attention during loading screens. Craziest yet, I caught myself microsleeping in the middle of a fight in Cuphead, which is by no means a relaxing game.
I muddled through for a few hours, enjoying the brief moments of lucidity, but worrying how long I could keep going.
After forcing myself to eat a sweet potato around 12 PM, I saw myself in a mirror and noticed that I looked like shit. According to some random articles I googled, at somewhere around 36-48 hours without sleep, your immune system starts to flip out:
Staying awake for 48 hours also disrupts the immune system. Inflammatory markers, which help your body prevent and target illnesses, start to circulate at increased levels. Some research has shown that natural killer (NK) cell activity decreases with sleep deprivation. NK cells respond to immediate threats to your health, such as viruses or bacteria.
I guess that explains why my face was bright red and puffy. It could also explain a lot of the fuzziness, but I’m not sure.
After “lunch,” I somehow felt worse. I distinctly remember a heaviness kicking in around then. I had absolutely no energy and even moving my arms felt like a chore. Just getting the computer on my lap to start playing games again was a hassle. It sort of felt like having a horrible fever, but without the heat (I was cold most of the time).
Around 2 PM, I hit a second wind. The extreme sleepiness faded to manageable levels (meaning I could go ten minutes without playing a video game) and even the tiredness slightly subsided. This wasn’t due to caffeine (I hadn’t bothered with any since the 8 AM Monster proved completely ineffective) but more likely due to the time of day and a welcomed surprise… Enter the Gungeon.
It wasn’t until I played ETG that I realized part of the reason I had been struggling so much was that I was bored. Maybe I was so tired that I didn’t notice? The games I had been playing kept me stimulated and focused, but only for short periods of time since I had played them all for dozens of hours each over the previous years. Playing them now brought a temporary kinetic thrill, but nothing to look forward to or build towards, which is what I usually pursue while playing video games.
I hadn’t played ETG for years, and as soon as I dove back in with a fresh game file (no saved data, so I would have to rebuild all my progress), the drive came back. I didn’t just want to play ETG because it has great combat, I wanted to play to unlock weapons, find new bosses, and complete the game.
It was as if my stimulation efforts had suddenly received a dramatic upgrade. I was still extraordinarily tired and felt like I was dying a slow death, but at least now I wanted to keep myself alive for a bit longer, at least until I got to the end of the gungeon.
With a bit more energy and morale, I manned up and decided to raise my commitment back to 72 hours instead of 60 hours. That would be a nice round three days. I wasn’t sure if I would be capable of staying awake beyond that point without outside intervention.
I had a coffee at 5 PM, and it had literally no impact. I ate a little spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, but couldn’t stomach much.
By 7 PM, the latest wave of energy had petered out. I braced myself for the final night ahead.
Hours 60-72 (8:54 PM April 28 – 8:54 AM April 29)
I had no attention span. Forget about Redditing, I couldn’t read for more than 30 seconds without zoning out and risking microsleep. I kept finding myself staring off into the distance without noticing. If I wasn’t actively playing ETG, I was on my way to passing out.
I noticed that my conception of the passage of time had become strange. Normally I think of specific events throughout the day as occurring within the general reference points of “going to sleep” and “waking up.” Without those points, time goes on indefinitely. Thus I had trouble remembering specific events over the past few days, like when I played certain games, what food I had eaten, etc.
The never-ending time compounded the previously noted problem of time management. Simply put, I was getting bored. I was running out of things I could do with my time. Even beyond moment-to-moment stimulation, I was feeling like I couldn’t avoid sleep for much longer because I couldn’t handle such a lack of meaningful daily activity.
I clung to ETG for a few hours, but even its simulative potency had started to wear down. The game is great, but there are only so many times I can dive into the gungeon. It took more-and-more willpower to start another round again-and-again. I occasionally took breaks, but would have to get back into the game after 5-10 minutes; staying outside of it was too risky.
I had a Monster at 1:30 AM. No effect, but I liked the taste, and the physical act of drinking added a bit of stimulation.
At around 2 AM, I stopped playing ETG for a bit and finally found something stimulating off my computer. I was experiencing what I would call visual distortions. I’m not sure if they would qualify as hallucinations. I don’t know when exactly these things started, but with one exception, I only noticed them at this point.
The first thing I noticed was movement out of the corner of my vision. This had actually started maybe ten hours earlier, but I hadn’t noticed it until this time chunk. It sort of looked like a fly kept darting into the side of my view, but when I turned to look, there was nothing there.
As I mentioned before, the lights seemed to glow extra brightly in my sleep-deprived state, but now there was something extra to them… an aura. It surrounded the lamps in my room. Imagine a movie where an angel has white light all around his body… something like that.
But it wasn’t just the light, but the lack of it too… when I looked closely, I noticed that shadows quivered or vibrated. It was subtle, but unmistakable. I spent a few minutes watching the shadow created by my radiator shake against the wall.
Finally, the most extreme of the visual distortions was what I’d describe as seeing the air. Above me, under the high ceiling of the room in which I sat, I could see the air flowing. It moved around in thin streams, flowing across the ceiling and down toward the ground. The more I stared at the streams, the better I could see them. I’m not sure if I can describe it more or better than that.
I wonder if, or how much, my sleep deprivation was compounded by spending nearly the entire waking span in a single room, and having limited human contact. Maybe staring at any space for too long, regardless of sleep deprivation, will cause distortions.
Tiredness and sleepiness increased to new heights as the night went on. I entered an almost dream-like state where I couldn’t think or focus on anything. By around 4 AM, I was nodding off while playing ETG, and literally died a few times in-game because of it.
I ended up sitting on the couch and staring off into space, much like I did with Spaceballs. Some part of my brain reminded me that I just needed to make it to the end of this 12 hour stretch, and then I could go to bed. I just needed to last a few more hours.
I was in imminent danger of falling asleep, but I was out of stimulative weapons. Caffeine was useless. I couldn’t focus on any video games. I didn’t feel like moving an inch. Ideally, I could talk to another real, live human being, but it was the early morning and no one was awake.
Time was a bit fuzzy, but at some point, I willed my weary body to stand up and start walking around the house. I think I did this for almost an hour. It kept me awake, but not exactly stimulated. A few times I caught myself microsleeping while walking, which can’t be safe. I kept glancing at the clock to see how much had passed and was always disappointed.
At 6:30 AM, I gave up. Nothing could keep me awake besides walking, there was no one to talk to, I was bored, and my body was begging me to lie down. I went to my bedroom, got under the covers, and instantly fell asleep.
I had been awake for 70 hours, just shy of three days.
Aftermath (April 29-30)
I woke up at 2 PM, after 7.5 hours of sleep. You know how in Skyrim, if you sleep in a bed, especially a nice comfy one in an inn, you get the “well rested” stat modifier? That’s how I felt. I felt supremely, incredibly, awesomely well rested.
I ate lunch, sat back down on the couch, and took out my computer to start writing this article, when… I fell asleep at 3 PM.
I woke up at 9:15 PM, after 6.25 hours of sleep. I still had the well rested modifier.
I went about my normal business until I fell asleep again at 4 AM. I woke up at 10 AM, feeling heavy, like I had overslept.
Unless I conduct even more bizarre experiments and/or eventually fall into a coma, the 24 hour period from 6:30 AM April 28 to 6:30 AM, April 29, 2020, will almost certainly be my heaviest day of sleep in my entire life. I slept for about 15.75 hours.
What Did I Learn?
Honestly, not too much. But that’s ok.
I learned that I have the willpower to not sleep for a long time, though I also learned that doing so will start making me unreasonably anxious and paranoid about my health.
I learned a bit about the subtleties and nuances of “stimulation,” “alertness,” “tiredness,” “sleepiness,” and being “well rested.” I understand how these concepts feel at intense levels.
I confirmed that stimulation is a strong and direct counteraction to sleepiness, and to a slightly lesser degree, tiredness. I might use this understanding to strategically sleep less when I know the next day will be filled with highly stimulating activity. This also explains why I constantly fell asleep during first period classes in high school.
I found it especially interesting how different video games had different levels of simulative power. During the experiment, CK2<FTL<Cuphead/Furi<Thumper<ETG. Though of course these ranks were strongly impacted by how much I had played these games in the past.
I learned that visual distortions/hallucinations can be cool and not scary, though I’m not eager to put my body or mind in a state to see them again.
I learned that caffeine stops affecting me after about 40 hours without sleep.