Eyes Wide Open: Part 1 | Hidden Brain In every city Randy Gardner lived in as a child, he'd enter the science fair. When he moved to San Diego, he decided to do something bold: break the world record for going the longest without sleep.
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Eleven Days Without Sleep: The Haunting Effects Of A Record-Breaking Stunt

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Eleven Days Without Sleep: The Haunting Effects Of A Record-Breaking Stunt

Eleven Days Without Sleep: The Haunting Effects Of A Record-Breaking Stunt

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS)

VEDANTAM: In the early hours of the morning, when the air was heavy and the ticking clock ran slow, Randy Gardner would step out into his yard. He would stand beside the cactuses he'd planted and listen to the cars that whizzed by on Highway 54, which runs behind his home in San Diego. Standing in the moonlit shadows, he would call out in agony.

RANDY GARDNER: I would go out in the backyard at 3 in the morning and scream my head off like a wild animal.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TUNNEL SONG, "CROOKED ARMS")

VEDANTAM: Many people are familiar with the suffering Randy experienced - insomnia. There's a lonely communion that binds those who plead with the gods at 3 o'clock in the morning.

R. GARDNER: No one can help you. No one can make you feel better. No one can do anything. It's like you're going insane.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TUNNEL SONG, "CROOKED ARMS")

VEDANTAM: But Randy also knew he was different from everyone else. Many years ago, as a teenager, he tempted those very same gods. His punishment, he understood, was payback.

Thank you, again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Welcome.

VEDANTAM: Have a lovely day.

I was in San Diego recently for a conference. I had some downtime, so I decided to visit someone I'd been wanting to meet for a long time.

Hey.

R. GARDNER: You know what?

VEDANTAM: Are you Randy?

R. GARDNER: Yeah, I'm Randy.

VEDANTAM: Randy, Shankar. It's so nice to meet you.

R. GARDNER: Shankar, nice to meet you.

VEDANTAM: How are you?

R. GARDNER: I'm good.

VEDANTAM: Randy Gardner greets me in the driveway of his home. He gives me a warm handshake and a smile. He's wearing a lemon-colored shirt and sky-blue shorts that set off his deep tan. He exudes Southern California charm.

Man, you live in paradise.

R. GARDNER: No, well, it's OK.

VEDANTAM: Do you have bad weather events here?

R. GARDNER: We have hotter than hell [expletive]...

VEDANTAM: Well, of course.

R. GARDNER: ...Like we're doing right now.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, yeah.

Randy lives in a small green-and-white house, surrounded by sandy-brown stucco homes. The backyard is next to a noisy freeway. Randy and his wife Ilona (ph)...

ILONA GARDNER: I have a family nickname of Nona (ph).

VEDANTAM: ...Share their place with a 13-year-old Bengal cat George (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MEOW)

VEDANTAM: Sorry, what I meant was Prince George (ph).

I. GARDNER: We did not spoil him. He came that way (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Randy and Ilona are now retired, which means lots of time to focus on George and their hobbies.

R. GARDNER: These are photographs that I took.

VEDANTAM: The walls are covered with some of his favorite shots.

R. GARDNER: The Golden Gate in San Francisco...

VEDANTAM: And stacked on the shelves are knickknacks and toys.

R. GARDNER: At one point, in the crawl space, I had over 500 puzzles.

VEDANTAM: Oh, my God.

R. GARDNER: And do you...

VEDANTAM: Our story really begins in 1963 when Randy moved to San Diego. He was 17. It was the last in a long line of childhood moves.

R. GARDNER: I'm the oldest of four siblings in a military family. And my father traveled around, so we were in different places - every two years, we lived somewhere else.

VEDANTAM: In every town they lived in, Randy entered the science fair.

R. GARDNER: I was kind of a science nerd when I was young. When we came to this town, San Diego, I thought, boy, this is a big city.

VEDANTAM: If he wanted to win in San Diego...

R. GARDNER: ...Because I always got a first prize.

VEDANTAM: He'd have to pull out all the stops.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "YOUR HITS OF THE WEEK")

PETER TRIPP: No. 21 time - and here come The Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SKYLINERS SONG, "SINCE I DON'T HAVE YOU")

VEDANTAM: To understand the project he came up with, it's important to know something about the time. Rock 'n' roll was changing radio, and it wasn't just the songs that were gaining notice. It was the DJs playing them.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "YOUR HITS OF THE WEEK")

TRIPP: The fabulous 40 of 1959, your hits of the year - I'm Peter Tripp.

VEDANTAM: One of them was Peter Tripp, a New York City DJ who hosted "Your Hits Of The Week" on WMGM.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO JINGLE)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) It's the right spot. It's WMGM New York.

VEDANTAM: Peter plays an important part in our story. He wanted to stand out in the disc jockey world. And so in 1959, he came up with a stunt. He announced he was going to do a wake-a-thon to raise money for charity. He'd go eight days without sleep and be on display the entire time.

On January 20, 1959, Peter began broadcasting from a small glass studio in the middle of Times Square. Scientists were there to watch. For the next eight days, he hosted his show while fighting off sleep - preening at first, then yawning, eventually hallucinating. One thing he didn't do - sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "YOUR HITS OF THE WEEK")

TRIPP: ...Because it was at 7:14 pm on January 28 of 1959 and we played this record after having stayed awake for 200 hours. Here are The Bell Notes and "I've Had It."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BELL NOTES SONG, "I'VE HAD IT")

VEDANTAM: Peter's stunt invited others. A few months later, a DJ in Honolulu, Tom Rounds, raised the stakes by going 260 hours - more than 10 days without sleep. Intentional sleep deprivation was apparently like the ice bucket challenge for DJs in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Seventeen-year-old Randy Gardner, looking to make his mark on the science fair in a new city, wasn't impressed by these feats. Eight days without sleep, 10 days without sleep - big deal, he thought.

R. GARDNER: You don't need a lot of sleep. You don't need sleep. It was - that was the thinking back in the '60s. And that's the thinking that I had.

VEDANTAM: Randy decided to show up the showmen. He decided he was going to go without sleep for 264 hours - exactly 11 days.

R. GARDNER: And when I said, well, let's go 11 days, I wasn't even thinking about any negative things. I was thinking, this really isn't that big of a deal. You know, when it's over, you catch up, you get your sleep and you go right on by.

VEDANTAM: Even as a teenager, Randy knew that he had a special skill that made him different.

R. GARDNER: I'm a very determined person, and when I get things under my craw, I can't let it go until there's some kind of a solution.

VEDANTAM: He recruited two of his friends...

R. GARDNER: Bruce McAllister and Joe Marciano.

VEDANTAM: ...To help him stay awake.

R. GARDNER: If you're on your own, you're going to succumb. You're going to fall asleep.

VEDANTAM: Christmas break was coming up and Randy and his friends decided it was the perfect time to break the world record for going without sleep. The first two days were easy. He stayed away from beds and tried to stand as much as he could. But on day three...

R. GARDNER: I noticed that in the morning, I was really nauseous. And this went on for just about the entire rest of the experiment. And that's when I stumbled on eating citrus. For some reason, tangerines or oranges seemed to take the nausea away.

VEDANTAM: So your friends, of course, were keeping tabs on you, but they weren't actually accompanying you on the experiment. So what happened? Was one of them - did you have a rotation system by one of them was always up with you?

R. GARDNER: Exactly. It was a rotation system where one would be with me and the other would be sleeping. Or if it was in the daytime, they'd both be with me, obviously.

VEDANTAM: Soon, the stunt was attracting television reporters.

R. GARDNER: And that was a good thing because that kept me awake. You know, you're dealing with these people and their cameras and their questions.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Did you start to feel like your mental faculties were slipping, that it was harder to answer questions, it was harder to remember something, to formulate a phrase or a sentence?

R. GARDNER: That happened pretty soon. That started maybe day four or five, and it just kept going downhill. I mean, it was crazy where you couldn't remember things. It was almost like an early Alzheimer's thing brought on by lack of sleep.

VEDANTAM: The early hours of the morning were hardest. Everything was closed, everyone was asleep. Randy remembers visiting the local jail.

Why did you go to the jail?

R. GARDNER: I don't know. Maybe because it was open at 3:00 in the morning (laughter). We never close.

VEDANTAM: A few days into the wake-a-thon, a sleep researcher from Stanford University showed up. His name, and this may feel like a pun to some of you, was William Dement.

R. GARDNER: And he rented a car, a convertible, and we drove around in that. So we had a really good time when Dr. Dement came down. That really helped me because that was like a fresh of something different and new to keep me going.

VEDANTAM: I understand that Dr. Dement also played a lot of games with you. He, besides sort of doing sort of psychological tests, he was actually - he actually played various sort of sports with you. Is that right?

R. GARDNER: We did a lot of pinball.

VEDANTAM: How did you do?

R. GARDNER: I did good. I think I beat him most of the time.

VEDANTAM: Actually, Randy won all the time.

R. GARDNER: Physically, I didn't have any problems - not walking or throwing the basketball around or playing the pinball games. But the mental part is what went downhill. The longer I stayed awake, the more irritable I got. I had a very short fuse on day 11. I remember snapping at reporters. They were asking me these questions over and over and over. And I was just - I was a brat.

VEDANTAM: On January 8, 1964, Randy broke the world record for going without sleep. He'd gone 11 days, 264 hours, without drifting off. There was only one way to celebrate. He was whisked off to a naval hospital where researchers kept an eye on him, and he went to sleep.

How long did you sleep?

R. GARDNER: I slept just over 14 hours. I remember when I woke up, I was groggy but not any groggier than a normal person.

VEDANTAM: And did you find that over the next several days or weeks, you needed extra sleep?

R. GARDNER: No, not at all. I went right back to the regular mode. Everything was fine. Strange, isn't it?

VEDANTAM: Randy's sleep project earned him and his friends first place in the 10th Annual Greater San Diego Science Fair. It also ushered in a lifetime of fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TO TELL THE TRUTH")

VEDANTAM: This is sound from the popular 1960s TV game show "To Tell The Truth." The show brings together four celebrity panelists...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TO TELL THE TRUTH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tom Poston, Peggy Cass...

VEDANTAM: The panelists face three people who all claim to be the same person.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TO TELL THE TRUTH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What is your name, please?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: My name is Randy Gardner.

R. GARDNER: My name is Randy Gardner.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: My name is Randy Gardner.

VEDANTAM: The panelists have to guess which one is the real Randy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TO TELL THE TRUTH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The other two are imposters.

VEDANTAM: On the show, the real Randy Gardner is number two.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TO TELL THE TRUTH")

ORSON BEAN: Number two, how long did you sleep the minute you were through with the 11 days and nights?

R. GARDNER: Fourteen hours and 43 minutes.

VEDANTAM: He looks like Clark Kent. He wears dark, horn-rimmed glasses, his hair swoops to the left, he's soft-spoken and direct when answering questions. Most of the panelists figured out that this Randy was the real Randy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TO TELL THE TRUTH")

BUD COLLYER: Kitty Carlisle.

KITTY CARLISLE: I voted for number two because he looks the sleepiest.

(LAUGHTER)

COLLYER: All right, it's not too widely spread. There were three for number two, one for number one...

VEDANTAM: Over the next decades, Randy Gardner's life took different turns. He worked in horticulture, took a stab at photography and finished up his career working as a stock trader. But whatever he did, his teenage accomplishment stayed with him.

R. GARDNER: I'm some kind of a Bruce Springsteen in the sleep world. It's a very strange feeling.

VEDANTAM: The teenage stunt was the gift that kept on giving. But Randy was to find that there can be a downside to fame. When we come back, how it all went downhill.

R. GARDNER: And everybody thought I was some kind of ass.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Plenty of people have tried to do what Randy Gardner did - go days on end without sleeping. You can find clips of all their adventures on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "DOCUMENTARY: NO SLEEP FOR A WEEK")

PAT: It's Sunday afternoon right now. And tonight's day one of going without sleep for the next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "NO SLEEP FOR 72 HOURS! CHALLENGE")

JEVON MULDROW: I'm about to stay up for three days.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "NO SLEEP FOR 72 HOURS CHALLENGE (3 DAYS WITHOUT SLEEP)")

JRIZZY JEREMY: This is going to be the hardest challenge I've ever done.

VEDANTAM: But if you're looking to set a new record for going without sleep...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "NO SLEEP FOR 72 HOURS CHALLENGE (3 DAYS WITHOUT SLEEP)")

JRIZZY JEREMY: Well, I'm quite struggling.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "DOCUMENTARY: NO SLEEP FOR A WEEK")

PAT: My eyelids feel like they're 20 pounds, and they just want to close.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "NO SLEEP FOR 72 HOURS CHALLENGE (3 DAYS WITHOUT SLEEP)")

JRIZZY JEREMY: And I don't quite get it. It's only been...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A little jittery from all the...

VEDANTAM: You're out of luck. The Guinness Book of World Records has eliminated the category, citing the health dangers of severe sleep loss.

MATTHEW WALKER: That's right.

VEDANTAM: This is UC Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker.

WALKER: And I think it's important to keep in mind, by the way, that Guinness does seem to deem it acceptable for a man - I believe it was Felix Baumgartner - to ascend to the very outer reaches of Earth's atmosphere in a capsule, in a spacesuit, get out of that capsule and then free fall back down to Earth, breaking the sound barrier with his body, traveling at well over 1,000 kilometers per hour. That's deemed as OK to do. Sleep deprivation because of its deathly consequences - no longer. So I hope that frames the disease-related risk that Guinness rightfully recognizes regarding insufficient sleep.

VEDANTAM: Matthew Walker calls himself a sleep diplomat. He's spent more than 20 years studying the topic, and he's written a book titled "Why We Sleep." If your idea of being sleep deprived is days on end without enough rest, Matthew says, think again.

WALKER: Even just the smallest amount of insufficient sleep, we see health consequences. And I think, perhaps, you know, one of the best examples of that small perturbation is one of the largest sleep experiments ever done. It's been performed on 1.6 billion people. It happens twice a year, and it continues to happen. It's called daylight savings time. And in the spring, when we lose an hour of sleep, we see a subsequent 24 percent increase in heart attacks.

In the fall, when we gain an hour of sleep opportunity, there is a 21 percent decrease in heart attacks. So that's how fragile our brain and bodies can be to even just the smallest fluctuations of sleep. So we don't have to go to the Randy Gardner extreme of 11 days. Just one hour of sleep is all that it takes to show these types of demonstrable consequences in terms of ill health.

VEDANTAM: If you do the math - 11 days times eight recommended hours of sleep a night - that's 88 hours of sleep that Randy missed. When he finally went to bed, he slept only 14 hours.

WALKER: The human brain is not capable of getting back all of the sleep that it has lost. So sleep, in this regard, is not like the bank. You can't accumulate a debt and then pay it off at some later point in time. There isn't a credit system in the brain or the body. And we can ask, by the way, why? Why isn't there something like that? Wouldn't that be wonderful?

And there is precedent there - fat cells. So there were times in evolution when we would have feast, and there were times when there was famine. And we designed a system to come up and store that caloric credit and so that we could spend it when there was a debt.

VEDANTAM: There may be a reason our bodies don't do this. The right analogy to sleep might not be eating but breathing. You can't say, I'll skip today and catch up on my breathing tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: For a long time, Randy simply basked in the celebrity that his stunt had brought him. He'd found a way to cheat sleep. Life was good for him and his wife, Ilona.

I. GARDNER: The focus of our life is pretty much George.

VEDANTAM: George, the cat, their teenage Bengal - Randy and Ilona love George. I don't know much about cats, but apparently, Bengals have the personality of a dog.

R. GARDNER: They fetch and...

VEDANTAM: They fetch?

R. GARDNER: Yeah, they fetch, yeah, yeah.

VEDANTAM: A cat that fetches - are you serious?

I. GARDNER: Yep.

R. GARDNER: He doesn't do it much anymore.

VEDANTAM: Listening to Randy and Ilona ooze with affection for George is very sweet. When I came to visit, Ilona was getting ready to take George to the vet. They're very meticulous about his health. That's partly because a decade ago there was another cat in Randy and Ilona's life. She died...

R. GARDNER: ...Of tongue cancer. And I was so upset that the vets didn't catch it, that they never looked in her mouth to find this tumor, that they blamed every other thing. And then she died, and I was so wracked with guilt, which is stupid. You know, I would never do that now. You have to move forward. You can't go back. But I didn't then. And I think that's what triggered it.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TUNNEL SONG, "CROOKED ARMS")

VEDANTAM: The it Randy's referring to...

R. GARDNER: ...Is that I would go out in the backyard at 3 in the morning and scream my head off like a wild animal.

VEDANTAM: ...Is insomnia.

R. GARDNER: About 10 years ago, I stopped sleeping. I could not sleep. I would lay in bed for five, six hours, sleep maybe 15 minutes and wake up again. I kept thinking, well, this'll go - this will change because it seems to me that eventually, if you don't get enough sleep, your body will just say, we're going to sleep. But it never happened.

VEDANTAM: The man who conquered sleep was now begging for a full night's rest.

R. GARDNER: That's why I keep calling this some karmic payback for - you know, my body going, OK, buddy, yeah, OK, 11 days without sleep when you know damn well you need sleep - well, let's try this out for size.

VEDANTAM: Randy says going without sleep changed him.

R. GARDNER: And everybody thought I was some kind of ass. What's wrong with Randy? What an [expletive]. There's all kinds of ways to go to sleep, they say. You know, watch television, read a book. And I'm thinking, you know, if you can't sleep in the first place, reading a book isn't going to put you to sleep. I got news for you. I don't know where they came up with that one. Read a book. Watch TV. No, no, no, no, uh-uh. If you have that kind of a serious problem, you're done.

VEDANTAM: Day in and day out, for years on end, Randy began to feel the way he'd felt at the end of his sleep stunt, except this time, there were no TV cameras, no reporters, no prizes.

R. GARDNER: I was awful to be around. Everything upset me. It was like a continuation of what I did 50 years ago.

VEDANTAM: We don't know what triggered Randy's insomnia. But there's some anecdotal evidence that prolonged sleeplessness can really mess up the brain. Remember Peter Tripp?

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "YOUR HITS OF THE WEEK")

TRIPP: With your hits of the year, I'm Peter Tripp.

VEDANTAM: ...The radio DJ who inspired Randy with his wake-a-thon? Here's psychiatrist Floyd Cornelison, who monitored Peter, speaking on the television series "Secrets Of Sleep."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SECRETS OF SLEEP")

FLOYD CORNELISON: The man I saw the first morning that he began this - when he was waving at everybody through the glass windows and smiling and laughing and joking with us - after the 200 hours had become a changed individual.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: In the months that followed, Tripp seemed unable to recover his center of gravity. He fought with his boss and lost his job. He ended up as a salesman, drifting from town to town across America. Those that knew him well were convinced that those eight days without sleep had left him permanently damaged.

VEDANTAM: So some of that might have been hyperbole. Still, Randy thinks what happened to Peter was real, and his age might have been a factor.

R. GARDNER: That's why I don't think you can do this kind of thing unless you're 17 or in that age group. I know I couldn't do it now. And I wouldn't do it (laughter) because I have more sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: After a decade of insomnia in his 60s, Randy finally made an uneasy peace with sleep. He's regained the ability to drift off but only for about six hours a night. And it's required sacrifice.

R. GARDNER: I love drinking tea. And to this day, I can't drink tea because I'm afraid I won't be able to sleep at night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R. GARDNER: You have to have sleep. It's as important as - it's the big - I call it the big three - water, food, sleep. You got to have them - all of them.

VEDANTAM: Randy Gardner, the man who conquered sleep, is now terrified of going a night without it. On the next episode of HIDDEN BRAIN, we're going to dive deeper into the science of sleep with neuroscientist Matthew Walker.

WALKER: If we didn't need eight hours of sleep, and we could survive on six, Mother Nature would have done away with 25 percent of our sleep time millions of years ago because when you think about it, sleep is an idiotic thing to do. So if sleep does not provide a remarkable set of benefits, then it's the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Parth Shah and edited by Jenny Schmidt and Tara Boyle. Our team includes Renee Klahr, Rhaina Cohen and Maggie Penmen. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you like our show, tell your friends about us. And make sure you're subscribed to the podcast, so you don't miss a single episode. Writing a review on iTunes or other podcast platforms also helps other people find the show. Thanks so much for making the time to do it.

Our unsung hero this week is Susie Cummings. I spent two weeks trying to track down Randy Gardner, whom I'd interviewed many years ago when I was working at The Washington Post. I couldn't find his phone number, so I reached out to Susie. And of course, in no time flat, she tracked down his number. That's what you do if you're a research librarian at NPR. Thanks, Susie. I'm Shankar Vedantam. And this is NPR. I hope you sleep well tonight. I'll talk to you very soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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