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Randy Gardner holds the scientifically documented record for the longest period a human being has intentionally gone without sleep not using stimulants of any kind. In 1964—as a 17-year-old high school student in San Diego, California—Gardner stayed awake for 264 hours (eleven days), breaking the previous record of 260 hours held by Tom Rounds of Honolulu.
Gardner's record attempt was attended by Stanford sleep researcher Dr. William C. Dement. Gardner's health was monitored by Lt. Cmdr. John J. Ross. Accounts of Gardner's sleep-deprivation experience and medical response became widely known among the sleep research community.
It is often claimed that Gardner's experiment demonstrated that extreme sleep deprivation has little effect, other than the mood changes associated with tiredness (mood swings, short temper, loss of concentration). This is primarily due to a report by researcher William Dement, who stated that on the tenth day of the experiment, Gardner had been, among other things, able to beat Dement at pinball.
However, Lt. Cmdr. John J. Ross, who monitored his health, reported serious cognitive and behavioral changes. These included moodiness, problems with concentration and short term memory, paranoia, and hallucinations. On the fourth day he had a delusion that he was Paul Lowe winning the Rose Bowl, and that a street sign was a person. On the eleventh day, when he was asked to subtract seven repeatedly, starting with 100, he stopped at 65. When asked why he had stopped, he replied that he had forgotten what he was doing.
On his final day, Gardner presided over a press conference where he spoke without slurring or stumbling his words and in general appeared to be in excellent health. "I wanted to prove that bad things didn't happen if you went without sleep," said Gardner. "I thought, 'I can break that (Peter Tripp's 1959) record and I don't think it would be a negative experience.'"
Gardner's sleep recovery was instrumented by sleep researchers who noted changes in sleep structure during postdeprivation recovery. After completing his record, Gardner slept 14 hours and 40 minutes, awoke naturally around 8:40 p.m., and stayed awake until about 7:30 p.m. the next day, when he slept an additional ten and a half hours. Gardner appeared to fully recover from his loss of sleep, with follow up sleep recordings taken one, six, and ten weeks after the fact showing no significant differences. No long term psychological or physical effects have been observed.
According to news reports, Gardner's record has been broken a number of times. Some of these cases are described below for comparison. Gardner's case still stands out, however, because it is so extensively documented. It is difficult to determine the accuracy of a sleep deprivation period unless the participant is carefully observed to detect short microsleeps, which the participant might not even notice. Also, records for voluntary sleep deprivation are no longer kept by Guinness World Records for fear that participants will suffer ill effects.
Some sources report that Gardner's record was broken two weeks later by another student, Jim Thomas of California State University Fresno, who stayed awake for 266.5 hours; and state that the Guinness World Records record is 449 hours (18 days, 17 hours) by Maureen Weston, of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire in April, 1977, in a rocking-chair marathon. Presumably because of their policy against maintaining this record, recent editions of Guinness do not provide confirmation of this.
More recently, Tony Wright on May 25, 2007 was reported to have exceeded Randy Gardner's feat in the apparent belief that Gardner's record had not been beaten. He used 24-hour video for documentation.
According to the Australian National Sleep Research Project, the record for sleep deprivation is 18 days, 21 hours, 40 minutes. However, few details are available for this claim.