In June, Gregory Wakeman reviewed the movie Awake, a sci-fi thriller where the main characters can’t sleep. While Wakeman said the film eventually “went off the rails” with the director, Mark Raso “constantly trying to create the same mindset of those who are unable to sleep in the viewers”, he was curious about the main premise of eternal insomnia so he spoke to a professor who specialised in sleep deprivation:
“In terms of performance, one of the most obvious things that happens are microsleeps,” says McLean, in which people fall asleep for up to 30 seconds and can’t remember what happened. “They can occur after 24 hours.”
There is also cognitive slowing, which sees people taking longer to make decisions, and cognitive rigidity, in which individuals can only think about things in one fixed way. Loss of motivation, paranoia, memory and balance issues, mood changes and visual problems can also occur, while some people experience hallucinations and even speech difficulties.
Studies of sleep deprivation on animals have also proven to be revealing. “In 1989, Allan Rechtschaffen and his Chicago group studied rats that were sleep deprived. After two to three weeks, they started to die,” says McLean. “You saw the same pattern in all of them. They began to eat more and more as the sleep loss went on. Despite that, they had a fall in body weight.”
Update: Quanta on why we die without sleep.