In 1997, we stopped monitoring the record for the longest time to stay awake. The record holder at the time was Robert McDonald, who went 453 hours 40 minutes (18 days 21 hours 40 minutes) without sleeping in 1986.
Although we no longer monitor the record due to the inherent dangers associated with sleep deprivation, we can say that no one is known to have broken it since McDonald.
That poses the question: is it truly impossible for a human to stay awake for 19 consecutive days?
And just how dangerous is it to forego sleep for such a long period of time?
In order to estimate the upper limit of how long a human can go without sleep, let’s first look at how far the boundaries of human wakefulness have been stretched over the years.
A timeline of record-breakers and the effects they suffered
The first person we awarded the 'sleeplessness' record to was a radio DJ named Dave Hunter who, in 1959, attempted the record at the same time as Peter Tripp, another popular radio DJ.
As you’ll soon learn, the ‘50s were a popular time for radio presenters performing publicity stunts like this.
23-year-old Hunter, broadcasting for Florida-based station WZRO, began his attempt two hours before 32-year old Tripp, who was broadcasting for WMGM from a glass booth in New York’s Times Square.
Both Tripp and Hunter claimed to be feeling fine after passing the 140-hour mark, as reported by Miami News-Record several days before the end of the attempt.
Hunter took no stimulants at all, whereas Tripp was reportedly “buoyed by an energy giving drug [Ritalin] advised by physicians when he neared total collapse.”
“It’s amazing. […] In 60 minutes it seems that these five days of deprivation have been wiped away,” Tripp said at the time.
Tripp spoke too soon though, as he was about to take a drastic turn for the worse.
His emotions became highly erratic; his perceptions slowed; and then he began to suffer hallucinations and delusions.
He began questioning his own identity, and he claimed to see scurrying mice and kittens. He also became paranoid; at first he accused doctors of trying to poison him, and then he thought they were conspiring to imprison him.
Although doctors attempted to test Tripp on a daily basis, many of the tests towards the end were not completed as Tripp was no longer cooperative. His mental state was described as ‘nocturnal psychosis’.
Interestingly, doctors noted that Tripp’s hallucinations ran on roughly 90-minute cycles, just like REM sleep. They concluded that Tripp’s brain was performing a waking version of REM sleep as a way to cope with the sleep deprivation.
After 201 hours (8 days 9 hours) awake, Tripp slept for over 13 hours, during which he continued to be monitored. The majority of his well-earned rest was spent in REM sleep, including one of the longest REM episodes ever recorded.
Elsewhere, in Florida, Dave Hunter managed to stay awake for 24 hours longer than Tripp, clocking 225 hours (9 days 9 hours) to secure the world record. He was not reported to have suffered any ill effects.
Neither was Tom Rounds, another 23-year-old radio DJ, who broke the record later in the same year by staying awake for 260 hours (10 days 20 hours) while sitting in a department store window display.
Years later, Dr William Dement, one of the sleep researchers who monitored Peter Tripp during his record attempt, stated that the Ritalin administered to Tripp was far more likely to have caused his paranoia and hallucinations than the lack of sleep was.
It is often repeated that Tripp’s sleep-deprivation stunt had long-lasting effects on his personality, however, this cannot be confirmed.
Whilst it’s true that both his radio career and marriage ended in the following years, the former can be attributed to Tripp’s involvement in a financial scandal, and the latter can happen to even the most well-rested of people. Besides, Tripp got divorced four times in his life; could they really all have been caused by his sleeplessness stunt?
We’ll never know exactly how severely, if at all, Tripp’s stunt affected his later life. However, we do know that he wasn’t the only person to suffer negative consequences as a result of attempting this record.
In 1964 – a year that would prove to be a big one for sleep-deprivation records – 17-year-old high school student Randy Gardner attempted to break Tom Rounds’ record.
Aware of Tripp’s case, Gardner believed he was able to “not go insane” whilst doing so.
Without any stimulants except Coca-Cola, loud music, and cold showers, Gardner managed to break the record after staying awake for 264 hours (11 days).
For the final three days, he was observed by Dr Dement – the same researcher that monitored Peter Tripp five years earlier – who kept Gardner occupied with activities such as late-night games of basketball and trips to the arcade.
Despite his lack of sleep, Gardner won every game of pinball at the arcade. His seemingly coherent state of mind led Dement to walk back his earlier claim that sleep deprivation inevitably leads to psychosis.
“I can say with absolute certainty that staying awake for 264 hours did not cause any psychiatric problems whatsoever,” Dr Dement concluded.
However, that’s not to say that Randy Gardner didn’t suffer any negative effects.
Dement noted that Gardner’s analytical abilities, perception, motivation, memory, and motor control were all affected to varying degrees.
Dr John Ross, who was observing Gardner before the arrival of Dr Dement, described more severe symptoms. He reported that by day four, Gardner suffered from hallucinations, delusions, and an extremely short attention span.
“That happened pretty soon,” Gardner said in 2017, during a rare media appearance on science podcast Hidden Brain.
“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.”
He seemingly suffered no long-lasting effects from the stunt. However, decades later, in his sixties, Gardner developed insomnia.
“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,” he revealed.
Although he called it “karmic payback,” he did not necessarily think that his insomnia was caused by the sleep-deprivation stunt all those years ago; in fact, he attributed it to the death of his cat.
After suffering with insomnia for a decade, Randy eventually regained the ability to sleep, albeit only for around six hours per night.
Randy Gardner’s world record was broken two weeks after he achieved it. Another Californian student, 20-year-old Jim Thomas, managed to remain awake for 266 hours 30 minutes (11 days 2 hours 30 minutes).
Thomas’ record didn’t last long though; the next month, a 51-year-old Finnish man named Toimi Arttiurinpoika Silvo (featured in the video below) was recorded to have gone 276 hours (11 days 12 hours) without sleep.
In 1967 the record was broken once more, by Charles E. Christensen (another 23-year old radio DJ!). 52-year-old South African housewife Bertha Van Der Merwe ended the decade with the title after going 282 hours 55 minutes (11 days 18 hours 55 minutes) without sleep in 1969.
Little is known about these record holders and the effects they suffered, if any.
In 1974, yet another 23-year-old Californian claimed the record. This time it was Roger Guy English, who stayed awake for 288 consecutive hours (12 days) in a waterbed showroom, without any stimulants other than coffee. His entry in Guinness Book of Records 1974 states: “He has suffered hallucinations since this very dangerous test.”
The biggest breakthrough in the ‘sport’ of staying awake came three years later, when Maureen Weston of Cambridgeshire, UK, absolutely smashed the record.
Participating in a “rocking chair marathon,” she pushed the limit to an unprecedented new time of 449 hours (18 days 17 hours).
“Though she tended to hallucinate toward the end of this surely ill-advised test, she surprisingly suffered no ill-lasting effects,” reads her entry in Guinness Book of Records 1978.
In 1986, Robert McDonald of Mariposa, California, broke Maureen Weston’s record with an eye-watering 453 hours 40 minutes (18 days 21 hours 40 minutes) spent awake.
Just like Maureen, McDonald was performing a rocking chair marathon – his took place in the front window of a restaurant.
As he neared the end of his attempt, the 27-year-old stuntman told UPI, “it hasn’t been easy. I’m ready to collapse because I have had a hard time keeping any food down.”
McDonald also said that he’d lost weight and had a hard time remembering things.
He’d performed many perilous stunts before – including mountain climbs and motorcycle jumps - but this was perhaps the most dangerous thing he had done in his life.
McDonald did not appear to suffer any long-lasting negative effects; by all accounts he has continued to live a happy life. He now has a son, Robert Jr, with whom he built a life-size replica Viking ship from 15 million ice-cream sticks in 2006.
Other reasons why we no longer monitor this record
Although the effects suffered by these record breakers varied, both in terms of severity and length, their stories paint a clear picture: skipping sleep is harmful to the human body and mind.
Scientific studies suggest that even small amounts of missed sleep can negatively impact our mental and physical health.
However, there are also other reasons why we cannot monitor this record.
Firstly, during the 1960-70s, sleep researchers discovered the existence of ‘microsleeps’; momentary lapses into sleep that last for just a few seconds.
These are impossible to accurately monitor without continuous physiological recording equipment. Even Dr Dement later accepted that Randy Gardner - who was under constant medical supervision - probably experienced microsleeps.
Another reason we no longer monitor this record is due to the existence of people who suffer fatal familial insomnia, an extremely rare genetic disorder.
Victims initially experience trouble sleeping, and over time this evolves into total insomnia (agrypnia excitata), causing speech problems, hallucinations, dementia, and eventually death.
It's likely that one unfortunate victim of this condition would be the unwitting holder of the record if we still monitored it.
We mentioned total insomnia in our books from 1983-95, however, we incorrectly called it ‘chronic colestites’ (a completely made-up term!)
“The most extreme recorded case is that of Mr Valentine Medina, of Cuenca, central Spain, who claims he lost all desire to sleep in 1904 and has not slept since,” states Guinness Book of Records 1983.
“I’ve taken sleeping pills until I rattle, but it does no good,” Mr Medina said.
However, it’s unclear whether he truly suffered from total insomnia, as he reportedly suffered no ill effects.
Regardless, his claim wasn’t verifiable, thus he could not be officially awarded the record.
The human limit
Even if fatal insomnia victims are disregarded, it remains difficult to accurately determine the true world record because we have no way of accounting for microsleeps during past record attempts.
In turn, it's difficult to accurately determine the limit of how long a human can physically go without sleep.
From 1959 to 1986, the world record massively increased from eight days to over 18 days.
The record hasn’t been broken for over 36 years since then, which suggests that the impossible-to-achieve barrier could be 19 days.
However, if McDonald – and other record breakers before him – experienced microsleeps, then the real upper limit could in fact be a lot lower.
On the other hand, if reported cases of non-fatal total insomnia such as Mr Medina's are actually true, then it’s possible that some humans can indeed go decades without a wink of sleep.
"Sleep is just one of those key, absolute, fundamental parts of human nature - we need our sleep. And I think that's why this is a particularly fascinating record, because challenging the extremes of something that is so absolute is key to understanding who we are as a species." - Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records Editor-in-Chief
Want more? Follow us across our social media channels to stay up-to-date with all things Guinness World Records! You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, and Snapchat Discover– including our in-depth Curious Casebook series.
Don’t forget, we’re also on YouTube!
Still not had enough? Follow the link here to buy our latest book, filled to the brim with stories about our amazing record breakers.