Health: The Infamous ‘Russian Sleep Experiment’ Sounds Like a Horror Movie Plot

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Especially if you haven't been getting a lot of sleep lately, you might wonder just how long you can go on like that. Exactly how long could you stay awake without cracking as a result of sleep deprivation? Some people say there was an over-the-top experiment for that. Experts are quick to debunk it.

The Russian Sleep Experiment is a popular urban myth which began to circulate online in "creepypasta" forums (so-named for the ease with which you could copy-paste spooky content) in the early 2010s. But could this deeply unsettling legend have had some roots in fact?

The story goes that Soviet-era scientists created a stimulant which they believed would enable soldiers to not require sleep for up to 30 days. They decided to test their new gas on five prisoners, promising them their freedom upon completion of the experiment. They locked the five men in a hermetically sealed chamber and began pumping in the gas. Within a few days, the men were exhibiting the kind of paranoia and psychosis that is a typical symptom of sleep deprivation. But as time went on, they began to act even more strangely.

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A new animated video from The Infographics Show on YouTube explains the urban myth of the Russian Sleep Experiment and what might have really happened. © freemixer - Getty Images A new animated video from The Infographics Show on YouTube explains the urban myth of the Russian Sleep Experiment and what might have really happened.

15 days into the experiment, when scientists could no longer see the men through the thick glass of the chamber, or hear them through the microphones, they filled the room with fresh air and unlocked it. There, they discovered that one of the men was dead, and the four surviving test subjects were all sporting horrendously violent injuries, some of which appeared to be self-inflicted.

Attempts to sedate the men were either unsuccessful, or led to their deaths the moment they lost consciousness. Finally, when one of the researchers asked what exactly these men had become, the last surviving test subject told him that they represented the potential for evil that exists in all human beings, which is usually contained by sleep, but had been unleashed by their constant wakefulness. Chilling stuff.

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Is any of the Russian Sleep Experiment actually true?

According to a video fromThe Infographics Channel on YouTube, which provides animated summaries of events from history, current events and literature, the Russian sleep experiment almost certainly has its basis in fiction. For one thing, there's the fact that the story's sole original source seems to be a website dedicated to telling creepy (made-up) stories. But even the science doesn't hold up.

Experts are quick to refute this myth as well. There's no scientific ground proving that gas (or any other substance, for that matter) can keep a person awake for 30 days, says Po-Chang Hsu, MD, an internal medicine physician and medical content expert at SleepingOcean. “Some drugs and high caffeine dosages may grant a couple of days without shut-eye, but 30 is impossible,” he says.

Additionally, this experiment is unlikely because of the effect sleep deprivation has on the brain, Dr. Hsu says.

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“Even after a few days, a person can start hallucinating, which would make it extremely hard for them to perform simple daily actions, let alone deal with military assignments that require extreme focus,” he says.

So how long can someone truly stay awake?

The current documented world record for staying awake is a bit longer than 11 days, which was achieved by Randy Gardner in 1963. Gardner experienced severe behavioral and cognitive changes during those 11 days (even though he wanted to prove that nothing bad would happen when a person doesn’t sleep), Dr. Hsu says. He also experienced mood swings, memory issues, severe difficulty focusing, paranoia and hallucinations.

While there is some truth to the claims that amphetamines have been used to keep soldiers alert in historical times of war, there is no scientific evidence of a gas existing that could keep anyone awake for 15 days. And studies have found that after just 48 hours without sleep, people tend to become slower, disoriented, prone to making mistakes, and ultimately less effective as a soldier.

“Since the brain can’t function properly after being sleep-deprived for 11 days, it’s safe to assume things would get much worse if one tries to stay awake longer,” he says. “Consequently, those soldiers would’ve been useless even if they miraculously managed not to sleep for 30 days.”

Still, whoever came up with the story of the Russian sleep experiment in the first place deserves points for their creative writing... if not for medical accuracy.

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