Insomnia appears to be a common phenomenon in the 21st century. Various studies around the world show 10 to 30 percent of the population suffer from insomnia. But can a prolonged lack of sleep lead to people becoming like zombies?
There was an incident in the 1980s where a man approached a professor of neurology, Pietro Cortelli, who was a famous sleep doctor. With a nervous look he told the doctor he suffered from insomnia, which is a curse that runs in his family. Within the past 200 years, if someone in his family suffered from insomnia, that person would lose his life within a year.
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The doctor listened with disbelief, thinking it was impossible anyone would lose their life over insomnia. Over the next few days, the doctor actively treated the patient. Soon, he found that, no matter how strong the doses of sleeping pills were given to the patient, he was still unable to sleep. At this rate, he would really lose his life.
The doctor was desperate. He sought other areas of study trying to find an answer. During his research, he discovered an interesting manuscript written by Soviet doctors in World War II. The manuscript talks about an experiment that involved sleep deprivation that resulted in creating zombie soldiers with no mind or sense of pain. It was known as the “Russian Sleep Experiment.” It was an experiment that went horribly wrong and resulted in some disastrous consequences — real zombies. However, some people claim this experiment never happened. So did it actually happen? And what would happen if a person was deprived of sleep for a certain period of time?
In September 1939, the Second World War began. At that time, all countries involved were trying to compete militarily and technologically, the Soviet Union included. So the story goes: Soviet scientists gathered to discuss how to improve the combat effectiveness of their soldiers. One scientist suggested creating a regiment that would not need to sleep by keeping them awake with a type of stimulant gas. Before they could use it on a wide scale, they first had to test it on a few subjects.
It is said that five tall and physically strong subjects were selected from the Gulag for the experiment. The Gulag was a system of Soviet labor camps for political prisoners. At that time, anyone who was in opposition to the Soviet government served their sentences there. Once you entered, you could never escape. According to statistics released by Soviet historians in 1989, a total of 10 million people were sent to the camps between 1934 and 1947.
The five subjects were selected, hooded, and transferred to an underground test facility. During the process, they were told that this was a national-level secret experiment, and all they have to do was live in an enclosed space for the next 30 days without sleeping. Inside, food and drinking water would be provided, as well as newspapers and magazines for entertainment. They could do anything they wanted in the room except sleep.
To ensure that they did not fall asleep, the airlock above the room would be releasing a type of stimulant gas regularly. Scientists would be monitoring their situation in the laboratory through a small window on the door and the microphone in the room. At the end of the experiment, the prisoners would be freed. After hearing this, the prisoners felt like they had just won the lottery and immediately agreed. How hard could it be to live for 30 days in a windowless “luxury” hotel with no sleep? It seemed like a small price to pay for long-awaited freedom. However, they did not realize something more sinister was looming behind that closed door.
According to the manuscript in the story, the first three days were just perfect for the five prisoners. They had enough food. Canned foods were laid out in the room. They ate till they were full and excitedly talked about their plans after their release from prison. When they were tired of talking, they picked up magazines to pass the time. They were completely oblivious of the stimulant gas being released into the room.
On the fifth day, some of the subjects began to show slight emotional abnormalities. They would tell each other about their tragic past while shedding many tears. According to records, they talked for more than a day.
Then slowly, the researchers noticed the prisoners were showing signs of hallucinations. They had stopped talking to each other. Some began rolling around in pain on the ground. This went on for four days. Just when the researchers thought this might be their limit, one prisoner suddenly stood up and kept running back and forth inside the room. He was shouting at the same time. As time passed, more prisoners appeared hyperactive and frantic. They were no longer in a weakened state and were also becoming abnormally strong.
Just as the situation in the room was on the verge of getting out of hand, a prisoner smashed the light and left the room in complete darkness. There was a deadly silence. At this stage, the story was becoming quite dramatic.
As each day passed, there was still no sound coming from the room. Prior to the experiment, the experts had set some rules and one of them was not to open the door or try to communicate with the people inside the room. But what they never expected was that they would destroy the light source. This meant that the scientists were unable to monitor the situation inside the room.
On the 15th day, the scientists decided to take a look, thinking that perhaps the subjects were simply dead. If that was the case, there was certainly no need for the experiment to continue. However, for the sake of safety, several armed men escorted the scientists to find out what was going on in the room.
When the door opened, an unpleasant stench accompanied by the smell of rotting food hit them. They cautiously took a step forward. Then they saw a hairless monster. He was gnawing on an unknown object and roared. He lunged wildly at the armed men who had entered the room.
The emergence of ‘zombies’
It is said that the transformed prisoners were immensely powerful. Even when the officers who entered the room shot at them, they would not stop their attack. It was as if they did not feel pain. The experts immediately called out for help and requested backup. Some of the staff lost their lives during the fight.
Researchers found one of the prisoner’s bodies was separated by his companions into various parts and strewn around the room. One of the four remaining survivors died in a struggle with the armed men. The other three prisoners were subdued, but their condition was beyond recovery. Their organs were leaking out and their ribs were broken. These wounds were sustained prior to the researchers opening the door.
Despite the disastrous outcome of this experiment, surprising discoveries were made. It appears that people will not only lose the ability to feel pain, but also emerge with unprecedented strength, just like zombies, if they stay awake long enough with the help of stimulant gas.
There has been quite a lot of debate as to whether this experiment ever took place. It appears that the story could be pure fiction as it first appeared in an online urban legend creation challenge in 2010. There was no other solid evidence found to prove the experiment ever happened. However, having said that, the Soviets were indeed behind a number of notorious and documented secret scientific experiments starting from the early 1900s to the late 1980s.
Now, let’s have a look at an actual well-documented sleep deprivation experiment conducted by a 17-year-old boy in 1963.
The Randy Gardner sleep deprivation experiment
In 1963, American teenager Randy Gardner and his friends decided to conduct a sleep deprivation experiment for their science project. Unlike the story about the Soviet experiment, Randy’s experimental process did not involve any gas or drugs to keep him awake. His friends planned to help keep him awake and a Stanford sleep researcher and someone from the U.S. Navy Medical Neuropsychiatric Research Unit were to attend the experiment to help monitor the risks.
During the early stages of the experiment, Randy was quite sleepy. Once he passed the initial stages, he displayed obvious signs of motor nerve alertness. For example, he received a better than usual score in a game of basketball. However, he did display signs of hallucinations, moodiness, poor concentration, and slurred speech.
With the support of his friends and experiment team, Randy lasted a total of 11 days and 25 minutes, or approximately 264 hours, without sleep, becoming the first world record for the longest time without sleep. It was later exceeded by Tony Wright, who achieved a total of 266 hours.
Although Randy had a significant improvement in sports skills, he reported that his sensitivity to touch was unexpectedly low, and when he blindfolded his eyes he could not distinguish the touch of a table. When someone touched his body he did not feel a thing. Does this sound similar to the story about the Soviet sleep experiment where the prisoner did not feel pain? Randy, however, did not turn into a zombie or tear his intestines out.
Back to the story at the start of the video where the patient claimed his insomnia was a family curse. After a year of treatment, his insomnia condition did not improve and he passed away. Before he died, he signed an organ donation form, agreeing for an autopsy to be performed on his body.
It was discovered that the patient’s thalamus showed large portions of necrosis. The thalamus plays an important role in controlling sleep. Further laboratory tests showed the presence of the prion virus. Prions cause a zombie-like state in animals.
Like mad cow disease, the prion virus eats away at the brain causing symptoms like dementia and finally resulting in death. In 2019, the prion virus spread in the U.S. to 24 different states into the brains of deer, elk, and moose. It was known as the “zombie deer disease” or chronic wasting disease. Researchers believe that the virus can also spread to humans.
Is it possible that the prion virus causing insomnia in a patient could also cause zombie-like symptoms in humans? Could insomnia itself end up causing zombie-like symptoms in humans if Randy’s experiment continued for longer than 11 days? The Guinness Book of Records stopped accepting records relating to sleep deprivation due to possible health risks, therefore, we will probably never find out the answer.