The Sleep Deprivation Publicity Stunt That Drove One Man Crazy

Back in 1959, science, charity, and publicity all came together in a particular stunt pulled by radio dj Peter Tripp. He would stay awake for 200 hours. And it literally drove him mad.

Peter Tripp, a radio DJ, decided to stay awake for 200 hours, broadcasting his regular show at its regular time, as a publicity stunt. Officially, it was a charity drive for the March Of Dimes; Tripp would sit out in a booth in Times Square, and people could pledge money to the cause. It was also a valuable scientific opportunity — knowing that the stunt would take stimulants to stay awake, and knowing that it could be dangerous, the station contacted sleep researchers to monitor Tripp and keep him awake. Researchers took shifts, sitting with Tripp both to make sure he wasn't in physical danger and to keep him from sleeping.

Amazingly, most of the way through the ordeal, Tripp was able to do his show fairly well. He pulled himself together to keep the DJ patter going. Outside of the show, he deteriorated. After about a hundred hours of wakefulness, Tripp was no longer able to get through simple math problems or recite the alphabet. After 120 hours, he began having hallucinations. He walked into a nearby hotel room to shower and change, and, when he opened a chest of drawers for his clothes, saw flames shooting out of the open drawer. At first he thought that the scientists had set the fire, trying to prank him or make him drop out of the contest. Then he began believing the scientists were in a conspiracy against him, and wanted to frame him for a crime. When one scientist, a stuffy dresser, came up to him, Tripp believed that the man was an undertaker come to bury him, and ran away into the street.

During long periods of sleep deprivation, the brain begins going into REM sleep cycles while a person is still awake. Most of the time, the person will still be able to function, if only on a basic level. During the REM cycles, they will begin to dream while they are still conscious. Tripp was having normal, if unpleasant, dreams, he just wasn't having them in bed. As time went by, the confusion took over his mind. He started staring at a clock, believing that he could see the face of a friend in it. He came to be doubtful as to whether he was Peter Tripp, or was the friend. In the last few hours, he began confiding to scientists that, although everyone believed he was Peter Tripp, he was not.

Tripp did stay awake for 200 hours, although he was drugged regularly for the last 66 hours of it. After 24-hours of monitored sleep, he emerged, apparently none the worse for wear. Some say the experiment affected him permanently, citing the fact that, soon afterwards, he lost his job and his wife divorced him. In fact, he was one of the radio hosts indicted in the payola scandal of 1960, for acts that had been committed well before the sleep study. Given the fact that he was hiding something criminal, it's interesting that Tripp was so paranoid about the scientists framing him for a crime. Perhaps it was his hidden anxieties coming to light, or perhaps it was regular paranoia. It makes you wonder what you would see if your nightmares became reality.

[Via Sleep Deprivation, The New York Times]