On May 14, Tony Wright walked into the Studio Bar in Penzance, England. For 11 days and two hours, the long-haired horticulturist stayed there, playing pool, talking with other customers, and taking notes. One thing he didn't do, though, was sleep. When he finally left, he had broken the unofficial world record for sleep deprivation that has stood for more than 40 years.
"I was frustrated that 99 percent of the coverage was. 'Crazy guy stays awake, blah blah blah.' Very few people wanted to know why I actually wanted to do it."
Wright, 43, readily admits his feat was a PR stunt designed to drive interest in his radical theory about diet and brain development (and perhaps sell a few copies of his self-published book Left in the Dark). He claims that as humans have switched from our ancestral diet of fruits, vegetables and nuts, to our current meat- and fat-laden culture, we've lost access to important hormones that protect the left side of the brain during its development. As a result, Wright says, not only does the weak left-side of the modern human brain get tired out more quickly than it should, but the connection between the hemispheres is also damaged, meaning that we're not able to tap into our fully-charged right hemisphere when we get sleepy. Wright claims, by changing his diet and using meditative techniques, he is now able to switch over from his tired left hemisphere to his right, which he says can go several days without needing a recharge.
Even if his ideas seem far-fetched, it's hard to deny that he has done something that most of usregardless of how many college all-nighters we pulledcan't even imagine. Gelf emailed with Wright to learn more about his theory, what he thinks of the media coverage of his feat, and what it's like to stay up for so damn long. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Gelf Magazine: How do you tire out the left hemisphere and make the switch to the right? Do you make conscious efforts through things like avoiding reading, etc.?
Tony Wright: Simply staying awake is sufficient, as my proposal is that the left hemisphere's batteries are effectively weak and cannot hold much charge, whereas the right hemisphere's batteries have much greater capacity. Talking will speed up tiring out the left, as it is one of the things it is dominant for.
GM: This wasn't the first time you had deprived yourself of sleep for experimental purposes. Why did you decide to try to break the world sleeplessness record?
TW: I've done at least a hundred experiments of at least 50 hours [of sleep deprivation] over the last 12 years, including some as long as seven or eight days. I was getting impatient. The history of new ideas is such that you usually have to wait until you're dead. I thought, "What can I do here to gain some attention for this theory?"
[For most people,] it's going to be difficult: some people get manic depressive, most people say they feel "trippy." Two or three days is as far as most can go. You can feel the change [in hemisphere concentration] cutting in after two days, where you slowly start feeling betterand there's even mild euphoria. Usually the whole process takes at least five days.
GM: You said that after five days or so, you felt completely normal. Do you think you could have kept going? If so, for how long?
TW: Well, it's difficult to say. Obviously 11 days was feasible. It's not really about longevity so much as the fact that the differential in sleep requirement due to damage and normal sleep keeps the damaged side dominant. However, I suspect with further experimentation it would be possible to keep going indefinitely, as the left hemisphere would simply shut down while consciousness switched to the right (a classic nirvana-type experience). It then re-awakens and consciousness returns to near normal. This appears to have happened on a number of occasions but needs further experimentation. Whatever sleep the right genuinely needs (and I do not know what this would be) could well be taken during "normal" left dominance.
GM: Did you talk to Randy Gardnerthe previous sleeplessness record-holderbefore your attempt?
TW: Yes, I did. He's been very polite during it all. In my initial correspondence, he was a bit fed-up about being known for just [the record]. When I finished, though, he emailed me to congratulate me.
GM: Gardner said exercise was the best thing to keep him awake. What did you do to keep yourself busy?
TW: Staying hydrated is important. During that initial period you are irritable, straining the part of your brain that's normally in charge. People get dysfunctionalI accept that. It's about getting through. Any activity you can do is greatlistening to music, dancing, going for walks. Things that are rational like reading are OK for about 24 hours, but then they seem to take you to the most tired part of your brain. The key is just not sitting down and getting too comfortable. You come out the other side and end up less tired.
GM: You talked a lot about how hard it was to look at and use a computer. What made computer use so difficult? Do you have any idea why sleep deprivation has this kind of effect?
TW: I can only guess, really, that when staring at something banal and boring like a computer screen, it takes you to this tired place.
GM: What were your main physical symptoms during those 11 days? Did you experience any of the side effects that doctors traditionally link to sleep deprivation (dizziness, hallucinations, paranoia, mood swings, difficulty communicating or understanding others, etc.?)
TW: From the outset, I never claimed it would be clear sailing. There would be periods where I felt intense tirednessin those windows I could feel quite irritable (which I expected). There were glimpses of altered states of consciousness. Because it was a PR exercise, I wanted to keep the lid on anything too weird; I didn't want to slip into states that could be perceived as psychosis.
The nearest I got to classic hallucination was on Day 9 or 10, when I noticed that the shape of the pool-ball seemed to be different. Basically my eyes were starting to work independently: I was getting a slight double-image.
GM: You mention mystics as people who have often been fascinated by sleep. Did you do any research on them for your project?
TW: I've certainly read around the subject of mystics. For example, there are living traditions in North and South America where they intentionally use sleep deprivation as a spiritual technique. One of the texts I first came across in my research was The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving text from Babylon. The last challenge in the story is for Gilgamesh to stay awake for seven days and seven nights. There has always been an interest [in sleep deprivation].
"Because it was a PR exercise, I wanted to keep the lid on anything too weird; I didn’t want to slip into states that could be perceived as psychosis."GM: Do you believe in the legends that mystics could stay awake for years at a time? TW: Possibly the fully functional neo-cortex may have evolved to a point where it could recharge as it operates. A few lucky people who are born with such left [hemisphere] damage that it just cannot dominate would have easier access to the enhanced abilities/experience of the right hemisphere and whatever its real sleep requirement is.
GM: The Guinness Book of World Records no longer recognizes sleeplessness feats because of health dangers. What do you think about that?
TW: I knew about this for 14 or 15 months. I had contacted Guinness, thinking they still would sanction the record. I wasn't too bothered about itit would have been nice in a way, because I wanted to draw attention to my researchbut I understand why.
GM: How do you respond to claims that the true record was not Randy Gardner's 264 hours but Finland's Toimi Soini's 276 hours in 1964 (London Times)?
GM: A few years ago the British journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that drivers who have been awake 17 to 19 hours drive as poorly as legally drunk drivers (CNN). You yourself admitted that you had much difficulty keeping your eyes focused and using computers. After all that, do you still believe that "the brain does not become less effective with tiredness" (as you said in an interview with the Daily Mail)?
TW: I completely accept that there's a wave of dysfunction, but the whole point is getting beyond that. I think generally, it's less about how much sleep we need, and more about are we running on an inefficient neural system.
GM: What do you think of media coverage of your feat?
TW: I certainly didn't expect [coverage] to take off the way it did. Both my mobile and the bar's landline were ringing off the hook. But so much of it was very superficial. I was frustrated that 99 percent of the coverage was "Crazy guy stays awake, blah blah blah." Very few people wanted to know why I actually wanted to do it.
GM: How much did you sleep when you finally went to bed? Have your sleep patterns changed since the record?
TW: There was nothing astounding to report. After the 11-day run, I had about five-and-a-half hours of sleep. I woke up 30 minutes later for an interview. I felt back to normalwhich is to say, as if I had been awake a day. I generally feel better and more-relaxed when I am sleep-deprived.
GM: Do you think your efforts generally have led to more awareness of your research?
TW: It's too early to say. I have more interest than I had before. There has been some follow-up stuff going on, but not a lot. To be honest, this is one of the more in-depth interviews I've had.
Last year I approached various sleep-research centers, but they didn't want to get involved and thought it was crazy. They dismissed it but wouldn't test it.
GM: Why do you think your views are controversial?
TW: I think it's a combination of things. People have so many preconceived notions about diet and food, that my diet is easily dismissed. Also, it's quite a radical theorybasically, that humans are currently dysfunctional because our brains don't develop. I view it in a positive light, as something that we can fix. I am driving a bulldozer through people's views. Then again, maybe it's because I look like a born-again hippie or something. I don't know.
Related on the Web; BBC Cornwall's photo gallery of Wright breaking the record.
Related in Gelf: Before Wright broke his record, Randy Gardner told us what it was like to be famous for staying awake for a long time.