The Russian Sleep Experiment is an urban legend set in the 1940s that describes the horrific outcome of Russian researchers keeping political prisoners awake for 15 days in order to observe the effects of sleep deprivation. The legend's origins seem to be from a work of fiction in 2010 written on the website Creepypasta which captured people's imagination and spread quickly as truth.
The story, which was submitted to Creepypasta as a work of short fiction meant to shock and horrify, related frightening claims of the effects of long-term sleep deprivation.
First Five Days
According to the story, in 1941 Russian researchers sealed five test subjects who had been deemed enemies of the state in a chamber and pumped in a stimulant gas that was designed to keep study subjects awake. For the first four days, it was business as usual, although the participants did begin to share with each other more about negative events in their past.
Things Get Strange
It was on the sixth day, however, things started to get weird. Conversation between the test subjects ceased, and instead they whispered messages to the researchers instead, trying to win their trust. On the ninth day, one of the subjects started to scream, screaming so long and loud his vocal chords gave way and he could only squeak. While he screamed, there was no reaction from the others. Then another subject started screaming, as well, until all went quiet.
Opening the Chamber
After 15 days when researchers opened the chamber, they found four out of the five subjects alive with the fifth dead and dismembered. All subjects were critically injured and required surgical repair, and evidence of cannibalism, self-harm, and violence littered the chamber. When removed from the chamber for medical treatment and surgery, the subjects refused to sleep and begged for a return of the gas. The subjects even chose to undergo extensive surgery without anesthesia in order to stay awake.
Subjects continued to fight sleep and beg for a return to the gas. Researchers monitored the brain waves of the subjects and found they were mostly normal with periods of flat-lines as if they were dead. In the end, as researchers prepared to return the remaining subjects to the chamber, a soldier asked one, "What are you?" The subject replied they were the worst and darkest impulses of humanity.
Real or Fake?
The story is a work of fiction, but it continues to spread on the internet as real. In spite of its origins and exposure as a work of fiction, many continue to believe it is the truth. As with other urban legends, the story plays on the fears of its readers, and as most urban legends do, it has a compelling feel that allows it to go viral where people believe what they are reading or hearing. The story is so popular it inspired a horror movie short and a novella.
Real Sleep Deprivation Research
Although this particular sleep deprivation experiment never happened, there have been experiments into the effects of sleep deprivation on humans.
- A DJ named Peter Tripp stayed awake and on the air for 201 hours (a little over eight days) as a radio stunt and charity fundraiser. Doctors and researchers observed him as he did this. After about three days, he began to hallucinate, and his temperament changed. Researchers noted his brain waves mimicked REM sleep, even though he was awake, suggesting he was in waking dreams when he hallucinated.
- A 1996 meta analysis of 143 studies on sleep deprivation found long- and short-term deprivation "strongly impairs human functioning." Results of sleep deprivation won't turn people into cannibalistic zombies as the urban legend suggests, but it can affect cognitive function, mood, and motor performance.
Fact Versus Urban Legend
Although urban legends may make for better storytelling, they fail to paint a true picture of what research finds. Fortunately, sleep researchers have studied how both short- and long-term sleep deprivation affects human beings. And while it won't turn you into an amalgamation of the darkest impulses of humanity as suggested by the urban legend, chronic sleep deprivation can cause significant impairment.