Sleep is one of the best activities there is. You get to watch off-kilter movies while your body and mind recuperate from a long day's work. Some people hate it though. They feel it's too close to a trial run of death.
One man knew a sleepless life. He also faced death in a big way, just before losing sleep about it. Paul Kern was a soldier in World War 1, the Great War. The Hungarian soldier had a face to face encounter with a Russian bullet, which destroyed the part of his brain responsible for sleep.
This is the story of Paul Kern, a man who stayed awake for 40 years.
Sleepless in Europe
Paul Kern signed up for the Hungarian army at the start of the Great War. The jury is out on if he was personally upset about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Either way, Kern joined the Hungarian Shock Troops. Their job was to be the first to rush into the enemy's frontline. As you might imagine, this elite unit has a high turnover rate. Kern discovered this firsthand, only one year into the war.
While charging into the Russian ranks, Paul Kern felt something soft and wet splat against his right temple. The next thing he knew was waking up in the hospital. The wet splat was actually his skull shattering as a bullet tore into his brain.
Doctors managed to remove the bullet, and by some miracle Paul Kern survived the wound. Most of his Frontal Lobe hadn't survived though. This part of the brain controls emotions and impulses, among many other critical functions. Paul's doctors told him to get some rest.
Kern found that, try as he might, he just couldn't sleep. His doctors were anticipating side effects from his impromptu lobotomy, but the inability to sleep hadn't been on their list.
Paul retired from military service following his recovery. He returned to life as a civilian. At first, he tried to force his body to sleep, old habits die hard. Strangely, apart from having no desire for sleep, Paul found the attempt more exhausting than simply working on through the night.
Doctors working on his case found that there were no detrimental effects on the quality of Paul's work. In short, he became the ideal Amazon employee.
The Importance of Sleep
Aside from just feeling great, sleep is actually very important for the human animal. The body recovers from exercise, and the brain does 'something significant'. There are several theories about what exactly sleep does for the brain. Some researchers believe the brain sorts through short term memory while asleep, others believe sleep is critical for the endocrine (hormonal) function of the brain.
Scientists consider a chronic lack of sleep to be fatal. After 24 hours without sleep, you can expect to feel 'foggy' and irritable. The effect has been likened to a blood-alcohol level of 0.1, drunk enough to not be allowed to drive.
After 36 hours your immune system starts getting weird. Inflammation increases in your body, and you start having difficulty processing information. 48 hours in you may start experiencing the subtly horrifying anxiety symptom known as Depersonalization. Trust me, you do not want this.
After 3 days you will most certainly start hallucinating, or your hallucinations will become odder. Your thoughts will become disordered, and the delusions begin to set in. It's somewhat like giving yourself Schizophrenia.
4 days in, you will earn yourself a condition known as Sleep-Deprivation Psychosis. The record for longest period spent awake is held by Randy Gardner. His 11-day record may have been broken, but the Guinness Book of World Records no longer lists sleep-deprivation records because of the danger involved.
Paul Kern showed none of these symptoms. He essentially gained 8 extra hours a day, only having to close his eyes for an hour every day to rest his optic nerves. His doctors theorized that he couldn't survive for long without sleep.
They were proven somewhat right, when Kern died in 1955. His life had been a bit shorter than average, but he spent a lot more time living. Here's a breakdown of how he spent his days, from the Adelaide Chronicle, January 16th, 1930:
His twenty-four hours are made up as follows:— From 9 to 2 o'clock, work at the Pensions Department; 2 to 6 o'clock, writing and reading; 7 to 7 o'clock, a round of the night clubs, cabarets, a bath, and a change of clothes. Then breakfast, and again work.
He complains that the only unpleasant result of his wound is the costliness of being awake twenty-four hours a day.