The Mystery of Sleep and the lucky few who don’t need it

All animals need sleep, even insects. But as ubiquitous as sleep is, it is still very mysterious. Why we sleep, and why humans need an average of 8 hours specifically, is still a subject under much debate. One of the dominant theories is that sleep is a time when the body repairs itself. We know that growth hormones are released during sleep, and that sleep depravation has many negative effects on the immune system.

Another theory is that long term memory is consolidated during sleep. Sleep researcher Matthew Wilson, of MIT, recently did some fascinating work into dreaming in particular. He recorded the brains of rats as they ran through a maze, noting the mental activity produced. Later, as the rats were sleeping, he saw the same activity, only more rapid and played in reverse, as if the rat’s mind was rewinding a VHS recording of the run through the maze! Dreaming, Wilson asserts, is a form of “mental cleaning”, where the brain determines what memories it should keep and what to throw out.

Another theory may help us understand why all animals sleep, even those without long term memory. Bruce O’Hara, a professor of biology, explains:

“If we accept the premise that all animals sleep, then it looks like there’s something special about neurons, about basic energy requirements. Neurons are among the cells that have highest energy requirements. Our brain, 1 or 2% of our total bodily weight, uses up 20% of our energy; so the brain is the most energy-demanding organ we have,” O’Hara explains. He concludes that energy usage is one very possible function of sleep. Neurons require this loss of consciousness to slow down just enough so they can replenish themselves for normal functioning. “It’s hard to get solid data to support that, but no data I know of refutes the idea.”

So, it seems sleep is a necessary side effect of owning and maintaining a brain.


Needing less sleep, or none at all!

Even so, the mystery of sleep deepens when you find out that some people need much less sleep, and in rare cases people hardly require any sleep at all!

The longest recorded period without sleep is an astounding 33 years, performed by 64 year old Vietnamese man named Thai Ngoc, who claims to have lost his need for sleep after a sickness in the 70’s. Surprisingly, he experiences no ill negative effects from this condition, not even the normal sleep deprivation effects such as fatigue, loss of concentration, and so on. Under normal circumstances, people who lose even a few days of sleep start exhibiting cognitive symptoms usually only present in senior citizens.

Scientists have found a gene that could be responsible for needing less sleep, which they call “Period 3” or the “Clock Gene”. While most humans need an average of 8 hours of sleep, people with specific variants of the Period 3 gene seem need to much less – sometimes as little as 4 hours of sleep a night. Many notable people through history have claimed to  need less sleep – Michelangelo, Napoleon, Thomas Edison all claim to have only needed 4 hours of sleep a night. In modern days, Madonna, Jay Leno, Margaret Thatcher and many others say the same thing. It seems to be more prevalent in highly ambitious, driven individuals.

I saw a documentary on sleep years ago that followed an even more amazing case of a father and daughter who only needed 1-2 hours of sleep a night. They both held 2 jobs and experienced no negative symptoms. I tried to find this documentary for our weekly brain video, but couldn’t locate it online.

Other genetic variants can play a role in sleep as well. Michel Jouvet, famous neuroscientist and sleep researcher, once studied a 27 year old man with Morvan’s fibrillary chorea, a genetic disorder that kept him from sleeping. He went months without sleep, yet did not suffer any negative consequences associated with sleep depravation. However, instead of sleep, his nights were full of dream-like hallucinations. Perhaps he did not reach a state of sleep as we know it, but his body found a way to compensate somehow, and work around his genetic differences.

Also interesting is how we perceive the amount of sleep we’ve gotten. A study by Dr. Allison Harvey, of Berkley, measured how much sleep a group of insomniacs actually got compared to their perception of it. It turns out that they only received 35 minute less than those who had no trouble sleeping, yet when asked how long they had slept, the insomniacs reported only 2-3 hours of actual sleep. Amazingly, when they were told that they had gotten a good night of sleep, many of the symptoms of sleep depravation disappeared!

So, in many ways, our perception of how rested we are affects how we feel during the day.

Many users of Brainwave entrainment also report a reduction in sleep needs, particularly in the first few months of use. Deep relaxation sessions like those targeting Theta waves, are said by many to replace up to 4 hours of sleep. In a way, this makes sense since Theta is close to the mental state of sleep, and when Theta acts as a kind of “cat nap”, it could naturally reduce your need for sleep. However, what is more interesting is that even people who never use Theta sessions often report the same effect! We even have users of Beta sessions (basically the opposite of sleep) reporting that they need less sleep yet feel more energetic during the day. Though this effect is often temporary, it still raises many intriguing questions.

Not surprisingly, drug companies are working fervently to come up with a way to reduce sleep needs, beyond the jittery effects of Red Bull and coffee. The drug Modafinil seems to help the brain mimic the effects of the “Clock Gene” variant, allowing users to only sleep 4-5 hours a night and still feel as refreshed as ever. A new drug being tested called CX717 promises to allow someone to remain awake for 36 hours or more without the negative effects of caffeine.

I do wonder if there are any long term problems with sleeping less, even if we are genetically gifted to do so. I read one study that indicated it could be a problem for women more so than men. It seems to me that if there wasn’t a major biological disadvantage to sleeping only a few hours a night, everyone would be doing it by now.

Still, I can’t help but envy those lucky few who can survive on 4 hours of sleep. I am decidedly average, needing almost exactly 8 hours to feel normal, barring any cat naps or theta sessions I’ve used. Any more than 8, and I feel dazed – any less, and I feel sleepy. Who knows what wonders people could produce with an extra 4 hours of time each day!

15 Comments to “The Mystery of Sleep and the lucky few who don’t need it”

  1. Peter 21 April 2007 at 6:16 pm #

    HI Adam, its a great topic…
    … but i love my sleep especially snuggling with someone on a cold winters night 🙂


  2. Adam 22 April 2007 at 11:39 am #


  3. Adam 22 April 2007 at 11:41 am #

    Coincidentally there was a recent BBC radio program on sleep drugs, called “The Defeat of Sleep”. I just heard of it today, from Mind Hacks. Here is the link:

  4. Mark Ormesher 16 December 2008 at 7:11 pm #

    I think I may be one of the lucky few with the “clock gene”. I’m normally awake until about 2-3 AM and get up at 6AM sharp every day. I very rarely feel tired apart from the first few moments of waking up each day. I’m normally a very energetic and happy person and wouldn’t say I feel very much stress at all.

    As for this gene being “more prevalent in highly ambitious, driven individuals” – I don’t want to sound big-headed but I’d say this is true as well: I am quite determined to be successful in life.

  5. Mark Ormesher 16 December 2008 at 7:11 pm #

    I’d like to point out that the above comment was made at 00:11 local time…

  6. Emily 15 August 2009 at 11:32 pm #

    I’m 15 and I don’t seem to require much sleep either.
    I used to suffer from terrible anxiety and believed that this was the reason I could not sleep, but now that I have rid of my anxiety issues, my sleeping patterns are just as bad – if not worse. So I guess I just don’t need that much sleep.

    I often go for 24 hours without sleep. I sleep for the usual 8-10 hours, but there’s a 24 hour interval inbetween. Even though I am in a relaxed state of mind I just can’t sleep and don’t feel I need to.
    It’s difficult though, night time often becomes my day time and day time becomes my night, if you know what I mean. It’s confusing and impractical.

    I’m a very ambitious person, always aiming for perfection and success. I’m also obsessive (not in an unhealthy way though) and very analytical.
    I’m a musician, I play guitar, sing and write songs, so I guess I could be considered artistic. I hear that very artistic people have difficulty sleeping because they’re always creating and thinking.

    I’m writing this at 5:30am local time, by the way.
    Thanks for the article.

  7. Tech 17 August 2009 at 11:18 am #

    I knew Dr. Land’s Chemist and she only “slept” minutes per day-like a cat nap and had been that way all her life, no problem. Smart, nice, dedicated and her whole family was fairly unusual. Probably a good thing to keep it quiet though as the military/CIA boys might want to “study” you etc. We are all diferent. Oh they had webbed feet too and her daughter arm wrestled the high school football coach who was a fairly large “tough guy type” and easily put him down!(she was a petite girl) Shhh.

  8. ismail 30 January 2010 at 12:51 am #

    well i know a person that clam the he can’t sleep att all !! even not for 5min , and he went to many doctors and professor, they told him it is rare case but actually they do anot know what to do.
    This same person claims that even some members of his family had the same problem .
    Could anybody explain or know what’s the reason ?
    Thank you

  9. luke 1 March 2010 at 12:01 am #

    Im 19 and after reading Emily’s comment I’m much the same,although I go through much longer ‘sleep cycles’ often going for 2 weeks with no more than 3 hours a day and feeling no ill effects. Then crashing out for 10 hours or so. I’v tried many things to get a more normal cycle but this one seems to work for me. It’s 4:52am now, I have to be up at 7 and this wont be a problem.
    The article says ‘Who knows what wonders people could produce with an extra 4 hours of time each day’ and this is true to a certain extent I do get everything done college work,reading books etc but once all is done it can be pretty frustrating that you can’t just do the stuff you would during the day because of the fear of waking everyone up.

    Thanks for the insight into a very interesting subject

  10. Lauren 30 May 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    I am one who only needs 4-6hrs sleep most nights. Infact, if I have an nap for an hr, it can keep me going all night..

    It’s frustrating because there are those days every now & then that you REALLY need a good sleep, but just can’t.

    I agree with Luke & Emily. I am a very ambitious, perfection seeking artist/designer & I suffer from anxiety. Perfect concoction for less sleep. Sadly, night is when I am most creative 🙁

    These days I don’t have a choice as my boyfriend, who has a deviated septum & post nasal drip, keeps me awake all night with his coughing/spluttering/stratching & random yells.

    I think sleep is all relative to the type of person you are, ie. ambitious = always thinking & less sleep. Repressive of emotions = restless sleeper, etc..

    One thing I do notice is that I have ridiculously slow circulation. I am ALWAYS cold often I wake up cold. Anyone else have this problem?

    Perhaps our body temperature drops too low & our body says ‘NO! TIME TO GET UP & GENERATE HEAT!’. Lol, just a thought!

  11. Viottorio 10 October 2010 at 7:15 am #

    Im 20 years old and a germ cell cancer survivor and often have stayed up through the night until the wee morning hours of 7-9pm and can also pull until noon or even 4pm I’ve done this many times and if I try to sleep,I often find no need or only sleep for a short determined time [an hour to two hours,four tops] and find myself just fine. I’ve taken driving lessons/tests and can preform without negitive side effects for a well deserved amount of time before I finally decide to sleep which may be sometime in the afternoon after 4pm and end up waking up at 7pm. I know I was given experimental chemotherpy when I was in the hospital. But anyways I know im not normal,but in a good way none the less. lol.

  12. Brandon 30 November 2010 at 7:44 am #

    I’m pretty much the same as Lauren, all except for the slow circulation thing. Actually, I’m quiet opposite in that regard – I generate tonnes of heat. I often kick all the blankets off the bed (kicked them off my feet since I was a babe; even in the coldest places, I will overheat if my feet are covered).

    For the stats, I’m pretty average build – 6′ tall, athletic build , 22 years old, male, my family all has a very fast metabolism (which is why I probably produce so much heat when I sleep). My mom ends to walk and talk in her sleep, and I used to often (but not only very rarely). I am definitely an ambitious person, and am also the artsy guy among my friends. I generally introduce friends to the arts, and they fall in love with them. Painting, making music, carving, etc. Theres an art to everything.

    Does an interest in the arts correlate with being ambitious, and requiring less sleep?

    One thing I forgot to mention;
    I’ve been raised to sleep ~7-9 hours a night, and have often enjoyed sleeping 12-16 hours in university. With those hours of sleep, though, I found that I was always dazed. I would sleep the entire time, and have wicked dreams, but I would wake up tired. Sometime in the last few years, I started sleeping less and less, and now I’m down to where 3-4 ours of sleep gives me the best sleep, where I am most alert and conscious the next day. Of course, it’s a bit difficult getting out of bed, but once I’m up – I’m much more awake than if I have more sleep.

  13. Calum 19 December 2010 at 8:12 pm #

    Im an 18 years old, full time student with a part time job in a Residential care home, which is supposedly a stressful and mentally exhausting job, and rarely require more that 4 hours sleep a night. If i sleep longer than that i feel exhausted throughout the whole of the next day and dont sleep at all during the next night. I find my lack of sleep requirement to be a blessing, since i can do all the things i need to do, but dont have the time to do during the day. I dont know how i could cope wihtout it. Thank god for this “CLock gene”.

  14. EgadsNo 15 June 2011 at 7:52 pm #

    As a teen I did not sleep- worked out like an olympian, full body workouts several times a day. Ate like a horse, maybe even more then one- between 20-30kCal/day depending on weather mostly (good deal of energy spent outdoors) and after the first couple cycles of staying awake for 3-4 weeks straight. Never would I get a twinge of distraction from an urge to sleep, in that regard I always felt rested and could not only expend serious physical energy but scholastically I did very well. Now almost two decades later I feel a slave to sleep, eat a meager 3-4kcal a day (still quite a bit but nothing compared to what I used to), have perhaps average strength or a little better and weight about 10 pounds less. I also now sleep 4-6 hours averaged a night. Pulling an all nighter is little rough but not out of the question.

    I am completely convinced sleep is just an long inherited mechanism to prevent us from fumbling about in times we are not optimal. However if you can prove to your body that not only it can spend as much energy as it wants, and it will always receive adequate food- taken to a high level for a prolonged period of time will convince your body to shut off the instincts.

    I also do understand the psychological urge to sleep is strong enough to present dangerous stress, and the intensity of the urge can put you into danger- so you really should not push it too hard, but when you start the cycle of never needing sleep again- you wont know until the 4-5+ day of being awake I’d bet. But you will already be experiencing frequent “second winds” when you do all nighters building up to that point.

  15. Kat 10 August 2011 at 2:56 am #

    I don’t even know if I need sleep. I’m unique in that I don’t have an ‘internal clock’. So I can sleep for 2 hours, or 24 hours, and feel exactly the same. However, I never wake up naturally. So if someone or something doesn’t wake me up, I will just keep sleeping. My record is 76 hours – then my parents came back from out of town and found me. I guess I actually have mini comas or something. It’s the weirdest thing. Bonus – No jet lag, ever.

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