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Sleep Deprivation

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1994, Volume 11, Number 2, pages 211-216. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Sleep Deprivation

Jean-Louis Valatx, M.D.

National Institute of Health and Medical Research

Lyons, France


Various methods of sleep deprivation are used to control people. Here the author reviews the known sleep cycles, then describes the process of sleep deprivation and the common effects on the subject. Risk areas--such as families living in poor conditions, varied work schedules that interfere with normal sleep, cultic groups, and imprisonment and criminal interrogations--are described. When imposed willfully on a subject, sleep deprivation is seen as a violation of basic human rights.

Sleep deprivation is one of the means used to control people. It was used as effectively by the Romans and during the Inquisition as it is today. It is always around, used not only by the police during interrogations in various countries--whether “dictatorships” or “democracies”--but also by cultic communities. Sleep deprivation is often used in conjunction with other means of control in order to increase its effectiveness, such as dietary restrictions, sensory deprivation (light, sound, or physical contact), and repetitive, monotonous stimulations  (light, sounds, words, etc.).

Scientific awareness of the physiological effects of sleep deprivation is a relatively recent development. The first study was done in 1896, but most of the work in this field is less than 30 years old, and parallels the progress made in the field of neurobiology.

First, I include a simple review of the physiology of sleep in order to facilitate one’s understanding of the effects of total or partial sleep deprivation, which are detailed in the second section of this essay. This is followed by an outline of the “risk zones,” where sleep deprivation could be taking place without the subject’s being fully aware of what’s going on.

Sleep Cycles

The alternation of repose and activity is a characteristic of the living world. Sleep, the most evolved form of repose, always proceeds along the same pattern no matter which mammal is observed.

The Desire for Sleep

After a certain period of being awake, a desire to go to sleep is recognizable by certain well-known signs: yawning, rubbing the eyelids, and gradual loss of attention. This is the opportune moment to go to bed. The person gets into a sleeping posture, which varies according to the surrounding temperature (in a ball, if cold; stretched out, if hot). If a person resists going to sleep, the desire to go to sleep lasts for about 15 to 20 minutes, then disappears, only to reappear at a later time.


Sleeping is possible only if the person feels secure. Calm sleep is characterized by closed eyelids; calm, regular breathing; an absence of bodily movements, and slowing down of  brain activity (slow waves). The sleep becomes deeper and deeper. This first stage of sleep lasts around 80 to 90 minutes.

Paradoxical Sleep

Paradoxical sleep follows after calm sleep. This stage is very special. Here, the person experiences a profound sleep (complete muscular paralysis), with brain activity close to that of being awake, with numerous eye movements, and irregular heart and breathing activity. Paradoxical sleep lasts about 20 minutes. A person awakened in the course of this sleep stage can relate very precise memories of dreaming. Men, from birth to a very advanced age, often experience genital erection without any connection to dream content.

The time period for both calm and paradoxical sleep constitutes a sleep cycle of about 100 minutes. During the night, depending on the amount of sleep time, 4 to 6 such cycles occur in regular succession. The duration of nocturnal sleep averages 7 2 to 8 hours, but it can vary from 3 to 12 hours depending on the individual.

Clinical and experimental studies have shown that besides environmental influences, heredity also influences the amount of sleep time. There are families of Ashort” (less than 6 hours) and Along” (more than 9 hours) sleepers. Natural hybridization (one parent a short sleeper, the other a long sleeper) produces short, medium, or long sleepers. This idea is important in understanding a person’s resistance to sleep deprivation.

Present-day concepts of sleep mechanisms suggest that, while a person is awake,  the brain synthesizes some natural soporifics, which under the influence of the biological clock cause sleepiness at the end of the day.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is the prevention of the normal process of sleep. It is easy to understand that prolongation of the state of wakefulness involves an accumulation of natural soporifics which can be metabolized into toxic derivatives. These are the source of the various problems described here. This hypothesis accounts for the gradually increasing difficulties encountered during the period of deprivation. Each of the difficulties discussed here, however, is not exclusively caused by sleep deprivation, as each can be observed in other pathological circumstances, in which the presence of several of these symptoms can call attention to the possibility of sleep deprivation.

Methods Used

The methods used to prevent sleep are quite varied (physical exercise, shaking a person, shock, stress, solitary confinement, etc.). The list can be added to with the imagination of the experimenter or torturer. Upon cessation of such stimuli, if the subject is allowed to fall asleep freely, sleep time is increased. This is the phenomenon of recuperation or sleep rebound. This increase in sleep varies with each person, and represents, at the most, 50% to 60% of the sleep debt.


The effects of sleep deprivation vary with each person. They appear within 24 hours after the lack of sleep. The effects are multiple; their appearance and intensity are a function of the length of deprivation and the person’s stress level.

Mood problems. Mood problems are the first to occur: increasing irritability and irascibility; alternating rapid fluctuations (lasting several minutes) of euphoria and depression, with perhaps an indifference to one’s environment and a desire to be alone.

Unstable psychomotor activity. Unstable psychomotor activity renders the person unable to remain still. There is a desire to move around, change position (sit, stand). Because of this, the person has difficulty in focusing his or her attention.

Somatic problems. Somatic problems are characterized by prickling or tingling sensations in the hands and feet, involuntary muscle contractions in the eyelids and at the base of extremities. Tests also show an increase in sensitivity to pain.

Visual problems. Visual problems occur after 2 to 3 days without sleep. They are quite varied: experiencing ocular smarting; seeing halos around lights, sometimes with double vision, making reading difficult; having the impression that objects are changing in form (the sun shimmering, blinking lights). Some people experience true hallucinations. At first, the person sees some threads or hairs that she tries to remove; she thinks she sees worms or ants on her skin (diagnosable as dysesthesia). Some solitary seamen, often short of sleep, have seen a cow on the bridge of their ships or a high-speed train passing  in mid-Atlantic.

Thought disorganization. A certain amount of thought disorganization can occur, manifested by diminishing ideation, difficulties in finding the correct word and retaining logical reasoning, and memory loss. In addition, sleep-deprived people have difficulties in initiating new projects (“amnesia of the future”), essentially preoccupying themselves with the daily routine. Perception of time is altered: sometimes the subject believes time passes quickly, sometimes that it is passing slowly.

Lack of sleep augments suggestibility; that is, if actions are suggested, the person will follow through, even though he wouldn’t have if he hadn’t been sleep-deprived. The potential for this increases with the use of alcohol and psychotropic drugs, and is accompanied by several hours of amnesia. For this reason, people can commit or be victims of criminal activities without being able to recall them.

Vegetative syndrome. A vegetative syndrome occurs inconsistently, with moderate tachycardia and light hyperthermia (381B38.51C). Cephalic and gastrointestinal disturbances and an increase in libido have also been observed.

Risk Areas for Sleep Deprivation

It is possible to identify three groups at risk for sleep deprivation.

1. Families and Cultic Groups

Children are the first victims of poor living conditions (noise, overcrowding, television). Adolescents show a deficit of sleep rhythms; most often with a late bedtime comes partial sleep deprivation. These permanent partial deprivations can be the source of attention problems, motor instability, irritability or apathyCa source often ignored in understanding lack of academic achievement.

Adults, whether short or long sleepers, tend to impose their sleep routine on those around them, which can be the cause of numerous conflicts. Sleeping is an individual characteristic, as much as eye color is.

In cultic groups, a daily schedule imposed on everyone alike is endured only by those people who have the same needs and same rhythms, and also a good capacity to adapt to change. This Aadaptability” varies with age, and also depends on hereditary factors. These “lifestyles,” under the pretext of asceticism, can be a factor in conditioning people.

Respecting each person’s needs and ability to adapt is part of a fundamental respect for human rights. Actually, one of the expected functions of sleeping and dreaming is the preservation of the individual personality. During the course of dreaming, innate components of the personality come forth and integrate with daily events in order to achieve a harmonious adaptation to the environment. The Aright to dream” is a primal factor in resisting psychological conditioning.

2. Work Schedules

Sleep is favored when a person has a regular schedule. Every change of schedule brings sleep disturbances. Night work, postal work, irregular shifts (chauffeurs and truckers, frequent transcontinental flights) provoke troubles similar to those described in experimental sleep deprivation. Frequent repetition of these problems can bring on a narcoleptic syndrome, characterized by unexpected occurrence of paradoxical sleep during waking hours--the source of numerous accidents on the road and at work.

3. The Criminal Justice System

During interrogations. Prolonged interrogations are a source of sleep deprivation. Confessions or statements obtained under such conditions should be subject to careful checking because of individuals’ increased suggestibility.

In prisons. Some conditions of imprisonment (isolation or crowded conditions) can cause significant sleep deprivation because of the restrictions on behavior. Prescribing tranquilizers, which is perhaps overdone, increases suggestibility and is a means used to attempt to mitigate poor detention conditions.


In conclusion, sleep deprivation is a condition found more and more frequently. Used willfully, it is an attack on the person physically and psychically. It is pernicious and perverse in that it does not allow normal physical functioning and it increases suggestibility to accept abnormal situations, making a person believe that he is acting in full possession of his faculties.


Jean-Louis Valatx, M.D., is research director at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in Lyons, France.