Sleep: how long can you stay awake? and 15 other secrets about sleep

What is the longest time somebody did not sleep? What happens in the brain when we sleep? Why do you sleep at night and not during the day? Do insects sleep? How do astronauts sleep in space?

Susanne van Doorn selected 15 funny and useful facts on sleep for Mindfunda that you probably did not know yet:

  • Sleep Fact #1:
    The longest time anybody stayed awake  was 264 hours. Randy Gardner stayed awake for 11 days  and 24 minutes in 1964. He was only 17 at the time. He slept for almost 15 hours when he was allowed to sleep after staying awake that long.
  •  Sleep Fact #2:
    There is a sleep disorder caused by prion disease: Fatal Familial Disorder. A prion is an infectious agent, a protein that has gone wrong. It attacks the nervous system of the brain, causing insomnia. It develops at middle age, and progresses to dementia.  The first onset is sleeplessness, then it progresses. A good book about this awful genetic misconstruction of protein is “The family that couldn’t sleep” written by D.T. Max. (click&find on and support this site)
The family that couldn't sleep
The family that couldn’t sleep


  • Sleep Fact #3:
    During sleep is the cortex very active, especially during rem sleep.
    The Suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain (SCN) is like a clock working on light. It generates your day-night rhythm: your inner biological clock. If the SCN does not register any light, the pineal gland starts to produce melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy.


The pons of your brain ignites the thalamus to slow down the motor parts of your body, causing sleep paralysis.


And last but not least, the neurotransmitters of the Ventrolateral preoptic nucleus shuts down alertness. You fall asleep…

  • Sleep Fact #4:
    You prefer to sleep at night because it was safer for Homo sapiens to be active during daylight. Being dependent on vision as we are, we can see danger coming our way in the light much better then in the dark. We need the light of the sun to set our biological clock. The light needs to be in our eyes that is why its is better not to wear sunglasses when you have trouble sleeping.
  • Sleep Fact #5:
    Sleeplessness can be caused by food, medicine, stress or illness. About 10 percent of the adult population suffers insomnia.
  • Sleep Fact #6:
    Why do you toss and turn at night? Mostly because of a bad bed, replacing the mattress can be a good idea. Stress and sorrow can also cause the tossing and turning.
  • Sleep Fact #7:
    There is something called sleeping sickness. It is an African disease caused by Trypanosome brucei. The parasite enters the lymphatic system and passes into the bloodstream.

The next fact #8 contains the most popular tip: the Sleep Cycle Calculator:

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