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Psychology Case Study: Peter Tripp & Sleep Deprivation

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Peter Tripp was a well-known New York City radio personality who stayed awake for over 200 hours as a stunt to raise money for charity. This lesson discusses how his experience permanently changed the way psychologists understand sleep deprivation.

Charity

In January 1959, a New York City D.J. named Peter Tripp did something highly unusual: He stayed awake for 201 hours in a row. Tripp had decided to do what he called a ''Wakeathon'' to earn money for the March of Dimes charity and to break the current world record. He performed most of this stunt in a glass booth in the middle of Times Square.

Since Tripp was not going to be sleeping for over 8 days, medical doctors and psychologists agreed to stay with him during the event to make sure he was safe. Originally the doctors advised against it because they thought it could be dangerous, but Tripp was determined, so they went ahead with the experiment. Since this length of wakefulness had yet to have been tried or recorded, psychologists and doctors were interested to see how it would affect him.

Wakeathon

Peter Tripp did the marathon of sleep deprivation completely on air, and doctors were with him around the clock. During the first stages of sleep loss Tripp seemed to be just fine. He was known to be a fun and cheerful fellow, and he kept up his jokester attitude until the second day. By that time, he was getting angry easily and began to swear at people he knew. His normal amiable behavior was replaced with surliness and cruelty. The doctors noticed during this time that his body temperature was also lower than normal.

After five days he started to hallucinate, and thought he saw people who weren't there. He talked about cobwebs on people's faces, and a suit that looked like ''fuzzy worms.'' One of his most terrifying moments was seeing a spider crawling around and out of his shoes. It was then that the psychologists began trying to figure out what was happening. Until Tripp's experiment, hallucinating to this extent had not really been observed in instances of sleep deprivation. As the experts watched Tripp, they realized his hallucinations were following a pattern.

Tripp would start seeing things that were not there in 90-minute intervals, which was very similar to the timing of Rapid Eye Movement (or REM) sleep, during which we have our most vivid dreams. He would occasionally see things at other times, but not as severely as he did during those 90 minutes. Psychologists determined that these hallucinatory sections were ''waking dreams.'' Although Peter was not sleeping, his mind was nonetheless, in its wakefulness, dreaming. They also observed his brainwave patterns, which showed that he was sleeping during these hallucinations, even though he was awake.

By the end of the whole ordeal, Tripp started to struggle with his identity. He was having delusions and paranoia and did not trust anyone around him. He did not know who he was and at times thought he himself was an imposter. He also thought the doctors were conspiring against him.

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