To this day, I am not sure how many consecutive nights I spent awake, but it was at least four. Espresso helped me keep going. So did furiously paced, illogical scribbling in a fat blue pocket notebook. As the sleepless days passed, I experienced the increasingly severe psychological effects common with extended sleep deprivation: I hallucinated, rambled, and lost focus. Toward the end of the ordeal, in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, my body was giving out, too. While imposing a monologue on my biology teacher—who, I later learned, thought I was tripping on LSD—I blacked out and slumped mid-sentence. This happened more than once on my final day awake. Sleep specialists call these involuntary collapses “microsleeps.” It’s not hard to see why anybody—a high school chaperone, a parent, a doctor—might view a twitching, crumpling, babbling kid like me as some sort of nutcase. But what happened to me could happen to anyone who stays awake that long, voluntarily or otherwise.
Unlike other basic bodily functions, such as eating and breathing, we still do not fully understand why people need to sleep. There are theories—some think sleep may be the process by which the brain shuts down so it can store the day’s memories. Others, like Dr. Joyce Walseben, a psychiatrist and the former director of Bellevue Hospital’s Sleep Disorders Center, point to sleep’s importance in regulating the body’s hormones. But these theories are not complete. […] Sleep deprivation is nearly as misunderstood as sleep itself, but it can physically and mentally harm people in myriad ways.