The Russian sleep experiment is a popular urban myth which began to circulate online in “creepypasta” forums (so-named for the ease with which you could copy-paste spooky content) in the early 2010s. But could this deeply unsettling legend have had some roots in fact?
The story goes that Soviet-era scientists created a stimulant which they believed would enable soldiers to not require sleep for up to 30 days. They decided to test their new gas on five prisoners, promising them their freedom upon completion of the experiment. They locked the five men in a hermetically sealed chamber and began pumping in the gas. Within a few days, the men were exhibiting the kind of paranoia and psychosis that is a typical symptom of sleep deprivation. But as time went on, they began to act even more strangely.
15 days into the experiment, when scientists could no longer see the men through the thick glass of the chamber, or hear them through the microphones, they filled the room with fresh air and unlocked it. There, they discovered that one of the men was dead, and the four surviving test subjects were all sporting horrendously violent injuries, some of which appeared to be self-inflicted.
Attempts to sedate the men were either unsuccessful, or led to their deaths the moment they lost consciousness. Finally, when one of the researchers asked what exactly these men had become, the last surviving test subject told him that they represented the potential for evil that exists in all human beings, which is usually contained by sleep, but had been unleashed by their constant wakefulness.
Chilling stuff. But is any of it actually true?
According to a video fromThe Infographics Channel on YouTube, which provides animated summaries of events from history, current events and literature, the Russian sleep experiment almost certainly has its basis in fiction. For one thing, there’s the fact that the story’s sole original source seems to be a website dedicated to telling creepy (made-up) stories. But even the science doesn’t hold up.
While there is some truth to the claims that amphetamines have been used to keep soldiers alert in historical times of war, there is no scientific evidence of a gas existing that could keep anyone awake for 15 days. And studies have found that after just 48 hours without sleep, people tend to become slower, disoriented, prone to making mistakes, and ultimately less effective as a soldier.
Still, whoever came up with the story of the Russian sleep experiment in the first place deserves points for their creative writing… if not for medical accuracy.
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