Can Lack of Sleep Trigger Hallucinations?

Tired Man Sitting on Bed

A few years ago, I was teaching abroad in Japan and the transition from my home country to East Asia was big one. There was a massive time change, I didn’t speak the local language, I didn’t know anyone, and I had just left a long-term relationship. As a result, I was not getting much sleep at night. There was also the whole issue of it being summer and boiling lava hot in my small Japanese flat. I would walk into work often resembling a zombie, and it was a miracle that I didn’t send kids screaming out of the classroom. I binged coffee all day long in order to make it through work and forced myself to train intensively after hours since I wanted that hot bikini bod. This all perpetuated the cycle of no-sleep since I had drunk so much caffeine and exercised so extensively that I was no longer tired at night. You would think after a day or two I would have learned my lesson. Oh no, I continued on this road for about 2 weeks receiving only 2-4 hours of sleep each night. That’s when things got weird.

One day I was teaching a simple grammar lesson on “there” vs. “their” vs. “they’re,” (it still amazes me that I was able to form a coherent thought during this phase, but I digress) when I looked out at the normally smiling faces of my sweet Japanese students. But there were no sweet smiling faces, instead the faces were distorted with leathery looking skin, black eyes with red cat-like pupils, and sharp little fangs protruding from their mouths. I was so shocked that I dropped the piece of chalk that I was holding and nearly fell from the wooden platform that was placed under the chalkboard. I had to excuse myself from the room and splash some water on my face from the bathroom. I regained my composure and went back into the classroom. This time all the students appeared normally although with concerned looks in their eyes.

I had no idea what was happening. I had never done any sort of recreational drug and had never experienced a hallucination before, but it was pretty clear to me at this point that what I had just transpired was a genuine hallucination. I was too embarrassed to tell my colleagues what I had just witnessed, and plus I did not want to get fired on the grounds of being a lunatic, which is what I felt like at the moment. I called some of my friends and family members and told them what had happened in the classroom. Every single one of them told me to go see a doctor as soon as I could. It was good advice, and I complied.

I went to a local doctor that also spoke English so I could tell him accurately about my situation without having to resort to hand gestures and using broken Japanese that I had picked up. He questioned me about my daily routine and if I had experienced any discomfort in my body. I told him that aside from the soreness caused by working out that I was fine but had not been sleeping well. He then proceeded to ask about how many hours of sleep I was getting each night. I had a FitBit so I could pretty accurately tell him that I was getting 2-4 hours each night. I could see the light bulb go off in his head when I mentioned the lack of sleep. He told me that when we don’t receive enough sleep that our brains are effectively “on fire,” like they would be if we were using an abusive drug. Basically, the mind is pulling from several different regions of the brain in a confused state which can, in turn, lead to hallucinations.

After getting some much-needed rest (where I slept pretty much all weekend long), I went on to research the subject of sleep deprivation and its link to hallucinations. The results were quite fascinating. The first things you might notice about yourself, or others might notice about you, due to lack of sleep, is a mood shift. People don’t always know when they are suffering from sleep deprivation and the amount of sleep needed varies from person to person. Seven hours might be enough for Sarah over there but Michelle might need eight or nine to function at peak level. Humans are very good at “getting by” with little sleep but that does not keep them from suffering from sleep deprivation. You will notice this when you or another become more irritable and show little positivity in facial expressions. A person might express that they are happy, but the sentiment will not quite reach their eyes, and they will also have a hard time convincing another that they are indeed happy. Likewise, positive emotions can be misjudged by someone who is sleep deprived, often interpreting happiness in others as negativity or neutrality.

Once a person has been awake for over 24 hours, microsleeps can start occurring. Microsleeps happen when a person falls asleep for short periods of about 30 seconds or less. When a person is experiencing a microsleep, their brain stops processing information and are blind for the duration event, even if their eyes are left open. Delirium can also occur during this phase with many reporting that they felt disoriented or silly after a period of no-sleep. I, for one, remember being very forgetful and laughing more than usual while in my sleep deprived mode.

Most people that report experiencing hallucinations usually do so in the 36 to 48-hour range of no sleep. It is extremely difficult to stay awake for this long due to the body demanding that you get some rest, but given the right conditions and circumstances, a person can forgo sleep and, as a result, may fall victim to hallucinations. The precise scientific explanation is still unknown but may have to do with disrupted parts of the brain that are responsible for processing vision. Dopamine levels could also be the culprit as the amount produced will fluctuate more sporadically in a sleep deprived state. Reports of psychosis developed in some individuals that stayed awake for 72 hours or more, resulting in the need for psychiatric help. This is one of the reasons why sleep deprivation is considered an illegal torture tactic in most countries.

After my scary hallucination incident, I really started to value my sleep. Even when I have a ton of work to do, I try my best to a get a full 8 hours of rest each night. If you are curious about how to prepare yourself better for good quality sleep, check out our article about Nighttime Routines [link]. I can assure that I will never be reaching Alice in Wonderland levels of hallucinations after my small taste in Japan!

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