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September 21, 2016

VAN ZILE | Stay Awake For Fun

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Today I have a challenge for you. A simple one, yes, and maybe a pointless one too, but a challenge. For no immediate reason, try and stay up for as long as you possibly can.
Most people, in my experience, do not want to do this. I like asking casual acquaintances how long they’ve ever stayed awake at a time, and after people tell me, they almost always say something like, “Ugh, it was awful. I had to stay in the library for 24 hours straight.”

That’s no surprise; of course you’re not going to enjoy staying up if you waste your newfound free time doing work. Sleep deprivation, in fact, is its own reward. It should be pursued for the same reasons that you would climb a mountain or learn a foreign language. You don’t not sleep to work; you don’t sleep to learn.

Everyone knows about the early stages: Mild headache, yawns, disorientation. But push through, and you unlock psychological superpowers that were hidden in your brain all along. The chronically awake get random bursts of euphoria, thrilling mood swings and creativity boosts. It’s a completely new perspective on life: Not sleeping shows you that everything was absurd all along.

Science backs me up here. According to Scientific American, not sleeping causes buildup of the neurotransmitter adenosine, or “tired juice.” This neurotransmitter, in large quantities, happens to mimic the effects of antidepressants. With lots of tired juice in your system, every person you meet looks like a friend.

More science facts: After 21 consecutive sleepless hours, you’re at an equivalent blood-alcohol level of about 0.08, which equals about four big glasses of Franzia in three hours for a 140-lb. male. It really is a bit like alcohol: The sense of mild unreality, the slightly drunken friendliness, the breakdown of motor function. Not sleeping, in other words, is the cheapest drug there is. And with no hangover.

I discovered the God-given benefits of voluntary sleep deprivation by accident. About midway through last semester, I managed to sleep for only 20 of a possible 80 hours, more or less out of boredom. Most of my memories of this period are a haze, but I remember sitting on top of Olin library in a state of narcotic bliss, and driving around Ithaca at night like the whole town was mine, and going on walks in the early morning to hear the poetry of the day’s first birdsong. I came out of the experience a wiser man. You will, too.

Sleep makes people lazy, stupid and morally bankrupt. Legendary novelist (and former Cornell professor) Vladimir Nabokov once called sleep “the most moronic fraternity in the world … It is a mental torture I found debasing.” Not sleeping can’t hurt cognitive function that much if Nabokov did it and still wrote Lolita.

So-called scientists will tell you that not sleeping is bad for you in the long run. News flash: lots of things are bad for you. Do you eat red meat? That’s bad for you. Do you exercise for at least half an hour every day? If you don’t, that’s bad for you, too. A lot of smart people think that soon we’ll be able to upload the human mind to the Internet. There, we can all live in the digital world for a sleepless eternity: the non-sleeper’s dream. So don’t worry about stuff being bad for you, in general. It’s probably not a big deal.

We go through life imagining that the days are closed off from each other, like boxes in a grid. Those who don’t sleep know that existence is a flowing, endless line. When you go without sleep, you experience everything that life has to offer, with no filter. When no one else is awake, the world is yours. You can take up that hobby you’ve been putting off, follow your dreams, do that extra-credit problem you might otherwise have skipped. Granted, you won’t do it particularly well, but you’ll do it.

Today is your day to find out what your brain can achieve. Society wants you to lie down and close your eyes at more or less the same time every night, effectively tossing a few more of your precious hours on Earth down the drain. Instead, enjoy every waking second, and enjoy as many waking seconds as you can. And if you decide to try, take a walk around five tomorrow morning, and if you see me in the morning gloom, nod hello as you walk by.

Max Van Zile is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mvanzile@cornellsun.com. Lukewarm Take runs on Thursdays this semester. 

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