The Extreme Sleep Deprivation Experiment That Was Televised In Britain

young man in bed with eyes opened suffering insomnia and sleep disorder thinking about his problem
“O magic sleep! O comfortable bird, / That broodest o’er the troubled sea of the mind / Till it is hush’d and smooth! O unconfined / Restraint! imprisoned liberty! great key / To golden palaces.” —John Keats, “Endymion”

In A Nutshell

The British Channel 4’s reality show Shattered certainly caused a commotion back in 2004. Made by the same malevolent few who spawned Big Brother and following a similar premise, Shattered gathered together 10 volunteers who had to try and stay awake for seven days straight. (The show tried to hide the fact that everyone was actually allowed an hour or two a day.)

The premise was quite simple: If you were the last to fall asleep, you won £100,000. However, during the course of the week, participants underwent hour-long “You Snooze You Lose” challenges which included cuddling a giant teddy bear or counting sheep on a television. The contestants were closely monitored throughout and were given numerous “performance tests” to explore and document the effects of sleep deprivation for science and, of course, the entire thing was broadcast for our entertainment.

The Whole Bushel

Shattered sold itself as a televised experiment exploring the effects of sleep deprivation. There have been many sleep deprivation experiments over the last 100 years, mainly involving animals all showing similar results, linking lack of sleep to a drastic drop in cognitive function. For most of the animals tested, a complete lack of sleep was fatal, with lab rats dropping dead after two weeks of total sleep deprivation.

There have been numerous sleep deprivation experiments involving humans (which were thankfully non-fatal) where the effects of sleep loss were similar to those of displayed in the animals.

Shattered gathered together 10 volunteers who would try to stay awake for a full punishing week with no sleep. Whoever could make it that long and was the last one to stay awake won a whopping £100,000.

But should the contestants attempt to steal a few precious moments of micro-sleep and close their eyes for more than 10 seconds, £1,000 would be deducted from the final prize fund. Surprisingly, hardly any money was deducted from the final cash pot, making the final “sleep-off” all the more tantalizing as there was so much up for grabs.

During the week-long experiment, the effects of sleep deprivation were closely monitored through a series of mental agility tests. The contestants who performed the worst were sent into an elimination “You Snooze You Lose” challenge where they had to stay awake for an hour while enduring various sleep-inducing tasks such as watching paint dry in a warm, comfy chair or cuddling a giant teddy bear.

One the many physiological effects of sleep deprivation is hallucination, which many of the contestants eventually suffered from. Though perhaps they were playing it up for the camera, we all know how crazy we can be if we haven’t had our eight hours.

Some notable episodes include one contestant becoming enraged when the others refused to put on their Japanese armor and play with an imaginary ball. At one point, two people were convinced their clothes had been stolen.

Though this may sound alarming, the danger to the contestants was limited. For health reasons, the contestants were allowed a couple of hours of sleep a day, a fact which was heavily downplayed and hardly mentioned for the duration of the show. Professor Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough stated, “If the contestants had been deprived of sleep completely they would not have been able to get beyond Wednesday.”

Shattered attracted many complaints and scrutiny from the public, medical professionals, and even politicians. Neil Douglas, professor of respiratory and sleep medicine at Edinburgh University heavily condemned the show, saying, “This is not a scientific experiment. It is voyeurism of people in distress to no benefit of anybody.” Shattered was investigated by Ofcom, a UK communications regulator, which eventually cleared the program of any wrongdoing since the contestants were closely monitored and the advice of medical experts was taken into consideration.

In the end it was the youngest contestant Clare Southern, a 19-year-old trainee police officer, who won the final sleep-off where she took home £97,000 and the best night sleep she ever had.

Show Me The Proof

Telegraph: They’ll be shattered—but not dead
The Guardian: Should Shattered be allowed?
BBC News: Watchdog clears Shattered TV show