I felt kind of groggy this morning, which got me to thinking about the bizarre case of Thai Ngoc, the Vietnamese farmer who, the world last heard news of him in 2006, had been awake for more than 30 years. According to this 2006 article in the English-language Vietnam Investment Review, Thai Ngoc inexplicably stopped sleeping at night in 1976, at the age of 34, and hadn’t caught a wink since. Foreign scientists have journeyed to Ngoc’s home in Quang Nam province in an attempt to determine whether his extreme insomnia was for real, and apparently, it was.
The long-term insomniac’s bizarre condition has enabled him to work a second fulltime job at night, a big economic plus in the hardscrabble Vietnamese countryside. Nevertheless, he told the Review that he wasn’t particularly happy about being awake all the time, and actually had grown to crave dreaming.
He’s not the first to feel that way. History is littered with the laments of famous insomniacs such as Alexander Dumas, Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill. But truly extreme insomniacs — those who purportedly stopped sleeping completely — have been far more rare. A 1950 Milwaukee Journal article produces several examples. Ferdinando Pavoni, an Italian physician, reportedly stopped falling asleep as a medical student in 1890. Over the next 60 years, Dr. Pavoni tried every insomnia cure that he could find in the medical literature, and consulted other physicians and psychiatrists. Nothing made him lose consciousness. His lack of rest, however, seemed to have no ill effect upon his health or energy levels. To fill up his extra hours, Dr. Pavoni saw patients around the clock, and read the works of Dante, Virgil and Homer. He lived to be 80. Other reported long-term long sleepers include Paul Kern, a Hungarian who didn’t sleep for 40 years after suffering a head injury in World War I (though he did rest for two hours daily with his eyes closed).
But Alfred Herpin, a New Jersey man who claimed that he went without sleep for nearly 90 years before dying in 1947, may have been the all-time champion insomniac. Local medical authorities who examined him reportedly doubted his claims, but were never able to catch him sleeping. Herpin’s case, detailed in his 1947 Associated Press obituary, is particularly intriguing because of his odd personal habits. He lived alone in a small shack by the railroad tracks, and rested only by sitting in a rocking chair and reading. He also claimed that he had never brushed his teeth, yet somehow went his lifetime without losing a tooth. Herpin also abstained from drinking alcohol and eating meat, but smoked a pipe constantly and consumed two pounds of tea each week.
None of these extreme insomniacs reported any physical or mental problems from their lack of sleep, with the exception of Thai Ngoc’s possible case of depression. That, of course, is completely contrary to the prevailing medical wisdom, which is that sleep deprivation can be injurious or even, in some cases, fatal. A 1989 sleep deprivation study on rats found that depriving them of slumber for two to three weeks caused them to die. Chronic insomnia has been linked to a variety of health problems, such as increased risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and headaches. There also is a rare condition called fatal familial insomnia, which has been identified in only about 100 people around the world. FFI, which is caused by neurological degeneration of the brain, is linked to the presence of an abnormal protein. It can cause panic, anxiety, hallucinations, rapid weight loss, complete sleep loss, dementia and eventually death in as little as one to two years.
Video: Silvano has a lethal form of insomnia for which there is no cure.
Here’s a May 2010 National Geographic article on the case of Cheryl Dinge, a Brazilian ju-jitsu expert who carries the gene for FFI, and doctors’ efforts to find a treatment for the disease.
Explorer‘s “Fatal Insomnia” airs Saturday July 17 at 7P et.