Slate.com ran a story last week about sleep deprivation techniques used by US interrogators at Guantanamo Bay. While perhaps not Abu Ghraibian in their scandalousness---CIA agents forced shackled prisoners to stand for up to 11 days straight---it was enough for Slate columnist Brian Palmer to work to answer the question "Can You Die From Lack of Sleep?"
Palmer's answer? Yes and no---the nut of it that lack of snooze time isn't known to kill humans, but in studies it's been shown to fell rats after 32 days.
Anyone considering the effects of lack of sleep right now would be blind not to miss the connection between Guantanamo's sleep-deprived prisoners and the sleep-starved existences of the pilot and co-pilot of Continental Connection Flight 3407.
The twin-engine Dash-8 slammed into a Buffalo, New York, house February 12, killing 49 on board and one man on the ground. A National Transportation Safety Board inquiry into the crash wrapped up last Friday.
The thrust of the three-day investigation revealed human error was the cause of the crash. There were no mechanical failures.
The cockpit voice recorder taped pilot Marvin Renslow and co-pilot Rebecca Shaw chatting about ice on the windshield and wings; that ice caused the plane to stall.
That's no small deal. But the real problem was that the pilots ignored flight instruments warning them of that danger and failed to react correctly when it struck.
Renslow and Shaw were commuting vast distances. They were based in Newark, but Shaw travelled to work from Seattle and Renslow from Florida.
When it came time for flight 3407, they were too tired. So you might say the National Transportation Safety Board inquiry was answering the same question at Slate's Brian Palmer---Can you die from lack of sleep?
The consequences of being over-tired range from mild to lethal, says Rachel Morehouse, medical director of the Atlantic Sleep Centre at Saint John Regional Hospital.
Mild, as in feeling irritated, impatient or being unable to pay attention. As Morehouse puts it: "Your quality of life kind of sucks." Lethal, as in smacking your car into a tree or driving over a senior walking her Borzoi.
But no government launches an inquiry into someone's Toyota Prius jumping a curb. So it's rare that we actually know what causes single driver accidents. Was it fiddling with the radio knobs? Or was it staying up until 4am playing World of Warcraft?
"You gotta wonder about single vehicle accidents in good weather," says Morehouse. "What was really going on there? When people just sort of drift off the road and into a culvert. I'm thinking of a couple of recent accidents in Nova Scotia where [lack of sleep] was a possible cause."
Morehouse says we might not have a definite answer about how often lack of sleep causes everyday fatalities, but she knows this: we are more sleep deprived as the years roll by.
"We probably got more sleep in our lives before the internet. We definitely got more sleep as a society before the light bulb. But our own internal software hasn't been upgraded," she says with a chuckle. "If you think about it, we're the same organism that we were 3,000 years ago."
It makes one wonder how long we've been manipulating necessary rest as a torture device. The CIA, I suspect, isn't a groundbreaker in the field.
"[Sleep deprivation] is a well-known torture technique," says Morehouse.
But, back to the question at hand, it's not a killer.
"Usually your brain takes over to the point where you can't be kept awake any longer. Even using horrific means. So your brain catches these little micro sleeps, basically to keep you around for more torture. So it's hard to kill somebody by sleep deprivation. But," she says, "you could certainly damage them mentally and physically."
I suppose that's why sleep-deprivation is so popular as a torture technique---there's little chance of death.
But it's not only that---photos of sleep-deprived prisoners aren't going to look like the beaten and bloodied, hooded and electrode-tied we've seen from Abu Ghraib, nor like whatever's in the photos of US detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq US president Obama decided last week not to release.
Photos of the sleep-deprived probably look a lot like what you see in the bathroom mirror at work in the middle of the day.
So, can you die from lack of sleep?
I guess it depends how you define "die"?