Ngoc Thai: The Man Who Doesn’t Sleep

May 5, 2008 Updated: September 29, 2015

“The sleeping shrimp is taken with the current” is an old Puerto Rican saying. Yet, all organisms require a moment of repose. All except for Vietnamese farmer Ngoc Thai.

Sleep is an indispensable necessity for human beings. And while their rest may not always resemble the unconscious state we experience, sleep is not an optional condition for the vast majority of the animal kingdom either. Even the belief that fish don’t sleep is a half truth, since many of them catch their Z’s by leaving half their brain awake while the other portion succumbs to unconsciousness. The same goes for the ostrich, which uses a similar method to both gather rest and guard against predators.

Lack of sleep is a central topic of innumerable books of medicine, with troubles well recognized among those who suffer from it. Even so, there are some cases where only a few hours can be sufficient, such the Piraha tribe of the Amazon, for whom only a short siesta serves as the most restorative slumber.  It appears that no one can go too long without sleep. 

But whenever there is a rule, someone is bound to break it.

How long can a person go without sleep? Last May, a man named Tony Wright was able to break the previous Guinness record of 264 hours (11 days) without sleep, set by 17-year-old Randy Gardner in 1964. Unfortunately for Wright, his 266 hour sacrifice (and any subsequent attempts to break the record) will not be acknowledged by Guinness for health reasons.  However, magician and endurance artist David Blaine has recently claimed that he soon aims to best Wright’s would-be title. 

While these individuals hoped to make history with their sleepless stunts, many suggest that others suffering from severe insomnia may have broken these records many times over, but have had no inclination to brag about their accomplishment.  One such case is Ngoc Thai, a Vietnamese farmer born in 1942.

One day in 1973, this life-long farmer came down with a fever. Since then he has been unable to sleep a wink. In 2007, Thai declared that he was feeling “grumpy” due to his nearly 35 years of sleeplessness; an eternal wakefulness that might be classified as a medical miracle.

Sleepless Symptoms

What usually happens when the human body goes too long without sleep? Anybody who’s pulled an “all-nighter” might be familiar with symptoms such as irritability, reduced cognitive function, a dwindling inability to concentrate, heavy fatigue and more. For those who go several days without sleep, symptoms become severe.

Respiratory sleep physician Dr Vikas Wadhwa at Sleep Services Australia says that a rare disease that interferes with sleep can lead to deterioration of mental and motor functions and worse. “Extended periods of wakefulness are associated with poor health outcomes, and animals subjected to sleep deprivation have resulted in death… There is a disorder called Fatal Familial Insomnia. As part of the progression of the disorder, the person is not able to sleep and death usually occurs within a few months to a few years,” he said through an email interview.

But can this vital necessity for sleep somehow be overcome? Not merely interested in breaking records, a key part of Tony Wright’s sleepless stretch was to further his own ongoing research in examining sleep. He suggests that different amounts of sleep are needed for both sides of the brain.  He consumed a special diet and made other careful preparations for a marathon of sleepless nights that would leave most of us heading for the sheets long before 11 days were up.  Blaine is making similar dietary preparations for his upcoming sleepless record breaker.

Medical Miracle?

Now in his sixties, Ngoc Thai assures that a lack of sleep does not affect him physically, boasting of being able to carry two 110 lbs sacks of rice over 2 miles to his house every day. Still, Thai isn’t merely abstaining from sleep to show off, break a record, or to advance a research project.  In fact, he has tried everything in order to get some shut eye. Be it medications or even traditional folk remedies for insomnia, Thai remains wide awake; alcohol doesn’t even seem to succeed in tumbling Ngoc. According to physicians who’ve examined him, Thai seems in perfect health, save for slightly diminished liver function.

In 2006 Ngoc told Thanh Nien News, “I don’t know if the insomnia has impacted on my health or not, but I’m still healthy and I can do the farm work normally like others.” Over thirty years without going sleep and Thai is still going strong.  What could be behind this sleepless miracle?

According to Dr. Wadhwa, one explanation could be in perception. He says that for some insomniacs, the ability to clearly observe the difference between sleep and wakefulness may be lacking. “The subject may feel they are merely resting when in actuality they are sleeping. They may also be having “Micro naps”—very short naps lasting minutes,” he said.

While Ngoc has received some media attention, scientists have yet to study his case in any detail. Meanwhile, Thai uses his additional evening hours—time not afforded to the rest of us—to do extra farm work.  Guarding the farm against theft, digging large ponds to raise fish, and waking fellow commune members for work, Ngoc has endured nearly 12,000 sleepless nights.

Additional Reporting by Matthew Robertson.

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