But it was only in our own "enlightened" era, once the invention of electricity made bright, 24-hour lighting and sound amplification technically available, that sleep deprivation as a form of state-sponsored "no-touch torture" came into its own as an art and science. The Gestapo used it in Nazi Germany, the Japanese used it on POWs during World War II, the Chinese on prisoners during the Cold War and on dissidents to this day, the Israelis on Palestinian militants (and Palestinian factions on each other), the British on IRA members, the Pinochet dictatorship on subversivos, the police and army in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia on their own alleged enemies—it's probably the rare country that hasn't used it at one time or another. The Soviet secret police called sleep deprivation a "conveyor belt," because prisoners were kept awake day and night by revolving shifts of interrogators who had at them until they signed the requisite "confessions." (One Russian dissident of the 1960s said interrogators bragged that after many hours of this treatment, they'd gotten his 14-year-old son to "confess" to writing the novel Eugene Onegin—actually written, of course, by Alexander Pushkin, an insomniac himself, and published in 1837).
Considering the horrible array of tortures widely used in hellholes around the world, people often find it hard to believe that simply keeping people awake really qualifies as torture, or even "enhanced interrogation," as our Interrogator-in-Chief calls it. But according to prisoners or detainees subjected to "sleep management," the antiseptic term used by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former U.S. military commander in Iraq, the modern forms of tormentum vigiliae are indeed as tormenting as many far more draconian torture methods. "After two nights without sleep, the hallucinations start, and after three nights, people are having dreams while fairly awake, which is a form of psychosis," says John Schlapobersky, psychotherapist to the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture, who was subjected to sleep deprivation in apartheid South Africa. "By the week's end, people lose their orientation in place and time—the people you're speaking to become people from your past; a window might become a view of the sea seen in your younger days. To deprive someone of sleep is to tamper with their equilibrium and their sanity."
In his book White Nights: The Story of a Prisoner in Russia, about being a POW in a Siberian labor camp during World War II, former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin wrote that prisoners "subjected to extreme tortures had not cracked, but lost the will to resist with sleep deprivation. In the head of the interrogated prisoner, a haze begins to form. His spirit is wearied to death, his legs are unsteady, and he has one sole desire: to sleep, to sleep just a little, not to get up, to lie, to rest, to forget. . . . Anyone who has experienced this desire knows that not even hunger or thirst are comparable with it. I came across prisoners who signed what they were ordered to sign, only to get what the interrogator promised them. . . . uninterrupted sleep!"
Can you die from lack of sleep? Again, nobody really knows because sleeplessness is so confounded with so many other chronic and life-shortening maladies that it's hard to pin lethality on sleep deprivation alone. Experimental animals deprived of sleep for long die. Hard-to-contemplate experiments with rats and puppies (yes, puppies) have demonstrated that total sleep deprivation killed the former within 17 to 20 days (their hair began to fall out, they developed skin lesions, swollen paws, and hyperaccelerated metabolism) and the latter within 3 to 6 days.