What’s the minimum number of hours of sleep you need in order to function the next day fully? Eight? Maybe six? If you’re on the bit extreme side, you’d probably say four? It’s not true that sleep is for the weak, regardless of what others say. It is an essential part of our daily activities to keep a healthy mind and body. There was this one baffling case, however, during World War I. A soldier named Paul Kern was shot by an enemy bullet in the head that cost him not his mobility or eyesight but his ability to sleep, and that’s how he ended up staying awake for the next forty years of his life—feeling sleepy yet?

Paul Kern’s Last Sleep

Paul Kern was one of those soldiers who immediately joined up at the outbreak of World War I after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife were assassinated. He was a member of Hungary’s elite shock troop, the group that would lead the charge into the enemy positions and fights on the frontlines of World War I.

Austro-Hungarian Troops at War, 1916. (National Museum of the U.S. Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1915, Kern and his troops were battling the Russian when one of the enemy bullets made its way into his head. It entered through his right temple and instantly knocked him unconscious. The wound was no doubt fatal if left untrearted, so he was immediately brought to Lemberg hospital to have it removed.

Upon doctors’ inspection, they found out that the bullet damaged part of his frontal lobe, a part of the brain considered to be the behavior and emotional control center that’s responsible for a wide range of brain activities like movement, emotions, planning, and problem-solving, to name a few.

When Kern woke up from his injury, he did not know it would be the last time he would wake up. He did not know yet that he had just lost his ability to sleep. It was a symptom that would baffle the doctors for the next forty years, as even for a frontal lobe injury, his case was still a scientific anomaly.

Paul Kern

Importance of  Zzz…

To understand how valuable sleep was, which Kern lost after his brain injury, let’s have a quick look at the importance of sleep. To start, Sleep Foundation wrote in an article,

Sleep is an essential function that allows your body and mind to recharge, leaving you refreshed and alert when you wake up. Healthy sleep also helps the body remain healthy and stave off diseases. Without enough sleep, the brain cannot function properly. This can impair your abilities to concentrate, think clearly, and process memories.

During sleep, your body has the chance to rebuild and restore its vital systems, especially the brain. A lack of sleep can result in many negative effects on the body, including hallucinations and entire changes in personality. Most adults need about seven to nine hours of nightly sleep, while children and teenagers need a bit more.

Meanwhile, according to Scientific American, the longest that humans can stay awake, based on an experiment, is 264 hours or about 11 days. Long-term effects of sleep deprivation included hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, obesity, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, as well as memory loss, decreased brain function, weakened immune system, and psychiatric disorders.

Wide Awake for Forty Years

Soon, Kern left from service and returned to his civilian life. He found out that he did not just lose his ability to sleep but also the desire to do so. He tried to force himself to sleep only to end up feeling more tired than simply staying awake. Kern had no problem with that, as that technically gave him extra eight hours a day to do activities that he would usually spend reading and seeing his loved ones. What was also weird about his case was that there were no overt detrimental effects on him.

To rest his optic nerves, Kern would close his eyes for about an hour each day. Otherwise, he would have headaches.

Many doctors were skeptical about Kern’s claims. Their theory was that either he was lying or he was having microsleeps throughout the day that even he was not aware of. Kern was more than willing to entertain the skeptics and traveled around the world to any doctor that wanted to study his case and physically examine him. All of them ended up being puzzled. Kern was also never observed in any state similar to micro sleeping, and he was always wide awake.

It could be assumed that the bullet took away a part of his brain that required sleep. Although the doctors could not get a specific answer on what exactly happened to Kern’s brain, they believed that his lack of sleep would lead to an early death with his body not having the chance to recover during sleep.

The doctors got that wrong, as Kern died in 1955 at the age of 71. Nonetheless, his case was unique and truly remarkable. Hopefully, the extra eight waking hours every day of his forty years were enough to say that he was able to live his life to the fullest.