'I suffered far more hallucinations than I expected': Festival show explores the science of sleep

Mark Thompson on the top of a mountain

Mark Thompson delivered a lecture for 140 hours and 42 seconds to break the Guinness World Record for the longest lecture - Credit: Norwich Science Festival

Ahead of his Sleep Talking event at Norwich Science Festival on Tuesday, October 26, TV astronomer and festival patron Mark Thompson tells us how it felt to break the Guinness World Record for the longest lecture, and how he hopes it will reveal some interesting insights into the effects of sleep deprivation.

On September 11, Mark Thompson launched his attempt to beat the Guinness World Record for the longest lecture, which stood at 139 hours, 42 minutes and 56 seconds. Mark completed the challenge in the early morning of September 17, setting a new (still to be validated) Guinness World Record of 140 hours and 42 seconds!  

We caught up with Mark to find out more about this incredible feat of human endurance… 

When and how did you first become aware there was a record for the longest lecture? 

Back in 2015, I gave a 24-hour lecture at the Royal Institution in London for charity, and I recall wondering whether there was an existing world record that I might beat in doing so.   

I soon learned the current record, and decided that lecturing for more than five days was crazy and thought no more about it! 

Fast forward a few years and I was having a coffee with Natalie Bailey from the Norwich Science Festival and she talked me into trying to break the record. It’s all entirely her fault! 

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Was it as hard as you expected? 

In some respects, it was harder than expected and in others, it was easier! My voice felt absolutely fine throughout the whole attempt, which I put down to some amazing training before and various breathing and vocal exercises.   

I did, however, develop some massive ulcers on my tongue which made eating and talking really painful.   

I suffered far more hallucinations than I expected from day three onwards, and the moments when my circadian rhythm (my internal body clock) dipped were hard. I just wanted to sleep and found it a real psychological uphill battle to keep going.  

Throughout the challenge you were monitored by doctors and experts who were observing the effects of sleep deprivation. What are you hoping they might be able to learn from your challenge? 

I teamed up with sleep researchers from Cambridge, Oxford and Uppsala University in Sweden. They were investigating a number of areas including: 

  • Impact of sleep deprivation on my circadian rhythm to see if it changed. 
  • Impact on my cognitive skills as I became more sleep deprived. 
  • To see how my appearance changed as I became more sleep deprived, which they hope will inform a study leading to algorithms that phones may be able to use in the future to warn their users they are tired and need sleep, especially if they are about to drive! 

Unfortunately, these studies will take some time, but I hope we can share some of the initial findings at my Sleep Talking event at the Norwich Science Festival. 

How did you feel when you realised you had beaten the world record? 

It felt amazing to get to the end. I couldn’t believe I had made it.  

My body felt on a short-term high and I spent another couple of hours chatting with the team, family and press. As soon as I got in the car (as a passenger) I fell asleep before we even left the University of East Anglia campus.   

When I got home, I slept for about 13 hours, woke up for a couple of hours and then slept again for another seven hours. It felt so nice to sleep! 

Is that it now for Mark Thompson and Guinness World Record attempts? 

Absolutely... well, possibly. Do I have any intention to lecture for even longer? Not a chance!  

That said, I have been eyeing up a few records that require more of a team effort and if I can use them to get science into the public eye a little, then it’s all worthwhile.  

Find out more at Mark’s Sleep Talking event on Tuesday, October 26, 7-8pm at The Forum, Gallery, when he talks to sleep scientists Dr Joanne Bower (UEA) and Dr Tristan Beckinschtein (University of Cambridge) about the science of sleep and wellbeing.

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