Can Dehydration Make You Run Around Naked in Public?

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March 19 2012 6:06 PM

Can Dehydration Make You Crazy?

Jason Russell's wife said that's why he was running around in his underwear.

 Jason Russell, a co-founder of Invisible Children.
Jason Russell, the co-founder of the Invisible Children charity, was detained after allegedly pacing around naked on a busy street corner last week

Kris Connor/Getty Images.

Jason Russell, co-founder of the charity Invisible Children and creator of the viral Kony 2012 video, was detained and hospitalized Thursday in San Diego after allegedly pacing around naked on a busy street corner, making sexual gestures and muttering about Satan. Heading off speculation that he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, his supporters (and his wife) have insisted that the strange display was a result of “exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition.” Are those things known to cause bizarre sexual behavior?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Not without an underlying mental illness. Lack of sleep, water, and food can all impair your thinking, but their effects are usually more mundane. Dehydration is the quickest to take its toll, with symptoms appearing in a matter of hours or days. Mild dehydration might give you a headache, slow your reaction time, and hurt your performance on cognitive tests, perhaps because it leads to an electrolyte imbalance in the brain. Extreme dehydration can cause irritability, disorientation, and even delirium. It can also, of course, kill you. Whether death by dehydration is torturous or serene is a matter of debate. But it usually doesn’t involve sexualized outbursts in public.

Sleeplessness and stress can lead to similar symptoms over a period of days or weeks. Research has shown that sleep deficiencies affect everything from concentration to learning and memory to immune system function. Going without sleep for several days straight can cause hallucinations. Studies on animals have shown that prolonged sleeplessness can be fatal. But this is rare in humans, because the most prominent symptom of sleeplessness tends to be an overwhelming urge to sleep. The term “exhaustion” is sometimes used in a looser sense (especially by celebrities) to mean a buildup over time of stress and fatigue, leading to a breakdown. While there is some medical basis for the concept, it’s not a very precise diagnosis, as Slate explained last year.

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Malnutrition is the least likely of the three symptoms to suddenly cause serious mental problems. Mohandas Gandhi survived three weeks without a crumb in a hunger strike. Last spring, a Canadian woman lasted seven weeks on trail mix and candy when she was stranded in a van in the Nevada mountains. Again, though, only necessity or remarkable force of will can keep someone from eating for that long.

So if exhaustion, hunger, and thirst don’t often drive people to doff their clothes in public, what does? It’s impossible to say just what spurred Russell’s behavior without detailed knowledge of his condition. But psychiatrists say that some people who suffer from bipolar disorder report inexplicable urges to remove their clothes or act out sexually while in the grip of manic episodes. Such episodes can be triggered by a variety of things, including certain medications, major life events, sleep deprivation, or stress.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Harris Lieberman of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and Charles Raison of the University of Arizona.

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