The Stubborn Scientist Who Unraveled A Mystery of the Night

Fifty years ago, Eugene Aserinksy discovered rapid eye movement and changed the way we think about sleep and dreaming

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Night after night Eugene Aserinsky had been working late. He’d dragged an ancient brain-wave machine, an Offner Dynograph, from the basement to the physiology lab on the second floor of Abbott Hall at the University of Chicago. He had tinkered with it long enough to think it might not be totally unreliable. And now, late one December evening in 1951, his 8-year-old son, Armond, came over to the lab and sat patiently on an Army cot while his father scrubbed his scalp and the skin around his eyes with acetone, taped electrodes to the boy’s head and plugged the leads into a switch box over the bed. From the adjacent room, Aserinsky calibrated the machine, telling Armond to look left, right, up and down. The ink pens jumped in concert with the boy’s eyes. And then it was lights out, the sharp smell of acetone lingering in the darkness.

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Armond fell asleep; his father tried not to. Sustained by pretzels and coffee, Aserinsky sat at a desk under the hellish red eyes of a gargoyle-shaped lamp. He was 30 years old, a trim, handsome man of medium height, with black hair, a mustache, blue eyes and the mien of a bullfighter. When he was not in his lab coat, he usually wore a bow tie and a dark suit. He was a graduate student in physiology, and his future was riding on this research. He had nothing but a high school degree to fall back on. His wife, Sylvia, was pregnant with their second child. They lived on campus in a converted Army barracks heated by a kerosene stove. Money was so tight Aserinsky would eventually have to accept a small loan from his dissertation advisor, Nathaniel Kleitman, and then be obliged to feign enthusiasm for the distinguished man’s suggestion that he economize by eating chicken necks.


The hours crept by in the spooky gray-stone gloom of Abbott Hall. While the long banner of graph paper unfurled, Aserinsky noticed that the pens tracking his son’s eye movements—as well as the pens registering brain activity—were swinging back and forth, suggesting Armond was alert and looking around. Aserinsky went in to check on his son, expecting to find him wide awake. But Armond’s eyes were closed; the boy was fast asleep.


What was going on? Yet another problem with the infernal machine? Aserinsky didn’t know what to think, standing in bewildered excitement, on the threshold of a great discovery.


The existence of rapid eye movement (REM) and its correlation with dreaming was announced 50 years ago last month in a brief, little-noted report in the journal Science. The two-page paper is a fine example of the maxim that the eye can see only what the mind knows: for thousands of years the physical clues of REM sleep were baldly visible to anyone who ever gazed at the eyelids of a napping child or studied the twitching paws of a sleeping dog. The association of a certain stage of sleep with dreaming might have been described by any number of observant cave men; in fact, if the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave painting of a presumably dreaming Cro-Magnon hunter with an erect penis is any indication, maybe it was.



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