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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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Kleitman’s first idea was to have Aserinsky test a recent claim that the rate of blinking could predict the onset of sleep. But after a number of vexing weeks trying to concoct a way to measure blink rates, Aserinsky confessed his lack of progress. Kleitman proposed that Aserinsky observe infants while they slept and study what their eyelids did. So he sat by cribs for hours but found that it was difficult to differentiate eyelid movements from eyeball movements. Once again he knocked on Kleitman’s door, something he was loath to do because of Kleitman’s austere and formal air. (Ten years after their famous paper was published, Kleitman began a letter to his colleague and coauthor, “Dear Aserinsky.”)


Aserinsky had the idea of studying all eye movements in sleeping infants, and with Kleitman’s approval embarked on a new line of inquiry—one that, he would later confess, was “about as exciting as warm milk.” Significantly, he did not at first “see” REM, which is obvious if you know to look for it. Over months of monotonous observations, he initially discerned a 20-minute period in each infant’s sleep cycle in which there was no eye movement at all, after which the babies usually woke up. He learned to exploit the observation. During such periods, the fatigued researcher was able to nap himself, certain he would not miss any important data. And he was also able to impress mothers hovering near the cribs by telling them when their babies would wake up. “The mothers were invariably amazed at the accuracy of my prediction and equally pleased by my impending departure,” he once wrote.


At home, Aserinsky was under considerable pressure. His daughter, Jill, was born in April 1952. His wife, Sylvia, suffered from bouts of mania and depression. Aserinsky couldn’t even afford the rent on the typewriter he leased to draft his dissertation. “We were so poor my father once stole some potatoes so we would have something to eat,” recalls Jill Buckley, now 51 and a lawyer in Pismo Beach, California, for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “I think he saw himself as a kind of Don Quixote. Ninety percent of what drove him was curiosity—wanting to know. We had a set of Collier’s Encyclopedias, and my father read every volume.”


After studying babies, Aserinsky set out to study sleeping adults. At the time, no scientist had ever made all-night continuous measurements of brain-wave activity. Given the thinking of the era—that sleep was a featureless neurological desert—it was pointless to squander thousands of feet of expensive graph paper making electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings. Aserinsky’s decision to do so, combined with his adapting the balky Offner Dynograph machine to register eye movements during sleep, led to the breakthrough.


His son, Armond, liked to hang out at the lab because it meant spending time with his father. “I remember going into the lab for the night,” Armond says. “I knew the machine was harmless. I knew it didn’t read my mind. The set up took a long time. We had to work out some things. It was a long schlep to the bathroom down the hall, so we kept a bottle by the bed.”


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