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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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Aserinsky had little patience for Freudian dream theory, but he wondered if the eyes moving during sleep were essentially watching dreams unfold. To test that possibility, he persuaded a blind undergraduate to come into the lab for the night. The young man brought his Seeing Eye dog. “As the hours passed I noticed at one point that the eye channels were a little more active than previously and that conceivably he was in a REM state,” Aserinsky wrote. “It was imperative that I examine his eyes directly while he slept. Very carefully I opened the door to the darkened sleeping chamber so as not to awaken the subject. Suddenly, there was a low menacing growl from near the bed followed by a general commotion which instantaneously reminded me that I had completely forgotten about the dog. By this time the animal took on the proportions of a wolf, and I immediately terminated the session, foreclosing any further exploration along this avenue.” (Other researchers would later confirm that blind people do indeed experience REM.)


In any event, Aserinsky wasn’t much interested in the meaning of dreams, said his daughter Jill, adding: “He was a pure research scientist. It always irritated him when people wanted him to interpret their dreams.”


But a future colleague of Aserinsky’s was intrigued. William Dement was a medical student at Chicago, and in the fall of 1952 Kleitman assigned him to help Aserinsky with his overnight sleep studies. Dement recounted his excitement in his 1999 book, The Promise of Sleep. “Aserinsky told me about what he had been seeing in the sleep lab and then threw in the kicker that really hooked me: ‘Dr. Kleitman and I think these eye movements might be related to dreaming.’ For a student interested in psychiatry, this offhand comment was more stunning than if he had just offered me a winning lottery ticket. It was as if he told me, ‘We found this old map to something called the Fountain of Youth.’ ”


By Aserinsky’s account, Dement ran five overnight sessions for him starting in January 1953. With a camera Kleitman had obtained, Dement and Aserinsky took 16-millimeter movie footage of subjects in REM sleep, one of whom was a young medical student named Faylon Brunemeier, today a retired ophthalmologist living in Northern California. They were paying three dollars a night, he recalled, “and that was a lot to an impecunious medical student.”


Kleitman had barred women as sleep study subjects, fearing the possibility of scandal, but Dement wheedled permission to wire up his sweetheart, a student named Pamela Vickers. The only provision was that Aserinsky had to be on hand to “chaperon” the session. While the sleep-deprived Aserinsky passed out on the lab couch, Dement documented that Vickers, too, experienced REM. Next, Dement says he recruited three other female subjects, including Elaine May, then a student at the University of Chicago. Even if she had not become famous a few years later as part of the comedy team Nichols and May, and had not gone on to write Heaven Can Wait and other movies, she would still have a measure of fame, in the annals of sleep science.


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