Rockettes, EEGs, and Banana Cream Pie
We experience a dream as real because it is real. . . . The miracle is how, without any help from the sense organs, the brain replicates in the dream all the sensory information that creates the world we live in when we are awake.
By the time Eugene Aserinsky found himself in a dungeonlike lab room at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1951, wiring his eight-year-old son, Armond, with electrodes to record his eye movements and brain waves as he slept, he was desperate. The experiment he was embarking upon absolutely had to work so that he could finally earn his degree and get a job. A perennial student at age thirty, with enough college course credits to qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records but no degree other than a high school diploma, Aserinsky was struggling to provide the basic necessities for his son and pregnant wife in an apartment so spartan that its only heat source was a potbellied kerosene stove. Hardly a candidate, it would seem, to make a discovery that would revolutionize scientific thought about the brains activities during sleep and launch a research odyssey that would shed light on how the mind did everything from learning to regulating our moods.
But Aserinsky was hardly an ordinary student, and from early childhood on, hed been living unconventionally, to say the least. After his mother died shortly following his birth, Eugene was brought up in Brooklyn solely by his father, a neer-do-well Russian immigrant who was a dentist by trade but whose true passion was separating people from their money in late-night card games. When Aserinsky was still in elementary school, it was already evident that he was extraordinarily bright, so his father recruited the boy as a card-sharking partner. Together, they developed a signaling system that fleeced countless unsuspecting chumps in pinochle games. Since the games usually went on until well after midnight, Eugene often skipped school so that he could sleep late. In fact, for about a third of the school year, his classroom seat was empty. In those Depression years, however, absences were often overlooked by school officials and his academic performance was so stellar that he skipped ahead a couple of grades. Enrolling in Brooklyn College at the age of fifteen, he soon transferred to the University of Maryland, where he managed to take courses in everything from Spanish to dentistry without ever getting a degree before dropping out to become a soldier when World War II began.
After he returned from England, where hed served as a high explosives handler in the Army, friends persuaded him he was wasting his talent in the civil service job hed taken in Baltimore to support his wife and two-year-old son, Armond. So he applied to the graduate program at the University of Chicago, which had a reputation for bending the rules to admit students who showed signs of brilliance. He apparently fit the bill. In later years, Aserinsky--a slightly built man with dark hair, a David Niven-style mustache, and a penchant for dressing formally in suit and tie even in the lab--loved to point out that hed gone straight from a high school diploma to a Ph.D. without any degrees in between.
When he arrived in Chicago, however, he discovered that the only available adviser in the physiology department was Nathaniel Kleitman, the first and only scientist in the world who had devoted his entire career to the study of sleep. A Russian immigrant who lived to the age of 104, Kleitman was so devoted to his work that hed spent a full month living in an underground chamber in a Kentucky cave to see whether the absence of environmental clues about time of day could shift the bodys natural cycle to either a twenty-one-hour or a twenty-eight-hour day. (As he learned, the answer is no; our bodies have an internal clock thats naturally set to a sleep-wake cycle of twenty-four to twenty-five hours.) Later, he also served as a guinea pig in his own sleep deprivation experiment, staying awake for 180 hours straight, an experience that he concluded could be an effective form of torture.
From The Mind at Night, chapter 1, pages 1-16. Copyright 2004 by Andrea Rock. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, except for brief quotations embodied in critical articles with reviews, without written permission from the publisher, Basic Books.
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