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  • Writer's pictureGuylaine Richer de Lafleche

How a Grad Student Discovered REM Sleep Out of Sheer Luck

The REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep state was discovered in 1953 out of sheer luck by a grad student named Eugene Aserinsky.

Aserinsky was primarily interested in studying attention in children. It was during this time that he decided to place electrodes near the children’s eye’s to observe their eye movements while awake. Eventually, the children would surrender to sleep with the electrodes still in place. This left Aserinsky with an astonishing discovery. The children’s eyes were rapidly moving back and forth, and up and down, behind their closed lid’s!

Aserinsky took his discovery to his adviser, Nathaniel Kleitman, where the two of them proceeded with multiple testings on adults in sleep laboratories. They discovered when a patient was woken during a state of REM they likely recalled their dreams, however, patients who were woken during non-REM were less likely to recall any part of their dreams. This determined that the activity in their brain during the REM sleep state was highly linked to dreaming.

Had Aserinsky done this same experiment on adults he wouldn’t have come across his discovery quite so quick. In fact, he may have abandoned the experiment once the patient fell asleep. Only infants and children exhibit the REM state immediately after falling asleep, with adults, it takes much longer. It is for this reason that Aserinsky stumbled upon his discovery out of sheer luck.

I find it fascinating that REM sleep wasn’t discovered until 1953, yet dream research dates back as far back as 3000 BC. Can you imagine what would have come from Freud’s theories had he known about the REM sleep state?


Interested to learn more about REM and the other three stages of our sleep cycle? Click here

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