May 8, 2019

Reaching Into the Unknown: Sleep Science

From creating the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction to redefining Chicago’s administrative borders, students, faculty, and alumni of the University of Chicago have greatly contributed the story of human discovery. 

However, some discoveries made in Hyde Park have gotten more press than others. Indeed, while many are well aware of the impacts of the Chicago school of economics, few know that there is also a Chicago school of literary criticism, or that blood depots, sleep science, and even the missing link between fish and tetrapod were all pioneered and discovered at the University of Chicago. This column, “Reaching into the Unknown,” focuses on some of the lesser-known discoveries at the University of Chicago, ranging from the historic to the obscure and from the fascinating to the downright bizarre. We’re kicking off with an innovation that is strangely fitting for the “life of the grind” at UChicago: the roots of modern sleep science.

Given how many UChicago students bemoan not getting enough sleep, it’s ironic that modern sleep science has its roots in Hyde Park, pioneered by professor Nathaniel Kleitman in the 1940s and ’50s. Kleitman was born in Moldova to a Jewish family in 1895, but the outbreak of World War I forced him to flee his home country. He immigrated to the United States in 1915, and by 1923, Kleitman had earned his Ph.D. from UChicago’s Department of Physiology. 

He became a professor at the University in 1925. In 1953, he and his student Eugene Aserinsky were the first people to identify rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, after using an electroencephalogram machine to measure brainwaves in sleeping subjects, including Kleitman’s 21-year-old daughter.

Due to the lack of computers powerful enough to evaluate the experiment’s data, Kleitman and Aserinsky’s experiment produced up to half a mile of paper each session, which they printed overnight to evaluate the results of their tests. Their findings confirmed their theory that the period of rapid eye movement they saw in their subjects during sleep was indeed connected to brainwave activity and dreaming. For this discovery, among others, Kleitman is now recognized as the father of modern sleep science. 

“It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Kleitman and Aserinsky’s breakthrough,” said Bert States, the author of three books on dreams and dreaming to Smithsonian Magazine.“The discovery of REM sleep was just about as significant to the study of cognition as the invention of the telescope was to the study of the stars.”