Sleep

The Legacy of William Dement

He transformed our awareness of the value and importance of sleep.

Posted Jul 09, 2020

Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

The world of sleep and dream research lost one of its all-time greats with the passing of William Dement. He died on June 17, at the age of 91. Dement was an innovative clinician, a popular teacher, and a strong voice for greater public attention to the dangers of inadequate sleep. He led the creation of the field of sleep medicine and devoted much of his career to mapping out various kinds of sleep pathologies and disorders. Our present-day understanding of the vital importance of sleep for human health depends in large part on his work.

Dement earned his M.D. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where he worked in the 1950s and 1960s with Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky on some of the first detailed studies of the sleep cycle. He is generally credited with coining the term “rapid eye movement (REM) sleep” as a way to describe the regular phases of heightened neurophysiological arousal during the sleep cycle, phases in which an easily observed external sign is the darting movements of the sleeper’s eyes under their closed lids. He also performed some of the first experiments looking at the connections between the physiology of sleep and the psychology of dreaming.

After his time at Chicago, Dement went to Stanford University and in 1970 founded the Stanford Sleep Medicine Clinic. His research and public advocacy brought new awareness to sleep as a key factor in transportation safety (sleepy drivers and pilots are a danger to everyone), child education (sleepy kids can’t learn), and economic growth (sleepy workers are less productive).

For years, he taught a popular course at Stanford on “Sleep and Dreaming,” and one of my only regrets from my time as a Stanford undergraduate was that I never took Dement’s class. But his influence has been enormous on me and everyone who studies sleep and dreams.

Among his many writings, the 1997 book The Promise of Sleep (co-authored with Christopher Vaughan) stands out as an authoritative statement of his basic views about sleep. It also includes numerous stories and reflections about the eventful trajectory of his career.

A particularly illuminating story appears in an earlier text, Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep: Exploring the World of Sleep (1972), in which Dement relates the following dream:

“Some years ago, I was a heavy cigarette smoker—up to two packs a day. Then one night I had an exceptionally vivid and realistic dream in which I had inoperable cancer of the lung. I remember as though it were yesterday looking at the ominous shadow in my chest X-ray and realizing that the entire right lung was infiltrated. The subsequent physical examination in which a colleague detected widespread metastases in my auxiliary and inguinal lymph nodes was equally vivid. Finally, I experienced the incredible anguish of knowing my life was soon to end, that I would never see my children grow up, and that none of this would have happened if I had quit cigarettes when I first learned of their carcinogenic potential. I will never forget the surprise, joy, and exquisite relief of waking up. I felt I was reborn. Needless to say, the experience was sufficient to induce an immediate cessation of my cigarette habit.”

In his comments on this powerful dream, Dement highlights a truth often expressed in spiritual or religious terms, but less often acknowledged in scientific discourse: “Only the dream can allow us to experience a future alternative as if it were real, and thereby to provide a supremely enlightened motivation to act upon this knowledge.” (1972, 102)

Indeed. Thank you for everything, Dr. William Dement.