History of Sleep Medicine: A Story of the “Rat Dreams”

By Alexander Golbin, MD

This story I have heard first from Dr. Vilen Garbusov, my professor of history  in the medical school in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. This professor was highly respected both by medical scientific and clinical community due to his encyclopedic knowledge. We had many chances to confirm his interesting stories. So, we trusted him on this one.

About hundred years ago, at the beginning of the last century during the turbulent World War 1 times people in the rural areas of Russia fearing of the upcoming end of the world were preoccupied with thousands superstitions.

Near the city  of Harkov in Ukraine in a small town lived and worked a young family doctor with a cumbersome name Podyapolsky  He was impressed by the strong believes among the local women that if a pregnant women has a dream that a mice or a rat ( who were abundant around at that time, and people got used to them) jumps on a foot of a pregnant women, she would have a baby with a pigmented and hairy area on the baby’s skin.

He was surprised to find out in this town an unusual amount of children with birthmarks similar to hairy nevus with a fancy scientific name “hamartoma” or “trichofolliculoma”, which is an exceptionally rare skin disorder.

Doctor Podyapolsky was an enthusiast of Pavlovian concept of the supreme role of the Central Nervous System over body functions; he studied neurophysiology which was on its peak in Russia at that time, and frequently used hypnosis as a very fashionable   accepted treatment in the traditional medicine.  The nature of hypnosis was considered as a partial artificial sleep with increased ability to accept external suggestions. He decided to perform an  experiment to prove or disprove an idea that a strong believe (The Central Nervous System’s power!) could actually produce any changes in the body (peripheral organs) such as hairy nevus.

He organized several young women in a group for pre-delivery  pain hypnotherapy, and, during sessions among other therapeutic suggestions he suggested the image of a rat jumping on their feet. To his credit he also emphasized that the pigmented spots on their babies skin will disappear within very soon after the birth  (malpractice lawyers were not born yet at that time and doctors were respected the second after God).

Guess what? Believe it or not, but many  women in his group delivered babies with  a skin pigmentation which disappeared soon after the birth. Dr. Podyapolsky had used hypnotic suggestions to treat skin pigmentations and moles for other afflicted children with great success. He went to Harkov and presented his findings to a famous Russian psychophysiologist  profesoor Platonov who published later a groundbreaking book: “The Word as the Healing Factor” which became a textbook for following generations of European doctors.

Professor Platonov supported young doctor’s work and suggested hypnotherapy to be a formally recognized treatment of skin disorders. Later on I was able to read “The Word as the Healing Factor” – Dr. Platonov’s book. Despite the fact that Platonov gave a full credit to Podyapolsky, official historians later on  cited Platonov as the father of psychodermatology. History is not always fair thing. Platonov himself was also unfairly forgotten because he, together with Ilya Mechnikov, was one of the founders of a new very promising field – psychoimmunology – a scientific study of the effects of mind on immunological responses -.the hope for cancer patients.

As wise people say: “the key for the future are hidden in the history”