JAD ABUMRAD: Recently, we interviewed a guy named Steven Johnson, who wrote a book. And he tells this story of how the book came about.
STEVEN JOHNSON: There was one specific event actually that really kind of triggered it, which is that I tried a -- a biofeedback experiment.
JAD: He had found a place where he could get hooked up to a bunch of sensors and probes, and then see what was happening inside his body in real time.
STEVEN JOHNSON: So I went in, having been kind of curious about this, and tried it out. And it's kind of a therapeutic environment where there's a kind of a doctor who sits there and talks to you. It's a bit like going to a shrink. And we started this session, and there was a little screen, and you see this little line kind of scrolling along. And initially, it's very even, a kind of flat line. And after about a minute or two of talking, the doctor actually said, "You know, your adrenaline system seems very well-regulated."
JAD: [laughs] Oh, my God!
STEVEN JOHNSON: And I said, "Thank you very much. Thank you. I've always suspected that it was." And then for some reason, about a minute or two after that I decided -- as I sometimes do -- that I would make a joke. And so I tossed out some stupid little joke about something. And instantly a huge spike appeared on the screen. There was this giant kind of surge of adrenaline that had been released in my body. And we both kind of turned and looked at the monitor and said, "Whoa! What was that?" And then at the end of this session, he -- we talked for about 30 minutes, and he gave me this printout of the whole session. And it was effectively a chart of my attempts at humor.
STEVEN JOHNSON: It was this flat line interrupted by six spikes of jokes, you know, successful or otherwise that I had tried to make. And I looked at that, and I thought of all the times over the years that I had found myself, you know, making borderline inappropriate jokes at situations where a joke was probably not the appropriate thing to do. When I teach, you know, compulsively making jokes to get laughs from the students. And I thought, somehow years ago I set up this little circuit in my head that guaranteed me this little jolt of adrenaline every time I made a joke. And I felt kind of like a drug addict more than a funny guy.
JAD: A glimpse of himself he was not prepared for. And it got him thinking ...
STEVEN JOHNSON: How many other routines like that are going on in my head at any given time? And what would happen if I went out and tried to track them down?
JAD: What would happen is he'd write a book. A book about the brain, which in turn got us interested in the brain. And what better time? In the thousands of years that human beings have been curious about what's going on in our heads, we can actually find out now. Get inside a charged, buzzing brain remotely while the owner of that brain is still alive and doing normal things like wiggling a finger or drinking a Pepsi. Using giant magnets, researchers can watch blood flow in the brain and guess at what part of the brain commands to finger to wiggle. What part likes Pepsi, what part likes Coke. Which part leans Democrat, which Republican. Seriously, these are tests researchers have actually done. They've put brain-imaging helmets on nuns as they meditate, sleepers as they dream. It is a new world.
JAD: Not unlike 17th-century Venice, when craftspeople figured out a deep mystery. How to take a piece of glass, line it with tin, and make a mirror. A mirror that was cheap, and more importantly, straight. All of a sudden, Europeans could see their own reflection as they actually are, not wobbly or distorted. Or imagine even earlier, when Narcissus accidentally catch his own reflection in a pond, and is amazed at that mysterious person looking back at him from the cloudy depths.
STEVEN JOHNSON: I remember being seven or eight, and I would -- I would, you know, kind of look into the mirror and have those moments of like, "That's me. That's me in the mirror."
STEVEN JOHNSON: "That's weird that -- what does it mean that I'm me?" And what -- you know, and have those kind of slightly surreal moments when I was seven. And to some extent, I can't get those moments anymore. Like, I could even kind of get the weirdness of kind of looking at yourself and thinking, "What does it mean that I'm -- I'm me?"
JAD: What Steven Johnson just described, standing in front of a mirror and freaking out, is a little like repeating a word over and over. The meaning of the word gets dissociated from the sound, just like the image of you becomes disconnected from the real you, the inner you. The little guy sitting at the controls behind your eyes, of the self, the soul, whatever you want to call it. That thing is something scientists are looking for right now. And it's what we'll be looking for this hour. Where is it?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Where -- you mean where's -- where is the inner real me?
JAD: Yeah. Yourself.
ROBERT: Oh. That's such a big quest -- well, introduce yourself and then we can begin talking about this.
JAD: Okay. This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad. And you?
ROBERT: Robert Krulwich. We know that our bodies change, our cells change, moods change, dreams change. Everything about a normal, healthy person is flux, is change. Yet somehow, there is a oneness, a throughline. A continuous sense of self. You wonder, like how the heck does that happen? Where is this self thing?
JAD: And that's how we're gonna start. We're gonna hear from somebody who thinks he's found it. Thinks he can point to it inside us. Later in the program, we'll hear a story of a woman who has certainly lost it. Woke up one day as a completely different person.
ROBERT: And I will introduce you to a scientist who says he can explain, or at least he has a good theory about why human brains differ from all the brains of all the other creatures.
JAD: All that is coming up. Okay, let's get things started.
ROBERT: When you ask the basic question: where is the self? The ancients had an answer. Always the same answer: right there. That's where the center of rational thought, speech, everything is.
JAD: Didn't they actually try and cut it open and see if it was living in there?
ROBERT: Yeah, and then they found out it was a pump, so they were really disappointed. So they began to gaze upward a bit. And here's the modern prejudice. V.S. Ramachandran is one of the world's great neurologists. If you ask him where the self lies, he'll tell you without any question, it lies where you'd hear this.
JAD: And that is what?
ROBERT: That is the sound of a neuron firing.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: It's astonishing that we got 100 billion little wisps of jelly in your head called neurons. And it's the activities of these neurons, a flux of ions across them, the passage of current, that is life.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: You know, what we call our mental life, our thoughts, our ideas, our ambitions, our passions, our fear of death, our love life, everything -- even what you think of as your own intimate self -- you -- is the activity of these little specks of jelly. This is the greatest realization in the last hundred years. In a sense it's obvious when stated in that -- in that manner.
JAD: But not all brains can do what he just described.
ROBERT: What makes you think that?
JAD: Now, let me introduce you to Julian Keenan. He works at Montclair State University. I talked to him recently. He told me this story of many years ago, his mentor Gordon Gallup did an experiment. He took a bunch of chimpanzees, put them in a room with a mirror where they could see their own reflection. When he did, this is what happened.
JULIAN KEENAN: At first, they would attack the mirror. They'd started beating their chests, and started threatening it as if the animal in the mirror was another chimpanzee. But then slowly, over the course of tens of minutes, the chimp began to say, "Wait a minute. This guy's doing exactly what I'm doing."
JAD: Wasn't there something about them sticking their butts on the mirror, too?
JULIAN KEENAN: Yeah, there was a lot of that going on. And they would show you all the signs that they knew that that was them in the mirror.
ROBERT: Wait. How did they -- how does a chimp know that the image in the mirror is the chimp? Couldn't, like, he be thinking, "Oh, let's just bash butts with that other chimp?"
JAD: Yes, you're right. This is anecdotal. How do you prove it? And that says Julian, is where a clever little technique called the Mark Test comes in.
JULIAN KEENAN: My mentor Gordon Gallup, one day he was shaving. And as he turned away from the mirror, I think there was a spot of shaving cream left on its face. And as he was wiping it off he wondered, would a chimp do the same thing?
JAD: In other words, would the chimp look at the mirror and think, "Hmm. That guy, he sure does look like me. Moves like me. Maybe that creature is me. And if that guy has a spot on his face, maybe I have a spot on my face."
JAD: To test this, to see if chimps can recognize themselves, they did an experiment.
JULIAN KEENAN: So you knock him out. You give him some anesthesia -- a half hour. You knock him out. And while they're unconscious, you just paint a red mark on top of their forehead.
JAD: Wait for them to wake up.
JULIAN KEENAN: And then you put them in front of a mirror again.
JAD: And there is the test. The chimp wakes up with a spot on its head, and then touches the spot on its own head.
JULIAN KEENAN: I mean, the typical thing that it will do is it will wipe the mark and then smell. What is that? Is that food? Is that tree sap? And that was clear evidence that these chimpanzees recognize themselves.
ROBERT: Oh my God, that's pretty interesting.
JAD: Isn't it?
JAD: Especially if you think about what the chimp is doing. Its creating a representation of itself that floats free of its body. That over there is the same thing as me over here.
ROBERT: Well, it's very intellectual, you know? Because you can't feel that other guy. You don't know that it's you from touch. You just see it over there, and you know somehow that that's you.
ROBERT: That's -- that's your brain going there. That's your brain.
JAD: And this thing with the chimps opened up a Pandora's Box.
JULIAN KEENAN: This was a major discovery, because it revealed that the chimpanzee has some sense of self-awareness. Now what that sort of means is that well, the chimpanzee might have a soul or a self a lot like humans have. And it immediately brought up a lot of ethical considerations. You know, should they be in zoos? I mean, should we charge them for murder, you know? Do they have equal rights? And there's some people today who are even fighting for equal rights for chimpanzees.
ROBERT: Well, these are unusually and passionate people, you know? But the question that lingers in my mind is, where did this idea of a self -- recognizing a self -- where does it come from?
JAD: Where do our mirror powers come from?
JAD: Bill Clinton.
ROBERT: From who?
JAD: Bill Clinton.
ROBERT: President Bill Clinton?
JAD: I mean, it's not really Bill Clinton. But he does figure largely into an experiment that Julian Keenan did recently that tries to answer that question.
JULIAN KEENAN: Well, the sort of idea was, can we get a sort of more elegant way of testing self-recognition? We know that humans recognize their own faces, so what we came up with was this morph design. And I was a CompUSA and saw this bargain bin $9.99 morph software which we still use today.
JAD: And with this software, Julian Keenan does the following: he takes a photo of himself ...
JAD: And a photo of Bill Clinton he has lying around.
ROBERT: Which we all have. I mean, I have a pile of them.
JAD: He's a big Bill Clinton fan. And he digitally smooshes the two photos together, makes a morph. 50 percent Julian, 50 percent Bill.
ROBERT: So right on top of each other.
JAD: Yes, like in that Michael Jackson video.
ROBERT: Oh, yeah. I know that one.
JAD: The first thing he realizes when he takes a glance at this photo, is that he finds it very easy to see himself in the morph.
JULIAN KEENAN: I would always say, "Oh, that looks like me."
JAD: Whereas when other people see the morph, the first thing they see is Bill Clinton.
JULIAN KEENAN: Anyone else looking at that picture would say, "You're out of your mind," right? That looks like Bill Clinton.
JAD: Julian's sees Julian. Everyone else sees Bill.
JULIAN KEENAN: And we termed that was the self-effect. There's this real affinity to see yourself in these morphs.
JAD: And that's where things get interesting. He tries it out on his patients, takes a photo of Bill Clinton.
[CLIP BILL CLINTON: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."]
JAD: And a photo of a test subject, which let's pretend for the moment is you.
ROBERT: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.
JAD: Good. And with the computer, he morphs the two together.
ROBERT and BILL CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.
JAD: So he shows you the picture. Same thing. You see more of you in the morph, everyone else sees more of Bill in the morph. You see more of you, they see less of you. Now the twist. Julian injects you with a special anesthesia that puts half your brain to sleep.
JULIAN KEENAN: You can anesthetize, safely anesthetize each hemisphere one at a time. So you can knock out the left hemisphere for about five minutes, and/or knock out the right hemisphere for about five minutes. Now, what we did was we showed them these morphs. So a 50-50 picture. And what we found was that without the right hemisphere, they wouldn't see themselves. But when they did have the right hemisphere, they always saw themselves.
JAD: In other words Robert, when you're looking at this morph of you and Bill Clinton and the right side of your brain is turned off, you will see mostly Bill.
[CLIP BILL CLINTON: I did not have ...]
JAD: But when the right side of you is turned back on, suddenly you will see mostly you again.
ROBERT: ... sexual relations with that woman.
ROBERT: So what you're saying then, is my ability to recognize myself is somehow lodged in the right side of my head.
JAD: That's what he thinks.
JAD: This seems to be a real victory for the right hemisphere. I mean, we always talk about the left hemisphere as being the smart one that does language, can solve problems, does math. But here you're saying without the right hemisphere we wouldn't really know who we are.
JULIAN KEENAN: Right. You know, it sometimes it feels like when your crusading for right hemisphere rights, you know, we're gonna -- we're gonna march on Washington or something. The right hemisphere has been called the minor hemisphere throughout the whole of last century, because it doesn't have language. And I think that this is really the main reason we have a right hemisphere is it gives us self-awareness.
ROBERT: So the idea of a self, while in our brains, it turns out it's from a neighborhood in our brains if you believe this guy.
JAD: Yeah, it's kind of lopsided. Over to the right.
ROBERT: Over to the right which, you know, I thought myself was kind of everywhere.
JAD: But, you know, pinning it down might not be as easy as Julian thinks. Especially when you hear stories like this next one about how the soul or the self can just sometimes take a walk.
JAD: Producer Hannah Palin tells this story of her mother.
HANNAH PALIN: 15 years ago, my mother had a brain aneurysm when she was only 46 years old. I've come to refer to it as "The day my mother's head exploded."
HANNAH'S MOTHER: It was Friday the 20th of August, and I woke up with a bad headache. And in the past, I'd go to an aerobics class and then my headache would go away. It was just like magic. It was -- it was great. And I went to the aerobics class, and I worked out a little bit. And the headache just kept getting worse and worse. Somebody took it upon themselves to call 911. And I was laying on the couch, and all these little men came in with a stretcher and whisked me off to St. Francis Hospital in Beacon.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: And that's the last thing I remember for four months.
HANNAH PALIN: When I finally arrived by my mother's bedside, my stepfather led me into the tiny room where my mother lay hooked up to every conceivable wire and monitor. I took her hand just to let her know that I was finally there, and she responded with a surprisingly tight squeeze. She knew her only child was there and her spirit wanted to let me know how happy she was, but her fragile body just couldn't handle it. Every monitor in the room went crazy. Alarm bells went off. The room became this living thing, hissing and beeping, consuming my mother's lifeblood. Nurses and doctors filled the room. My mother tightened her grip on my hand. And then I fainted.
HANNAH PALIN: The mother I grew up with died that day, and was replaced by an entirely different person who just happens to have the same memories and body and family and address as my dead mother. She spent the next three months unconscious in intensive care. After an operation to repair her aneurysm, my mother spent two more months in a regular hospital room. She was able to sit up and talk a little bit and was conscious, although not exactly coherent.
HANNAH PALIN: One day, I couldn't help but ask where she thought her spirit had gone while the rest of her lay unconscious at the Westchester Medical Center. She told me she'd been in Vietnam.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: Well, I remember that I was a little old man in Vietnam, and I grew vegetables. It has something to do with reincarnation, I think. I don't know if that was a previous life, or that's the life I'm going to, or what. But it was so far away from anything I know now. I know nothing about vegetables, and I know nothing about Vietnam, and I know nothing about being a little old man. But that's what it was.
HANNAH PALIN: When Christmas came around, my mother was moved to a rehab facility, but she was still just the shell of a person. She could barely talk. She was using a walker. She needed help going to the bathroom. She still had a feeding tube coming out of her stomach.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: I had to learn to walk again. I had to learn to climb stairs. It was a real weird sensation, being 46 years old and having to learn to walk again.
HANNAH PALIN: After seven months, my mother was released from the hospital and I returned to Chicago to pick up my life where I left off. When I returned home, I found myself grieving, and feeling really guilty about it. I mean, my mother was still alive. I was supposed to be happy, but I just kept feeling like she was gone forever. So I ordered myself to have patience to wait it out. I was her daughter. She needed me. And then slowly, very slowly, this other person began to emerge.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: Oh, I know what we can do. Let's sing, Hannah! Goodbye my Coney Island baby. Hello, my own true love.
HANNAH PALIN: That's my mother and I singing together. My mother never used to sing. Now she'll erupt into song at the mere hint of an attentive audience. And then she got a tattoo above her left knee, a little red heart on a green stem. She's addicted to Wendy's hamburgers, and even sings a little song about how much she loves going there.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: Wendy's, Wendy's, Wendy's. I love Wendy's. Come with me to Wendy's.
HANNAH PALIN: I tell myself. My mother wasn't always like this. My mother used to be very proper, very meticulous, very aware of social conventions. The ones that usually discourage people from wearing Groucho Marx glasses while singing Hey Good Lookin' in the middle of an airport.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: I used to be very perfectionist-oriented. Now if things are perfect, that's nice. If they're not so perfect, it's okay.
HANNAH PALIN: It's all just okay.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: Yeah. Yeah, everything is okay. I love sex now. I didn't -- wasn't too crazy about it before. I don't know what the difference is, but I'm just more open to that kind of thing, you know? [laughs]
HANNAH PALIN: You also like to sing now.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: Oh, yes, I love to sing.
HANNAH PALIN: I don't remember you singing before.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: No. There's something about that experience that was very freeing.
HANNAH PALIN: My mother's illness, like a death or an accident, was one of those moments when time stops. When normal disappears. When you marvel that everyone else in the world can still laugh and go to the movies and complain about the weather. That's an explosion. In those moments, you can see life happen. It has clarity and meaning and purpose in the midst of its horror and pain.
HANNAH PALIN: But then those moments pass, and you're consumed by the trivia of daily life once again. Sometimes when I'm overwhelmed by the task of making my way through the world, I try to focus on the fact that the electric bill does not matter. The idiot driver glued to their cell phone does not matter. The mind-numbing day job truly does not matter. But welcoming the strange and the different? Being open and available for my husband, my friends, my family? Experiencing love and laughter as often as possible? That's what matters. Because it can all be taken away in one brilliant flash.
HANNAH PALIN: Do you feel different than other people?
HANNAH'S MOTHER: I don't know. I don't know how other people feel. But I do know that I don't worry about death at all. Not at all. Because I've kind of seen it, and I've been there, you know? And that's very liberating.
HANNAH PALIN: Did you have any memory of near-death experience?
HANNAH'S MOTHER: No. A lot of people have asked me that, but I didn't ...
HANNAH PALIN: Didn't see the white light, or ...
HANNAH'S MOTHER: No.
HANNAH PALIN: Glow on the other side, or anything.
HANNAH'S MOTHER: Well, not unless being a farmer, a vegetable farmer in Vietnam is the other side. You know, that could be what heaven is all about: being a vegetable farmer in Vietnam. And maybe that's the whole thing.
JAD: That's producer Hannah Palin with a story she calls The Day My Mother's Head Exploded. Thanks to Jack Straw Productions for helping her tell that story.
ROBERT: I've never heard a version of heaven quite like that.
JAD: Isn't it amazing?
ROBERT: I'm trying to think, like -- where my heaven -- I don't know. Like, last night in my dreams actually, I was in a cafeteria with a lot of writers. All of them wearing wire-rimmed glasses.
JAD: Did it feel like heaven to you?
ROBERT: It felt good!
JAD: [laughs] Before we go to break, I played the story you just heard for a neuropsychologist in the UK. His name is Paul Broks. Wrote an incredible book called Into The Silent Land. And he said an interesting thing to me. We are all just a car crash or a slip away from being a different person.
PAUL BROKS: That's right. And that's precisely how I felt the very first time I went into one of these neurological rehabilitation centers. I suddenly felt very fragile. That in an instant we can be completely transformed. And of course, it's not just the person who's affected. The person who's injured who's affected. It's also the people around them. And there's an interesting little anecdote of this, as I was with someone who had a severe head injury. And I went to see him at home. I did some work with him at home, and he got very angry at one point. Got very tired of doing my tests, and threw all the test materials on the floor. And his wife came in eventually. He calmed down. And I just said to her later on, "How do you cope with this when that happens?" And she said "Well," -- she said something that really interested me. And she said, "Well, when it happens, I think it's not really him. It's not really Jeff."
PAUL BROKS: "It's not really him." But paradoxically, what -- what kept her with him, and kept her supporting him was that -- was the belief that at some level it really was him. So I think we kind of -- people in that situation have this kind of paradoxical survival strategy that, well yes, they have to accept it's not the person, it's not really them. But on another level, why are they still with them?
JAD: Is there something in that belief though, that could possibly be true? I mean, is there something that doesn't change? I don't know. I mean, some people might call it a soul, right? Do you believe in something like that? Or is everything purely as fragile as you say?
PAUL BROKS: I personally don't believe in an immaterial soul. And I think in a case like his -- let's call him Jeff -- you'd have to ask, "Well, what's happened to Jeff's soul? What's happened to Jeff soul in this situation? Has the soul also been mutilated along with the brain? I think I would suggest that this -- the notion that there is a sort of immaterial soul, which some people might believe departs the body at death, and -- and some people might believe takes on another body in a future life, that's an illusion, I think. Other people take a different line on this. And other people do believe there is self stuff or soul stuff somewhere. But the question is I would put to them, is where? Where is it?
JAD: In the brain? I mean, is it possible we just haven't dug deep enough and found it?
PAUL BROKS: But how would you know when you found it? What would you be looking for?
JAD: I don't have ...
PAUL BROKS: I have no -- I have no idea what you'd expect -- what you'd expect to find. And what is it you would expect to see? How would you ever know when you saw a soul?
JAD: But what makes you, Paul Broks, you, your personality? What makes you consistent from one day to the next? Like, what makes your personality?
PAUL BROKS: Yeah. Well, what makes me consistent is that I looked -- I have the same body more or less from day to day. I look in the mirror and it's me, usually. Well, in fact it's always me. It's never anybody else. But essentially, what I tell you -- and if you'd like to ask me about myself is I'll tell you a story.
JAD: If I'm understanding you correctly, ourselves are simply a narrative, a sort of narrative center?
PAUL BROKS: The extended self, which is what we normally think of when we think about ourselves, is really a story. It's the story of what's happened to that body over time.
JAD: Paul Broks is a neuropsychologist and author of the book Into The Silent Land. This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad. Robert Krulwich and I will continue in a moment.
[ANDREA: This is Andrea Tralma from Hudson, New York. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]
JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad. Today on Radiolab, Robert Krulwich and I are tackling a question which is very big in neuroscience at the moment. What makes you, you? Sounds actually like a childlike question and it is, except no one really knows the answer. Before the station ID, we heard one scientist's theory that the self or the mind or even the soul is nothing but a story the brain tells itself.
ROBERT: Listening to -- what was the name of that guy? Paul ...
JAD: Paul Broks.
ROBERT: Paul Broks. The notion that what you are, what a self is, is just a story you tell, has some scientific authority behind it.
JAD: Does it? Because I actually didn't exactly know what he's talking about.
ROBERT: Well, V.S. Ramachandran, who's a world famous neurologist, also believes that what is peculiarly human about us is our ability to construct stories. And he says this ability is new. Or relatively new. It happened at a particular moment in time. And he thinks he knows about when.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Maybe 200,000 years ago, half a million years ago, something absolutely astonishing happened.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: The evolution of introspective consciousness, and the evolution of the self.
JAD: The evolution of introspective consciousness. What does that mean?
ROBERT: Well, let's do this simply and back up for a minute.
ROBERT: There are different sets of creatures in the world. There are dumb ones. There are smarter ones. And then there's us.
ROBERT: So let's just choose, say, a worm for our dumb candidate. Imagine you're a worm. You're crawling through the ground like worms like to do, and you bump into a pebble. Now, here's what a worm doesn't do. A worm doesn't think, "Dang! I can't seem to move this pebble!"
ROBERT: Because a worm doesn't have a brain big enough or a nervous system strong enough to support the idea of, "Dang," "Me," "Pebble."
JAD: Certainly not "Dang."
ROBERT: There's no -- I'm not a worm, but as far as V.S. Ramachandran is concerned, inside the worm's head there is no picture at all. There is just a set of inherited instincts. No pictures in that worm's head. No story there.
ROBERT: So let's step up to another level of creature. You give me a creature, but it has to be as more complex one.
JAD: Okay. How about going back to the monkey?
ROBERT: Okay, monkey. Monkey swinging through trees. Monkey sees a lady monkey. The lady monkey, if it has a red -- how should I put this? -- bottom, then the lady monkey is interested in sex. So if you notice, says Dr. Ramachandran, if that rump is ...
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Red. Red rumps of female primates.
ROBERT: I like the way you said "Red rumps!"
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: I claim a monkey, after seeing red, can react to it. Maybe he can even remember the red and do the appropriate reaction.
ROBERT: And the appropriate reaction in this case would be to grab that lady monkey and, you know, make a baby with her. This monkey pulls an image of another monkey in, makes an association. And so there's images in the monkey's head. But now here's something the monkey can't do.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: It can't juggle the symbol "red" in its head.
ROBERT: So if I said to a monkey, "See that Volvo over there, that white Volvo? Let's make it a red Volvo." Any human being can take a white car and make it in their imagination ...
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: He can paste red on it in his imagination.
ROBERT: But a monkey you don't think can do.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: It cannot do.
ROBERT: And this is so simple for a human being to do. And just -- let's run through a quick exercise.
ROBERT: Imagine for me a bird in your head. Got a bird in there?
JAD: Yeah. What kind of bird?
ROBERT: I don't -- a canary.
JAD: Yes, now it's there.
ROBERT: Is it there? Okay.
JAD: It's there.
ROBERT: Make it into a brilliantly red canary, even though ...
JAD: Okay. Like, kind of a cardinal but canary's body. It's there.
ROBERT: That's right. Now make it into a striped canary.
JAD: Striped. What color stripes?
ROBERT: Purple stripes.
JAD: Purple stripes on a red canary. Wait, hold up. Purple stripes on a red canary. Got it.
ROBERT: Is it in there now?
JAD: It's there. In all its vivid glory.
ROBERT: Ornithological stripedness is not one of your favorite -- all right. So at this moment, I'm going to point out something to you. There is no such thing as a purple-striped red canary in the world. You could search the world and never find one.
JAD: That does not surprise me.
ROBERT: But you've got one now in your head, however lamely, it's in there somewhere. Only a human being could do this, because only humans can take images from the real world, pull them into their heads, divide them into parts, and then start turning those parts into abstractions. Monkeys, says Ramachandran, can't do that.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: A monkey can be trained to think of a bird. Ring a bell and show it a bird. And the fifth time, you just ring a bell. Presumably it's conjuring up an image of a bird. Now, you can not only train a human to think of a bird, you can train a human to think of babies. But now, the human can think of a bird's wings on a human baby. Conjure an angel, which he has never seen. This is because he now has what are called tokens. He has created disembodied tokens.
ROBERT: So color is a token, big is a token. Adjectives are tokens.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Adjectives are tokens. And then he can manipulate these tokens. Juxtapose them in counter-intuitive ways. He can create even outlandish scenarios, what we call imagination.
JAD: Let me see if I can get this straight.
JAD: You've got the worm, who can sense the world, sort of. And then you've got the monkey who can pull the world in to some degree and make an association.
JAD: Then you got us, and we can play with those associations.
JAD: How did -- how did that happen?
ROBERT: Well, because of evolution. It's like, we're not different from other creatures. We're just more than other creatures. And when we have these brains that have this extra, like -- it's like a layer on layer cake, we can manipulate any idea at all. And we're constantly doing that. We're constantly abstracting, we are imagining so often, so thoroughly, and so well, that we eventually can imagine ourselves. I can sit here looking right at you, and I can see you right now as Jad the little boy if I want, or Jad the old, dying man if I want. Or Jad with purple stripes and an elegant set of taffeta wings.
ROBERT: The idea of self -- if you think about it this way, is you take all the things that have ever happened to you, plucked from your life. If you're sad, you might pluck the sad things. If you're happy on one particular day, you might pluck the happy things. And you stitch them together into a general, abstract idea. And me then, an idea of self is really a story that we tell ourselves, it can change from day to day, and it allows the human being to exercise that peculiarly human muscle: to experience stuff and then to abstract it into a story. That's self.
JAD: This is Radiolab. Jad here with Robert Krulwich. So this makes more sense to me now, I think. This idea that the brain spins a story moment to moment as you're walking about, and that story is you, yourself. If it's so automatic, does it even happen when we sleep?
ROBERT: Why do you ask that?
JAD: Well, I asked Paul Broks this question.
JAD: And he told me something really strange. Something that made me think that maybe when we're asleep the brain loosens its grip on the self.
JAD: And that the self tumbles into a thousand parts. Or creatures. I don't know. What he told me basically, is that when he was young he would have these dreams where he'd see these things, these parts of himself, presumably. The dream would be going along fine, everything would be normal. And then all of a sudden along would come these little people.
PAUL BROKS: Yes, literally little people. There were -- there are hordes of these little creatures over -- I'd see great pageants of them sweeping by. And occasionally they would come up, and I'd sense they're kind of looking at me, but -- but then they'd go away again, and I -- I'd just sort of watch them.
JAD: So they were -- they were aware of you?
PAUL BROKS: That's a very eerie thought. Because it's my brain that was producing them, as well as producing me.
ROBERT: That's such a strange thing. He really means little people.
JAD: Yeah. And oddly enough, he discovered he wasn't alone.
PAUL BROKS: Which is why I was very fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson, because his descriptions were very similar to the sort of things I experienced.
JAD: Robert Louis Stevenson, you know? The author?
JAD: One of the most important writers of the 19th century. Apparently, he saw them too.
JOSHUA KING: The little people who manage man's internal theater.
JAD: That's how he describes them in one particular essay read for us here by an actor, Joshua King. For anyone who's ever wondered where do dreams come from, where does an idea come from, this essay's an interesting read. And confusing. First of all, Stevenson always refers to himself in the third person, as he ...
JOSHUA KING: This honest fellow ...
JAD: Or the dreamer.
JOSHUA KING: The dreamer.
JAD: Not sure why, but maybe it's not so strange considering the rest of the essay is about little people in his mind. In any case, what he writes is that at first, the stories they acted out for him were, well they didn't make any sense.
JOSHUA KING: The little people played upon their stage like children, rather than like drilled actors performing a set piece to a huge hall of faces.
JAD: But over time, an interesting thing happens. Stevenson decides to become a writer.
JOSHUA KING: To write and sell his tales.
JAD: And things change.
JOSHUA KING: Here was he, and here were the little people who did that part of his business in quite new conditions.
JAD: Now the little people weren't just the things he saw in his dreams, they were a business opportunity. See, he was broke always and had to crank out the stories. So, very much in the spirit of the Industrial Revolution, he decides to exploit his little people. Turn them into a storytelling factory. Which meant, he writes ...
JOSHUA KING: The stories must now be trimmed and paired and set upon all fours. They must run from a beginning to an end and fit with the laws of life. The pleasure in one word had become a business. And that, not only for the dreamer, but for the little people of his theater, they understood the change as well as he.
ROBERT: So then what happens?
JAD: Well, he needs stories he can sell.
JAD: So he trains his little people. This is what he writes in his essay. He trains them.
ROBERT: What -- what do you mean?
JAD: Well, he had this elaborate pre-bedtime ritual. He would lie on the bed, feet off, raise one arm, close his eyes.
ROBERT: Raises his arm?
JAD: Yeah, it was a signal for the little people of his mind to tell him a story. And man, it better be a good one.
JOSHUA KING: And behold, at once the little people begin to bestir themselves in the same quest and labor all night long.
JAD: What he did not realize was just how good they could be.
JOSHUA KING: Here is one exactly as it came. It seemed this time that the dreamer was the son of a very rich and wicked man. The owner of broad acres and the most damnedable temper. The son had been living abroad on purpose to avoid his father. When he returned, he was to find his father married again to a young wife. Because of this marriage, as the dreamer indistinctly understood, it was desirable for the father and son to have a meeting. Yet both being proud and both angry, neither would condescend on a visit. But meet they did accordingly in a desolate sandy country by the sea.
SON: To the shore please, driver.
DRIVER: Yes, sir. Watch your step.
JOSHUA KING: And there they quarreled.
SON: How dare you?
FATHER: You selfish bastard!
JOSHUA KING: And the son, stung by some intolerable insult, struck the father dead. No suspicion was aroused. The dead man was found and buried. The dreamer succeeded to the broad estates. And found himself installed under the same roof with his father's widow.
WIDOW: Good evening.
WIDOW: Will you join me for supper?
SON: Oh. Thank you.
JOSHUA KING: These two lived very much alone, as people may after a bereavement. Sat down to the table together. Shared long evenings.
SON: Yes, please.
JOSHUA KING: And grew daily better friends.
WIDOW: Oh, the west garden is so lovely this time of year.
SON: Has that old plum tree gone to flower already?
WIDOW: Oh, yes! Do you recall it?
SON: Yes, yes. I used to climb it as a boy.
WIDOW: [laughs] Oh, really? Did your father teach you how to climb trees?
SON: No. No, he didn't.
JOSHUA KING: Until it seemed to him suddenly that she was prying about dangerous matters. That she had conceived a notion of his guilt. That she watched him and tried him with questions. So they lived at cross purposes. A life full of broken dialogue, challenging glances, and suppressed passion. Until one day, he saw the woman slipping from the house in a veil.
WIDOW: To the station, please.
DRIVER: Yes, ma'am.
JOSHUA KING: He followed her by train to the seaside country, and out over the sand hills to the very place where the murder was done. There, she began to grope among the bents.
WIDOW: There's got to be something here.
JOSHUA KING: He watching her, flat upon his face and presently ...
WIDOW: Where is it?
JOSHUA KING: ... she had something in her hand.
WIDOW: This is it!
JOSHUA KING: He could not remember what it was, but it was deadly evidence against the dreamer. And as she held it up to look at it, perhaps in the shock of the discovery, her foot slipped and she hung in some peril on the brink of the tall sand-wreaths.
WIDOW: Somebody, please help me!
JOSHUA KING: He had no thought but to spring up and rescue her.
SON: Take my hand.
JOSHUA KING: And there they stood face-to-face. She, with that deadly matter openly in her hand. His very presence on the spot another link of proof.
WIDOW: But ...
JOSHUA KING: It was plain she was about to speak.
JOSHUA KING: This was more than he could bear.
JOSHUA KING: And he cut her short of the conversation.
SON: Let's be going.
JOSHUA KING: They passed the evening in the drawing room, as in the past.
SERVANT: Tea, madam?
WIDOW: Yes, please.
SON: Thank you.
JOSHUA KING: But suspense and fear drummed in the dreamer's bosom.
SON: Why has she not denounced me yet? When will she? Will it be tomorrow?
JOSHUA KING: So his thoughts ran. Once indeed, he seized an occasion when she was abroad. He ransacked her room.
SON: She's hidden it!
JOSHUA KING: And at last, hidden away among her jewels, found the damning evidence.
SON: Oh, my God!
JOSHUA KING: There he stood, holding this thing which was his life, in the hollow of his hand and marveling at her behavior. That she should seek and keep, and yet not use it. And then the door opened, and behold herself.
WIDOW: Uh, um. What's my line?
SON: What are you doing?
WIDOW: What are you doing?
JOSHUA KING: Once more they stood eye to eye with the evidence between them. But before he left the room, he laid back down his death warrant where he had found it, and at that her face lit up. The next he heard, she was lying to her maid.
MAID: Oh my goodness, what happened to your room? A robbery!
WIDOW: Oh, no, no, no. It's nothing. It's -- I'm embarrassed, really. I thought I'd lost something, you see, and I was looking everywhere ...
JOSHUA KING: Flesh and blood could bear the strain no longer. And I think it was the next morning, though chronology is always hazy in the theater of the mind, that he burst from his reserve.
SERVANT: Bacon, sir?
SON: No, thank you.
SERVANT: Your tea, madam.
SON: Please. That will be all.
JOSHUA KING: And no sooner were the servants gone, and these two protagonists alone together, that he leapt to his feet. She too sprang up with a pale face.
SON: Why have you not denounced me? You know everything. Why do you torture me?
JOSHUA KING: She fell upon her knees. And with outstretched hands ...
WIDOW: Do you not understand? I love you!
JOSHUA KING: Hereupon, with a pang of wonder and mercantile delight, the dreamer awoke. But his mercantile delight was not of long endurance, as it became plain that in this spirited tale, there were unmarketable elements.
JAD: Ultimately, Robert Louis Stevenson found this story unusable, and he couldn't sell it. But there's a deeper question here. A question of authorship. Let's think about it in more modern terms. When you see a movie and the lights go down, you settle in. From one moment to the next you, the viewer, have no idea what's gonna happen. You scream at the scary parts, laugh at the jokes, cry during the sad scenes. You're taken on a ride. But in order for you to have that experience, someone needed to write the movie, someone needed to direct it. Someone other than you. How is it when we dream, that we do all three at the same time? We write, direct, and watch the film as if we've never seen it before.
JOSHUA KING: The little people are substantive inventors and performers. To the end, they had kept their secret. The dreamer had no guess whatever at the motive of the woman, the hinge of the whole well-invented plot, until the instant of the dramatic revelation. It was not his tale. It was the little people's. I am awake now, and I know this trade. And yet I cannot better it. The more I think of it, the more I am moved to press upon the world my question: who are the little people?
PAUL BROKS: It was almost like watching a video. You could sort of go up and inspect their activities, scrutinize their activities very closely.
JAD: That's how neurologist Paul Broks describes his little people dreams.
PAUL BROKS: And it kind of fascinated me that this was part of me, part of my brain activity, but not me. So which -- which part of my brain activity is me?
JAD: And if it seems there's a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde quality to the mystery of the little people, that is no coincidence. On another night our dreamer Robert Louis Stevenson, once again captivated by the little people, screamed so loudly his wife wakes him.
WIFE: Robert! Robert darling, wake up! What's wrong!
JAD: He was not pleased.
JOSHUA KING: Damn it, woman. I'd been dreaming a fine bogey tale!
JAD: But he did manage to remember a few things from the dream. One, a scene at the window. Then, a man pursued for a crime. And that man takes a potion and undergoes a transformation. That man's name, of course, would become Mr. Hyde. And our dreamer Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of that classic tale of a divided self.
JAD: The story of Robert Louis Stevenson's little people came from an essay from Paul Broks from his excellent book Into The Silent Land, and it was adapted for radio by Ellen Horne. Joshua King was the voice of Robert Louis Stevenson from his essay, A Chapter on Dreams, and he had a supporting cast of Lorraine Maddox, John Henry Boudreaux, Frank Boudreaux, Nick Cappadice, Sally Herships and Keith Scott. And if anyone was listening closely, they would have also recognized you, Robert Krulwich, on that seaside cliff.
ROBERT: Yes. Here's the thing. What is hard to recognize, if you take a look into somebody's brain and you ask the question which we've been asking this whole hour, like, you know, who's there, or where is the author? Or where is the -- where am I? The story points up that if you look scientifically into a brain, what you encounter is hundreds of thousands of players. Not just little people, but teeny, teeny, teeny, teeny brain cells which do all this flashing back and forth. If you were to go to any one of those cells and say, "So, are you the author of Jekyll and Hyde?" The cell wouldn't -- would just go pfft, pfft, pfft.
JAD: Right, the vocabulary of a neuron is just on or off.
ROBERT: It is only in the group that you can see the electrical outline of a thought, or ultimately of a self. While you think of yourself as a one, even the thought "I am a one," springs from a hundred million cells connecting through a trillion synapses. And that all of this multiple activity paradoxically creates the you of this moment. You are always plural.
JAD: Mmm. And that's especially true in the story we have coming up for you in 60 seconds. This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad. Robert Krulwich and I will continue in a moment.
[ANNA: Hi, this is Anna from Boston, Massachusetts. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]
JAD: Jad here with Robert Krulwich. Today on Radiolab, an hour on the self. How it is that out of a trillion chattering neurons in your brain arises the greatest illusion of all, that you are one thing. One self.
ROBERT: To extend this a little bit, another step, Jad. While we spent the whole time talking about what it is to be a one or where is our self, there are times when you learn that the self has not got a Berlin Wall around it. We are porous. Our borders are full of leaks. Robert Sapolsky is a biologist who studies baboons in East Africa. He wrote an essay which I read. And the essay is the story of his dad. Robert has a dad, like we all do. This dad suffered from a condition that resembles Alzheimer's. So his father was forgetting things, what decade it was, where he was, but he was also beginning to melt into the son. The dad was beginning to tell stories that were really the son's stories. It was all kinds of things.
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Things like, I had moved from New York to the Bay Area at that point, and suddenly his stories of his immigration changed from when we left Europe and came to Ellis Island to when we left Europe and entered the United States through San Francisco Bay. Including his describing the first sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. Golden Gate Bridge, which was built decades after he came to the United States. Completely confabulated. But ...
ROBERT: San Diego was involved, too?
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: San Diego. I was in San Diego for a period. And he suddenly had spent long periods of time in San Diego in the Navy in World War Two, so that he was able to have the same opinion and share the same -- just kind of the edges of him spilling over into me.
ROBERT: Did that make you feel a little claustrophobic?
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: A little claustrophobic. And being a good scientist, of course what I did instantly was try to label it and come up with diagnostic categories and pathologize it, and sort of keep it at a safe distance. And it was all fairly unnerving. And what this particular essay was about that I had written was, amid all of that sort of confident pathologizing, it was only after he died that I suddenly found myself doing the same in return.
ROBERT: Let me read you some of what Robert Sapolsky wrote about this experience. "It started manageably enough. I arranged the utensils as he did. Hummed a favorite Yiddish tune of his throughout the day. Soon, I had forsaken wearing my blue flannel shirts in order to wear the blue flannel ones of his."
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I took a shirt of his, a flannel shirt. And I -- back before global warming would always wear flannel shirts. And for a while, I had to wear his flannel shirt instead. Or he had heart disease and the little bottles of nitroglycerin all over the house. And there was this period where, in the immediate aftermath of his dying, I took a bottle of his nitroglycerin back with me, and found I had to keep it with me physically all the time.
ROBERT: Now, you didn't have heart trouble.
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I had no heart trouble. And I was a thirty-year-old ...
ROBERT: And you were walking around with this nitroglycerin like it's your blankie? Like you don't want to give it up?
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: No. On some level I needed to have nitroglycerin with me handy in case, like, I had one of his angina attacks.
ROBERT: He writes, "I would make love to my wife, work out in the gym, attend a lecture, and always the bottle would be nearby. On a nightstand, in a sweatjacket pocket, amid my papers. There was a day when I briefly misplaced it, and everything stopped for an anxious search. It was not that I'd lost a holy relic of his suffering, an object to show my children some day to teach them about a man they hadn't known. This was urgent. I felt vulnerable."
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: You know, very hard to articulate, but during that period also I had a large class I was doing. And on the last day of the lecture, I found I gave this weird lecture where essentially I was talking to them like an octogenarian. "You don't believe it now because you're 20, you're gonna get tired, and ..."
ROBERT: You're gonna get tired.
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: "You're gonna get tired and it's just gonna get harder and harder."
ROBERT: This from the tired old thirty-year-old.
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah, exactly. I was talking to them as an 80-year-old, and talking to them ...
ROBERT: Did you wake up to that notion in the middle of it? Did you suddenly say, "Hey, what am I doing?" Or did you just happen ...
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: No. Only after. In the evening. Trying to figure out what the hell was that about? Instead of telling about what's going to be on the final, telling them you should be happy, call your mother. And -- wait a second, and call me as long as you're at it. It couldn't hurt you to call now and then.
ROBERT: And when you had finished the lecture to the kids and had been speaking through the voice of your dad, how did you unwind this connection? Or did it just fade away?
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Interestingly, I actually gave that lecture wearing his shirt -- and this was a very challenged period -- with the bottle of nitroglycerin in my pocket, because I had in my pocket at all times. And it was that night that I was able to put away the bottle, and haven't worn the shirt since. And on some level, I was saying goodbye for him. And particularly appropriately to, you know, an auditorium awash in five hundred 20-year-olds with their world ahead of them, and sort of saying goodbye for him.
ROBERT: "A year later, that time has begun to make sense. I feel sure that what I went through need not merit a diagnosis. It's a measure of my training as a scientist that I saw pathology that wasn't there."
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And essentially what that whole period was about was learning it is, you know, a perfectly normal non-pathological state to feel, at times of extreme emotional challenge that interconnected with another person, that in some ways the boundaries slip a little bit.
ROBERT: "It can only come as an echo, a hint in our armored, individuated world, that a bit of confusion as to ego boundaries can be an act of health. Of homage and love. It can be a whisper of what it feels like to be swaddled in continuity. It is a lesson, amid our ever-expanding array of scientific labels on the risks of over-pathologizing. Most of all, it is a lesson that it wouldn't be so bad. In fact, it would even be a point of pride of in the end someone mistakes you for him."
ROBERT: My just post-script question is, did you ever say to your dad when he was ill, "You didn't come to San Francisco." Did you ever, like, correct him?
ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Not a chance.
ROBERT: Robert Sapolsky is a biologist at Stanford University in California. He's written several collections of essays, but the one we're quoting here is from The Trouble With Testosterone. That's where you'll find this story of his dad.
JAD: For more information on that or anything else you heard tonight, check our website radiolab.org. And while you're there, communicate with us, firstname.lastname@example.org is the address.
JAD: Jad here. Robert and I are signing off now, but we will catch you next time.
[NIKKI PALIN: This show is produced by Jad Abumrad and Ellen Horne, with help from Brenna Farrell, Sally Herships, Rob Krieger, Amy O'Leary, David Martin, Michael Shelley and Robert Krulwich. Special thanks to Karen McCormick, Paul Broks and Elena Park. And special thanks to me, too. Nikki Palin. Thanks for listening. Okay. Bye-bye.]