Apr 20, 2009

Where Am I?

OK. Maybe you're in your desk chair. You're in your office. You're in New York, or Detroit, or Timbuktu. You're on planet Earth. But where are you, really? This hour, Radiolab tries to find out.

How does your brain keep track of your body? We examine the bond between brain and body, and look at what happens when it breaks. First, author and neurologist Oliver Sacks tries to find himself using magnets. Then, a century-old mystery: why do many amputees still feel their missing limbs? We speak with a neuroscientist who solved the problem with an optical illusion. Up next, the story of a butcher who suddenly lost his entire sense of touch. And we hear from pilots who lose consciousness and suffer out-of-body experiences while flying fighter jets.

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Testing, testing.

 

JAD: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT KRULWICH: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: And since this hour we'll be talking about brains and bodies and how they communicate, we thought we'd begin the program with a guy that we go to quite often who knows about this sort of thing.

 

ROBERT: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: Oliver Sacks.

 

ROBERT: Oliver is a neurologist and very famous author. He took us to his study to show us something that just fascinates him.

 

OLIVER SACKS: I've become fascinated -- incidentally, I hope you -- you have to be careful with your watch or your computers.

 

JAD: He showed us a silver ball.

 

ROBERT: I should just describe here, I am looking at a silver ball about the size of a small, small ping pong ball.

 

JAD: Which he handed to you.

 

ROBERT: Right.

 

OLIVER SACKS: Would you care to lift that little steel ball?

 

JAD: And as soon as he did ...

 

ROBERT: I am -- I am trying.

 

JAD: ... the ball went flying through the air taking your hand with it, smack into the nearest bit of metal in the vicinity, which was a plate a little to your left.

 

ROBERT: Very fast and it hurt. Wow!

 

OLIVER SACKS: Now be careful. Be careful.

 

ROBERT: I've got it. Okay.

 

OLIVER SACKS: Now don't put it too near your watch. And also you have to put it down very gently, otherwise it may fly with great violence onto this nickel slab.

 

ROBERT: What is that? And why are we talking about it?

 

OLIVER SACKS: Okay. Well, this is a little rare earth metal magnet of great strength. These magnets orient themselves almost violently to the Earth's magnetic field. If you have a couple of these things say in your pockets and you go for a walk, as you turn a corner you will feel them reorient themselves in your pockets like -- like little animals.

 

ROBERT: [laughs] So your -- your pockets would tell you whether you were going north, south, east or west?

 

OLIVER SACKS: Your pockets or wherever you have the rare earth magnets.

 

ROBERT: And how -- you're very weird man. How would you propose to use this? In what situation that you have imagined would it be a happy advantage?

 

OLIVER SACKS: Well, I myself am always getting lost. I have ...

 

ROBERT: [laughs]

 

OLIVER SACKS: I have no sense of direction. I would function better.

 

ROBERT: I see. So if I said to you, "Oliver, come downtown to meet me," you would know because of the pressure on your thighs from these little balls that you were carrying around whether you were going downtown or not downtown.

 

OLIVER SACKS: Right. And you see, I may need things like this. I am very bad at orienting myself in space.

 

JAD: He's trying to do what the birds do.

 

ROBERT: Right. Birds ...

 

JAD: Because birds have magnets in their brains, or something like magnets which lets them fly south. Or wherever it is they fly.

 

ROBERT: Yeah, so they know -- when they're migrating.

 

JAD: Right.

 

ROBERT: Yeah. He's trying to start a conversation like a bird, but because he's chosen his thighs, and he wants his thighs to talk to his brain.

 

OLIVER SACKS: I've often wondered as an aside, the extent to which one could develop a new sense.

 

JAD: That's what this hour of Radiolab is about.

 

ROBERT: Human beings, not just Oliver, all kinds of folks who are attempting to add senses and mostly to subtract senses.

 

JAD: We'll have stories about both adding and losing senses, and more generally a look at how brains and bodies communicate, often fail to communicate. Because believe it or not, it's not an easy relationship between your brain and your body. There's a lot of confusion, deception even. That's what new research shows. And we'll get into all that.

 

ROBERT: So let's get into it.

 

JAD: All right.

 

ROBERT: Okay, ready?

 

JAD: Yeah. Where first?

 

ROBERT: Well, let's begin with a neurologist.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Let's see. My cell phone is ringing. So let me pause until it stops.

 

ROBERT: That's Robert Sapolsky. He's a professor of biology at Stanford.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I've never figured out how to do voice messaging or whatever it is that is done in this century.

 

ROBERT: No, me neither. Prisoners of our machines.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay. We're in business here.

 

ROBERT: Okay, so to begin now, I said to Robert Sapolsky just to get my head around this, let's imagine that I decide to visit my best friend in the world, Tommy.

 

JAD: Tommy.

 

ROBERT: I walk over to his house. I have a key. So I open the front door. I walk into his apartment, and then I see him sprawled on the floor dead.

 

ROBERT: Tommy!

 

JAD: Hmm.

 

ROBERT: And in a horrible tragic instant like that, I wonder what would be going on in my brain. And I ask this because his answer, Sapolsky's answer was so weird. According to Sapolsky, what happens happens in the following order. First, light bounces off Tommy's corpse and enters my eyes.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay, it goes up some nerve from your eyes and into one part of the brain which turfs it onto the next part.

 

ROBERT: And then the information keeps moving.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: A couple of steps down, it gets into what's called your visual cortex which turns the dots into lines and lines into shapes. And that's just like a local train you're taking.

 

ROBERT: Eventually, that local train carrying the image of Tommy will chug and chug deeper into my brain to my cortex, and after a few more stops I will finally know, I will consciously know that Tommy is dead.

 

ROBERT: Tommy!

 

ROBERT: But now here's the surprise. Information can move through the brain in different ways at the same time. And there is a second route, it turns out.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: There's a second pathway ...

 

ROBERT: Into my body, into my nervous system.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: ... which bypasses all of that visual cortex stuff ...

 

ROBERT: Like a bullet train.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: ... and goes straight to this area called the amygdala. And what the amygdala does is ...

 

ROBERT: Instantly it tells the heart to pound.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Your heart speeds up.

 

ROBERT: The stomach to clench.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Stomach muscles clench.

 

ROBERT: Tears to flow.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And you're still a couple of seconds away from, like, even consciously making sense of what you're seeing. And by then already your stomach is heading towards your throat, your throat's in your mouth or whatever the cliche is.

 

ROBERT: So as I'm standing there in Tommy's apartment looking at this figure on the ground, before I even know what I'm looking at, before I am consciously aware that Tommy is dead, my body already knows.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: That's exactly the punchline. Your body knows it before you consciously know it.

 

JAD: Which is an astonishing idea.

 

ROBERT: It is astonishing.

 

JAD: But it's not a new idea.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah, this goes back to what was originally viewed as this totally asinine theory in psychology back around 1900. One of the, you know, grand old poobahs of psychology, William James.

 

JONAH LEHRER: William James. And he's trying to answer the question where feelings came from.

 

JAD: That's Jonah Lehrer, a science writer. He really likes William James. He's written a lot about him. And he says a hundred years ago, William James poses a thought experiment.

 

JONAH LEHRER: He gives the example of a bear.

 

JAD: He says, imagine you're walking through the woods. All of a sudden from behind a tree a bear attacks. And he wondered, William James did, okay so the bear attacks, you're gonna feel scared. But what exactly is that feeling of fear made of?

 

JAD: Which seems like a strange question to ask.

 

JONAH LEHRER: Yeah, but he was trying to be empirical about it. He was trying to be a good psychologist, and his answer was that the feeling is the perception of your body.

 

JAD: Meaning step one, you see the bear.

 

JONAH LEHRER: You see a bear.

 

JAD: With his teeth and his claws. Step two, your body responds.

 

JONAH LEHRER: The fast heartbeat, the adrenaline coursing in your bloodstream.

 

JAD: It's only in step three, when the brain sees the body respond does it then trigger the feeling of fear.

 

JONAH LEHRER: And the feeling of fear comes from the perception of those changes in your body. If you took away the heartbeat, if you took away the body, there'd be nothing left to feel.

 

JAD: Needless to say, when William James proposed this idea people thought ...

 

ROBERT: He's absolutely crazy.

 

JAD: He was nuts. Completely nuts. They said, you know, if you're right then someone who's paralyzed from the neck down and who doesn't get signals from their body, well that person would see the bear in the woods and they wouldn't get scared.

 

ROBERT: Which is ridiculous, right?

 

JAD: Completely ridiculous. So the critics said William James is wrong, dead wrong. And that's the end of it.

 

ROBERT: Well, it's not quite the end of it. We happened to bump into a neurologist.

 

ANTONIO DAMASIO: Antonio Damasio. Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.

 

JAD: Wow, what a nice place!

 

ROBERT: So we're sitting there with Damasio and we happen to be talking about William James and his critics.

 

JAD: As we always do.

 

ROBERT: Which we always do. You know, lunch -- we don't go into a luncheonette for lunch. Before we order a tuna fish sandwich, we always mention William James and his critics. It's just something we do.

 

JAD: Always.

 

ROBERT: So I said to Damasio, you know, the critics called James wrong because he people who were paralyzed couldn't feel anything. And he says, you know, it's funny you should mention this, because there's been a series of studies thinking about James one more time.

 

ANTONIO DAMASIO: And it's very interesting, because the first study that was made in this area was made by a paraplegic psychologist who thought that he felt less emotional than he was before, and he talked to others and others reported the same.

 

ROBERT: The studies reported that people who had once been able-bodied and then became paralyzed felt ...

 

ANTONIO DAMASIO: Less.

 

ROBERT: ... less happy than able-bodied people, less sad than able-bodied people, just less.

 

ANTONIO DAMASIO: Our being is rooted in a body state. If I would be able to remove from your brain the representation of your body, you would not know that you were you.

 

ROBERT: And would I not be sorry at my friends death?

 

ANTONIO DAMASIO: You definitely would not be sorry of anything. What is, in fact, the essence of being joyful or sad if you don't hook those notions on a changed body?

 

JAD: He's right, you know? I mean, if you think about the last time you were sad, like really sad, how would you describe that feeling to yourself?

 

ROBERT: Well in fairness, I guess I would -- I would say I felt dragged out and heavy.

 

JAD: Yeah, that feeling is completely rooted in your flesh.

 

ROBERT: Well ...

 

JAD: The brain has nothing to do with it.

 

ROBERT: ... a thought made me sad. and then my body felt ...

 

[PHONE RINGS]

 

JAD: Oh crap, I forgot to turn the ringer off. Hold on. Hello? Oh, hi. Yeah, hold on one second. It's your wife.

 

ROBERT: Here? Hello?

 

TAMAR LEWIN: Robert?

 

ROBERT: Yeah?

 

TAMAR LEWIN: I can't believe you're still there. What are you doing there?

 

ROBERT: What do you mean, what am I doing here?

 

TAMAR LEWIN: You were supposed to be home an hour ago.

 

ROBERT: Tamar, Tamar. You've called me in the studio. We're on the air.

 

TAMAR LEWIN: I don't care.

 

ROBERT: What do you mean you don't care?

 

TAMAR LEWIN: You were supposed to be home an hour ago. I reminded you this morning. I reminded you last night.

 

ROBERT: I was ...

 

TAMAR LEWIN: It's just not important to you.

 

ROBERT: It's not such a big deal. I'll be back in 10 ...

 

JAD: [WHISPERING] Actually, this is a perfect example of what we've been talking about. Robert's having a fight with his wife Tamar, and while he's fighting inside his body his stomach is clenching, his heart is palpitating. Hers is doing the same. Their brains are picking up these signals and thinking "Anger. Feel angry!"

 

ROBERT: I'm talking with other people here. There are other people who ...

 

TAMAR LEWIN: My work is just as important as your work and you've now screwed it up.

 

ROBERT: How did I screw it up? How did I screw up your work?

 

TAMAR LEWIN: This was your job ...

 

JAD: Now at a certain point, Robert will probably realize he has screwed up and ...

 

TAMAR LEWIN: Just get home.

 

JAD: He'll apologize.

 

ROBERT: Okay. If I get home in 20 minutes, will -- I'm really sorry. I know this is horrible.

 

JAD: [WHISPERING] Robert. Is everything okay?

 

ROBERT: Yeah. It's -- it's -- just a second. I'm really sorry.

 

TAMAR LEWIN: Okay.

 

JAD: Now when it comes to brains and bodies in men and women, the interesting thing is that when a man and a woman fight, these systems in their body, the heart palpitating, the stomach clenching, while these systems do turn on at the same speed ...

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And it takes, like, two seconds.

 

JAD: ... according to Robert Sapolsky ...

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Where there's an interesting gender difference is how long it takes to turn off the system.

 

JAD: And ladies? Sorry in advance.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And in general, it turns off more slowly in women than in men.

 

JAD: Which may explain something that happens to couples all the time.

 

ROBERT: Okay. I'm really sorry.

 

TAMAR LEWIN: This just isn't right.

 

ROBERT: I know. Oh, I'm really sorry.

 

JAD: Like, here we are.

 

ROBERT: Maybe like -- maybe later we'll go do something, or -- I'm really sorry.

 

JAD: Robert's stomach is relaxing.

 

ROBERT: And this was really stupid, I know.

 

JAD: His heart is slowing.

 

ROBERT: It's very stupid.

 

JAD: He thinks the fight might be over.

 

TAMAR LEWIN: Okay. But, you know, this is something you do all the time. Remember when we were having a dinner right after we got engaged, and we went to the restaurant and I was waiting for you and I made the reservation and ...

 

ROBERT: Tamar, that was in the Carter Administration. You can't ...

 

TAMAR LEWIN: ... I was sitting there for, like, 45 minutes. You didn't even call.

 

ROBERT: I just apologized. I ...

 

JAD: Did you hear what just happened there?

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's this William James stuff coming back to haunt us a century later.

 

JAD: Sapolsky says that sometimes the body actually tricks the brain. Tamar knows the fight is over mentally, but her body is still tense, her heart is still racing and her brain thinks, "Whoa. Wait."

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: If my heart is still racing and I consciously know that this issue has been resolved, it must be because I'm still pissed off about that thing that happened in the Carter Administration.

 

TAMAR LEWIN: You minimize everything anybody does for you.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: The brain fills a vacuum.

 

ROBERT: What, do you have a list? You have a list there or something?

 

TAMAR LEWIN: I do. I have a long list. Do you know how often you do this sort of thing?

 

ROBERT: I hard -- I do, like, once every ...

 

TAMAR LEWIN: No, I can count them. As soon as the babysitter calls when I'm going to be out of town and says, "Should I make dinner for Robert?" Because of course, you can't make dinner for yourself and the kids. No.

 

ROBERT: I do make dinner. I have made ...

 

TAMAR LEWIN: You don't do much of anything.

 

ROBERT: Baked potatoes last week. Wednesday. I made the baked potatoes.

 

TAMAR LEWIN: That's just applying heat.

 

ROBERT: [laughs] I want to thank my wife Tamar Lewin for what I think was a pretty startlingly realistic -- I mean, a performance which I don't know how she did that, because it's so unlike the rest of our marriage, you know? This story, by the way, came from Robert Sapolsky and he tells it about his wife too. But they're not reporters, they're scientists. So they do it differently.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: My wife's in the same business as me. So the very words we will say to each other is, "Honey, don't forget what the half-life is on the autonomic nervous system." Then suddenly, it's all over with.

 

ROBERT: That's such a rare exchange between two people, you know?

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I know. We're just sentimentalists.

 

JAD: By the way, Robert Sapolsky's latest book is called Monkeyluv, which is where that wife anecdote came from. And speaking of brains and bodies ...

 

ROBERT: Mm-hmm?

 

JAD: Let's put the science on pause for a moment and take a brief detour, because often what gets you into these ideas, like, take this kid for example.

 

CHRISTOPHER SAYLES: I'm Christopher Sayles. I go to the Blake High School.

 

JAD: Isn't the science. It's more basic than that. It's seeing something disgusting and not being able to look away.

 

CHRISTOPHER SAYLES: You really just can't believe that if something feels like this it actually came out of a real person. You just don't get the feeling ...

 

JAD: When we bumped into Christopher, he was gingerly holding a pair of human lungs.

 

CHRISTOPHER SAYLES: But it is a real person. But you just don't really associate it with a real person because it's there in front of you and it doesn't look like real person.

 

JAD: In any case, that sense of, "Whoa," that's why we originally went to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. But here's what happened. Our tour guide ...

 

STEVEN SOLOMON: Okay. Steven. S-T-E-V-E-N. Solomon. S-O-L-O-M-O-N.

 

JAD: He showed us a particular photo that got us thinking.

 

STEVEN SOLOMON: It's a famous photo in our archives. It's called Field Day.

 

JAD: It's a Civil War photo hanging in a side gallery. It's a picture of legs.

 

STEVEN SOLOMON: A pile of amputated legs ...

 

JAD: A huge heap of severed legs.

 

STEVEN SOLOMON: ... some feet thrown sort of haphazardly into a pile.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

JAD: It's oddly beautiful in a way. Gruesome.

 

JAD: It's gruesome.

 

JAD: But the next thought immediately after was, what was happening at that moment? Right to one side of the picture frame must have been an operating table, and on the table a soldier inhaling chloroform. And at the foot of the table must have been a doctor sawing away.

 

STEVEN SOLOMON: A circular amputation involved cutting straight through the skin to the bone. A flap amputation required the tissue to be cut leaving two flaps of skin that were used to create a stump. And in fact, your typical army surgeon was basically graded on how quickly they could do an amputation.

 

JONAH LEHRER: It was one of the first wars where we really had doctors being aggressive in terms of taking off limbs.

 

JAD: Like I said, that photo got us thinking. So we went back to Jonah Lehrer who has written about a very ghostly side effect that pops up during the Civil War as a direct result of all of that taking off of limbs.

 

JONAH LEHRER: This one astonishing syndrome that these men who have had their limbs taken off, they describe very, very often, this is a very common thing, that they still feel their phantom limbs. They say ...

 

JAD: I feel it. I still feel it.

 

JONAH LEHRER: Yeah. They say, "Doctor. I still feel it move." They can feel it hurt, they can feel it sometimes get hot, sometimes very cold.

 

JAD: Imagine you're a Civil War doctor and you hear this. You don't even know what germs are yet. But one guy ...

 

JONAH LEHRER: Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell.

 

JAD: ... decides he's gonna get to the bottom of it.

 

JONAH LEHRER: The first thing he did was he wrote some clinical reports.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Only about five percent of the men who have suffered amputation never have any feeling of the part as being still present.]

 

JONAH LEHRER: And circulated them around the hospitals.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: While the remainder seem to retain a sense of its existence so vivid as to be more definite and intrusive than it is of the truly living fellow member. The stump is liable to the most horrible neuralgias, and to a certain curious spasmodic paralysis.]

 

JAD: No one could make sense of this, even our guy ...

 

JONAH LEHRER: William James.

 

JAD: Even he looks into it.

 

JONAH LEHRER: He did a very authoritative study where he sent out questionnaires to all these amputee victims and wanted to know about their lost limbs.

 

JAD: He asked all of these Civil War amputees all these questions. Does your phantom limb hurt? Can you move it if you really concentrate? And what he found was that there were no patterns.

 

JONAH LEHRER: No stereotypical lost limb.

 

JAD: Every experience was different. In other words, phantom limbs are like real limbs. They're yours.

 

ROBERT: Well, on this topic of phantom limbs, there is a guy who has figured at least something out about this phenomenon. Dr. V.S. Ramachandran.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: I am V.S. Ramachandran.

 

ROBERT: Remember him?

 

JAD: I remember him.

 

ROBERT: He's a well-known neurologist. He works in California.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: The University of California, San Diego.

 

ROBERT: And one day he says, a patient showed up in his office and it seems that the guy had had his arm amputated. It was his left arm. And then ever since, this man had an uncanny feeling that he still had an arm where his real arm used to be.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Yes. Now, it's important to emphasize this is not a delusion. He doesn't think he has an arm. He knows he doesn't. He's not crazy. But he vividly feels its presence.

 

ROBERT: And the rough part was that this arm, it hurt. This sometimes happens to people with phantom limbs. He would have days where his phantom arm would seize up in pain.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: "Doctor, it hurts!"

 

ROBERT: Really badly.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: "It goes into this painful clenching spasm. The nails dig into my palm."

 

ROBERT: So he has a phantom hand at the end of his phantom limb.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Yes. And he'll say things like, "It's going into a cramp with the nails digging into the phantom palm and it's excruciatingly painful."

 

ROBERT: But there are no nails. There is no palm.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: There is no nails, no palm.

 

ROBERT: And weirdest of all, the patient couldn't do anything about it. He'd try to unclench his phantom nails from his phantom palm to make the pain stop, but he couldn't.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: He said, "I cannot move the phantom."

 

ROBERT: The phantom arm wouldn't obey.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: "I cannot volitionally move it." And I started thinking to myself, "What does he mean when he says he cannot move his phantom limb?" It's like an oxymoron. There is no arm there.

 

ROBERT: Dr. Ramachandran was confused. What's going on? He -- he checked with the patient and discovered that 11 years earlier, before the amputation, he'd had an injury to his spine. And after that, his real left arm was paralyzed. He could not move it. He tried, his brain would issue the commands.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: His brain was saying, "Move the arm," but he was getting visual feedback, and indeed feedback from his muscles saying, "Nope." "Move the arm." "No." "Move." "No."

 

ROBERT: And this went on for months.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: "Move." "No."

 

ROBERT: So maybe, thought Dr. Ramachandran, maybe this patient got so frustrated trying to move his real arm, that at some point ...

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: After a few months or a year, the paralysis got learned by the brain, stamped into the circuitry of the brain. And I call it learned ...

 

ROBERT: Learned ...

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: ... paralysis.

 

ROBERT: So even when they cut the patient's arm off a year after the accident, he still didn't get any relief because the problem wasn't in his arm. It was learned paralysis. It was in his head now. And that is when Ramachandran thought "Well, maybe the solution here is to trick this man's brain to unparalyze, to get his cells to think. "Well, actually we can move an arm." But how do you trick a brain? How would you do that? How would you do that?

 

JAD: How would you do that?

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: How would you do that, indeed?

 

ROBERT: He thought for a bit.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Then I hit on this way of using a mirror propped inside a cardboard box.

 

ROBERT: A what?

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: A mirror. Mirror propped inside a cardboard box.

 

ROBERT: A mirror parked inside a -- you mean like a ...?

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Propped up.

 

ROBERT: Oh!

 

ROBERT: It was kind of a Home Depot solution, really. Ramachandran took a long and skinny mirror, the kind you'd hang on a closet door?

 

JAD: Right.

 

ROBERT: And he propped it up using a cardboard box, and then turned it sideways. Placed the side right in front of the patient, like, right on his nose.

 

JAD: So he couldn't see himself?

 

ROBERT: No, couldn't see anything in the mirror yet, unless he hooked his neck around and took a peek.

 

JAD: Oh, okay.

 

ROBERT: Otherwise, he's just looking at the side. Ramachandran says -- and I want you to imagine this with me, Jad.

 

JAD: Sure.

 

ROBERT: He says, "I want you to take your good arm, your real arm, okay, and stick it out in front of the mirror." So do that.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

ROBERT: Now make it do what the phantom arm does. Take your good arm, make it stiff, curl your hand into a fist, dig your fingernails into your palm deeply, make it hurt. You doing that?

 

JAD: Yeah, it's kind of hurting.

 

ROBERT: Okay. Now when I tell you, crook your head so you can look into the mirror, and on your left just where the phantom ought to be, let's pretend that that's your phantom arm. It's cramped, it's curled exactly as you'd imagine it. So now look in the mirror.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

ROBERT: And there's your arm. You see it there in the mirror, your phantom arm.

 

JAD: Got it.

 

ROBERT: Now very slowly, keeping your eye on the mirror now, I want you to uncurl your hand.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Patient says, "Okay." He opens his real hand. "My God!" And of course, it looks like his phantom is opening. That's not surprising, he's got the mirror there. But he says, "My God, Doctor, you're not gonna believe this. The movements have all come back. All these movements in my fingers, in my elbow, in my wrist from 11 years ago come flooding into my mind."

 

ROBERT: So his pretend nails are now ungripping from his pretend palm and the whole problem of the pretend pain goes away.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Goes away. That's what he said.

 

ROBERT: For how long, by the way?

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Until the mirror was in place.

 

ROBERT: But when Dr. Ramachandran took away the mirrors, the pain came back.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: I said fine. C'est la vie, you know? And then I said, "Look, why don't you practice with a mirror for a few weeks every day for an hour. Then maybe if you do it repeatedly, you can unlearn the learned pain.

 

ROBERT: So the guy goes home, takes out a mirror. You give him a mirror to take home?

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Correct.

 

ROBERT: And he does this over and over.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: This mirror was $2. Take it with you, you know? So he takes it with him, he's delighted. And then after about another week he phones me, and he sounds all agitated on the phone. And I said, "What's going on?" He said, "Doctor, you're not gonna believe this. It's gone." I said, "What's gone?" I thought maybe the mirror was gone. He said, "No, no, not the mirror. The phantom has gone."

 

ROBERT: Gone gone?

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: That's what I said, "Gone, gone? What do you mean phantom is gone?" He said, "Well, the phantom arm I've been having for the last 11 years has disappeared." Well, my initial reaction was alarm. I said, "My God, does this bother you?" And he said, "No, you know, this has happened three days ago. And in the last three days, you remember the excruciating elbow pain and wrist pain I got several times a day? Well, I don't have them anymore because I don't have an arm. But my fingers, they have not disappeared, and they're still up here dangling near my shoulder and they're still painful."

 

ROBERT: You mean just disconnected, disembodied fingerlets?

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Yeah, fingerlets dangling from the shoulder.

 

JAD: What? What does that mean?

 

ROBERT: This guy's saying that he seems to have fingertips hanging on his shoulder.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: He said, "Your mirror doesn't work anymore. So can you redesign it and push it, prop it near my nose so I can look at the reflection and maybe get rid of the fingers.

 

ROBERT: So he now wants to get Dr. Ramachandran to prop up the mirror, point them at these phantom fingertips and have the mirror erase the fingertips.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: He thought I was a magician and I could, you know, eliminate his different body parts in sequence. And ...

 

ROBERT: This is amputation by mirror.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Yeah. So as I tell my medical colleagues jokingly, I say, "this is the first example in the history of medicine of a successful amputation of a phantom limb."

 

ROBERT: So don't leave me hanging here. Did the phantom fingers eventually dissolve?

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: No, we still haven't been able to devise a technique to get them. And it turns out that the pain there subsided a bit, so he's not that worried about us getting rid of them.

 

ROBERT: So somewhere in California, there's still a guy walking around with a sense ...

 

JAD: With fingers on his shoulder.

 

ROBERT: Yeah, are still dangling out of his shoulder. Which is not only weird, it suggests that there's an awful lot to know about how brains and bodies interact. Many things to learn. But for a workaday doc who has to deal with whatever comes through the door, Dr. Ramachandran had what I would call a pretty good day at the office.

 

V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Yeah. Exactly.

 

ROBERT: V.S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist at the University of California in San Diego, author of many books, including A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, which is where you can find out all about that mirror experiment.

 

JAD: Next up, let's scale it up a bit. We're gonna go from lost limbs to a guy who's lost everything, his entire sense of his body. I'm Jad Abumrad. Robert Krulwich and I will continue in a moment.

 

JAD: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: And in this hour on Radiolab, we're talking about the relationship, sometimes the uneasy relationship between the brain and the body.

 

ROBERT: I think most people who have brains, and that would include I think most of the listeners here, think the relationship between brain and body is more like the relationship of a commander to a commandee.

 

JAD: Right. The brain makes the orders.

 

ROBERT: And the body responds. But I think the more accurate way is to think of this as a conversation between the brain and the body.

 

JAD: How do you mean?

 

ROBERT: Well, because any movement, even a very basic one, let's just say wagging my tongue.

 

JAD: Okay.

 

ROBERT: Very simple, really. But it still involves three steps. First, the brain has to issue the command.

 

[CLIP: Tongue Station, Tongue Station. This is Mission Control. Commence wagging.]

 

ROBERT: Second, the command must be executed. And third, now this is the crucial step, the tongue in this case reports back to the brain.

 

[CLIP: Mission Control, we have wagging. I repeat, we have wagging.]

 

ROBERT: Thereby completing the loop.

 

[CLIP: Mission Control to Foot. Come in, Foot.]

 

[CLIP: Mission Control, this is Foot.]

 

[CLIP: Give me your coordinates. Over.]

 

[CLIP: Roger that, Mission Control.]

 

ROBERT: Now this happens, this conversation you're hearing right now?

 

JAD: Uh-huh.

 

[CLIP: Zero Niner Alpha]

 

ROBERT: It happens constantly. All over your body, your brain is issuing commands.

 

[CLIP: Left Knee. Come in Left Knee.]

 

ROBERT: Parts of your body are receiving the command.

 

[CLIP: This is Left Knee.]

 

ROBERT: And reporting back.

 

[CLIP: Right Leg standing by.]

 

ROBERT: And this conversation adds up to something really quite important. It adds up to a sense of yourself.

 

OLIVER SACKS: It's an unconscious sense which really allows you to move normally.

 

ROBERT: That's Oliver Sacks again, the neurologist we talked to at the start of the program. You have, of course, a sense of smell and of touch and of taste. He says this sixth sense also has a name.

 

OLIVER SACKS: It's sometimes called proprioception.

 

ROBERT: Proprioception.

 

OLIVER SACKS: Proprioception is the unconscious sense by which the position of one's limbs, the posture of one's body is automatically monitored.

 

ROBERT: Now imagine, he says, what would happen if all of a sudden this sixth sense, this conversation that you're always having with your body, suppose it went away.

 

OLIVER SACKS: One -- we all have this in a slight way. For example, if you go to the dentist and sometimes half of your mouth or your tongue is numbed, the tongue may feel very large. You may grab the dental mirror to reassure yourself that all is okay, and this does and it doesn't reassure you.

 

ROBERT: But you can still wag your tongue. Your brain is still sending messages to the tongue.

 

[CLIP: Tongue Station. Tongue Station. This is Mission Control.]

 

ROBERT: But the tongue ...

 

[CLIP: Come in Tongue.]

 

ROBERT: … isn't sending messages back anymore.

 

[CLIP: Uh, Tongue? Tongue?]

 

ROBERT: So you can't feel anything. You know that feeling?

 

JAD: Yeah, yeah. Of course.

 

ROBERT: Now could you imagine that instead of just losing your tongue, your tongue not responding, suppose your whole body doesn't respond? What would that be like?

 

OLIVER SACKS: I mean, we have words like deaf or blind. We don't have a word for being, in effect, deaf and blind to one's own body.

 

ROBERT: And yet there are people who have a condition that rare and that horrible. No proprioception. We talked to such a person, Ian Waterman, and convinced him and his doctor and very good friend Jonathan Cole to crowd themselves into a very little recording studio that the BBC lent us in Southampton in England.

 

JONATHAN COLE: Hello, America.

 

ROBERT: And we asked them to talk to us.

 

IAN WATERMAN: Hello?

 

JONATHAN COLE: Oh, you got a sexy voice.

 

IAN WATERMAN: Scary.

 

ROBERT: Ah, can you hear us? Can you hear me, rather?

 

JONATHAN COLE: Hi. We -- I can, yeah.

 

ROBERT: Thank you guys for coming and doing this with us.

 

IAN WATERMAN: Okay.

 

JONATHAN COLE: Yeah. Well, you just ask us some questions and we'll answer them as best we can.

 

IAN WATERMAN: Fire away.

 

ROBERT: All right. Well, let me just start it then. Now can you remember -- I'm sure you can -- what happened that led to this total change in your life?

 

IAN WATERMAN: It began with what I thought was a bout of the flu or a very heavy, heady cold. And I was at the shop where I worked and felt tired and lethargic. The guy that owned the shop said, "Look, you know, you look unwell. Go home. Take it easy." I took the day off, went home, and I've always been pretty energetic and I hate being stuck indoors and whatever. And I thought well, the fresh air will do me some good. Got to the shed and pulled the motor mower out.

 

ROBERT: Pulled the what out? What's the -- what do you call it?

 

IAN WATERMAN: The mower, the lawnmower out of the shed.

 

ROBERT: Oh, I thought it was going to be one of those cultural moments where you guys call it something else.

 

IAN WATERMAN: No, not quite. Pulled the lawnmower out of the shed and primed it up and started it, and it started chugging away. And as I engaged the gear, off it went and I couldn't keep up with it. It was a fairly slow and ponderous sort of lawnmower, and I just stood there bemused thinking, "How come I just can't keep up with the mower?" And didn't really attend to much more than, you know, I'm just tired and sluggish and lethargic, and I went back to my bedroom and laid down and did some serious sleeping. And the following morning, I went to get up and out of bed and collapsed against a radiator. I fell, slid fell, tumbled out of the bed and fell against the radiator. It's very difficult to describe. As I lay there, and I was laying flat, I had a rippling sensation in my tummy, around the ankles a tingling sensation. For want of a better term I felt disembodied. I remember waking up with a hand on my face and not realizing that it was mine. Simple movement.

 

ROBERT: Simple movements. The simplest of movements.

 

IAN WATERMAN: To pick up a cup, to eat -- to eat a biscuit.

 

ROBERT: Those things were suddenly very hard.

 

IAN WATERMAN: I couldn't control anything totally. I mean, from the neck down I had no control over -- over my limbs.

 

ROBERT: And for the next 12 years, he went from hospital to hospital. Doctors couldn't help him because they'd never seen anything quite this drastic, until he finally did meet a doctor, Jonathan Cole, who began to help him figure out what might be going on.

 

ROBERT: So let me ask Jonathan for a second. What is wrong with Ian?

 

JONATHAN COLE: Ian at the time he had his illness had lost a class of peripheral nerve cells to do with sensation. He'd lost touch but also his movement and position sense had gone.

 

ROBERT: Is this unusual? I mean, in your experience?

 

JONATHAN COLE: I mean, it depends who we talk to, but I normally say that we know of about six in the world.

 

ROBERT: Really?

 

JONATHAN COLE: Who are like this. No one really in the world knew what proprioception did and what the effects of the loss of proprioception would be until Ian.

 

ROBERT: And when they first met, Dr. Cole said to him ...

 

IAN WATERMAN: He said, "How do you manage?"

 

ROBERT: How do you cope with this?

 

IAN WATERMAN: Unbelievably, he was the first doctor to ask that question.

 

ROBERT: Ian told him that on his own over the 12 years, he had figured out how to walk again and how to grasp a cup again. And he explained that he did this by carefully breaking down and then reassembling every single move he made. It started this way.

 

IAN WATERMAN: I was laying in bed one day in hospital and I wanted to sit up, and it just wouldn't happen. And then laying there in frustration, I just thought the whole process through, and I broke it down into quite simple small movements. And I lay flat, I checked where absolutely everything was before I started, and then I then started with the head and folded and tucked my chin onto my chest as if to start the first part of the curl. Then I moved my arms slightly forward and I started to tighten some muscles in my tummy and around my back, and then I started to curl myself to sit in an upright position. And when I got there I was so damned euphoric I nearly fell out of bed.

 

JONATHAN COLE: Ian has studied movement in a way no one in history has ever studied before. No ballet dancer, no professor of neurology has ever had to study movement the way Ian does every day.

 

ROBERT: Because every day, every move that Ian makes he has to consciously direct. It's as though Ian were two people: a puppeteer and a puppet. His mind is directing and his body is obeying. And the strings of Ian's puppet interestingly are his eyes.

 

IAN WATERMAN: My eyes. I control all my movement with my sight.

 

ROBERT: Because he doesn't have this feedback information coming from his limbs back to his brain ...

 

IAN WATERMAN: The proprioceptive feedback.

 

ROBERT: ... because that's missing, unless he looks directly at the limb he wants to move he can't move it.

 

IAN WATERMAN: If I look away from my hand, I lose all connection with it.

 

JAD: Well, what happens if -- if it's dark or if the lights are out?

 

ROBERT: Well, you know, it's -- he can't afford darkness. If the lights go out accidentally ...

 

IAN WATERMAN: That's called a dangerous place to be. I would fall over.

 

ROBERT: He has not turned out the lights in the night in the last decades.

 

JAD: Wow!

 

ROBERT: To stay in the world, in motion, he must focus, always focus. In fact, he spent a long time just training with paper clips.

 

IAN WATERMAN: Yeah, I use them now occasionally and I still don't like the little devils.

 

ROBERT: [laughs] When you're manipulating the paper clip, what are you actually trying to figure out how much ...

 

JONATHAN COLE: Sorry, Ian -- Ian's gesturing away and he's ...

 

IAN WATERMAN: I lost my headphones.

 

JONATHAN COLE: His headphones fell off. So if you could repeat that.

 

ROBERT: Oh, okay. [laughs] Is the headphones back on yet?

 

IAN WATERMAN: Not quite.

 

JONATHAN COLE: I'll do it. That's my job.

 

ROBERT: By the way, is he able to put on -- I mean, is this -- you can tell me what's going on, but is he able to grab the headphones?

 

JONATHAN COLE: I can answer.

 

IAN WATERMAN: I can grab the headphones and put them on. But because putting the headphones over the top of my head, I can't see exactly where the headphones are in relation to the rest of me. Although I would finally get there, it's a lot quicker if Jonathan just puts them on. And he likes to feel ...

 

ROBERT: So what I was asking was what were you doing with the paper clips all that time?

 

IAN WATERMAN: I was given paper clips as an exercise to get my fingers to move again and to thread all them together and then to unclip them. A very, very frustrating therapy, but one has to admit that it is a good one in that takes an awful lot of fine, dexterous movement to get paper clips together and apart again.

 

ROBERT: But the idea of breaking down every move you make into sub moves and sub sub moves and then relearning everything, it's exhausting.

 

IAN WATERMAN: Very, very mentally tiring.

 

ROBERT: Because it takes such total concentration.

 

ROBERT: What if you were walking down the street and suddenly a thought, like a daydream pops into your head?

 

IAN WATERMAN: [laughs] Jonathan has a very good memory of that. And maybe that would be good to come from Jonathan.

 

JONATHAN COLE: Well, Ian and I were walking through Oxford having done some groundbreaking experiment or whatever. And Ian suddenly stumbled, and I'd never seen him stumble ever before. And he was looking at a pretty girl, and his thoughts had drifted from walking and from the concrete ahead of him to what he'd like to do to this girl.

 

IAN WATERMAN: Well, she -- she was about 18. She had nut brown hair, lovely legs, a mini-skirt. And it was a navy blue dress with white polka dots.

 

ROBERT: This is a family program you're on.

 

IAN WATERMAN: [laughs]

 

JONATHAN COLE: But that, you see, when Ian walks anywhere he has to think the whole time about walking and the floor.

 

ROBERT: So merely the erotic sort of charge cost you your ability to walk.

 

IAN WATERMAN: Be it that sort of charge, but any distraction really took me away from my focus, which is where is my left foot in relation to my right foot? And where am I balanced at the moment, and how am I actually going through this process? At what stage am I in this movement? And to suddenly be distracted by that, by a waft of perfume and a pretty girl took all that concentration away. It can be taken away by the song of a bird or the sound of music drifting from somewhere. Just on that day, it was a pretty girl.

 

ROBERT: Today if you saw Ian on the street, you wouldn't be able to tell that he has this handicap. He has figured out how to live a very deliberate and in a way kind of a normal life. He drives a car. He works.

 

JAD: He drives a car?

 

IAN WATERMAN: Yeah, my latest car which is a very nice Mercedes.

 

ROBERT: Do you drive the same speed as everybody else and all the rest?

 

JONATHAN COLE: Oh, faster usually.

 

IAN WATERMAN: I can react as quickly as anybody else. It's an automatic car and it has hand controls. That's the only favor to my disability really, but I tend to do with my driving what I do within the way that I manage my life, which is I plan ahead.

 

ROBERT: I'm just -- my last question really for Ian I guess, is have you solved this problem as best you can? I mean, do you feel like you're one person, or do you feel cut in half? Like a mind directing a body, like maybe two people.

 

IAN WATERMAN: I don't think about it in the way that you've just related there. I just think about, "I want to get up. I want a cup of tea. And this is the process I have to apply to do that."

 

JONATHAN COLE: Yep. That's what -- that's what we all do. I don't think stories like this involve heroes, they involve people who try their best under certain circumstances, and are tested in a way that many of us are not. We can learn from that.

 

IAN WATERMAN: You're dealt a hand and you play it as you -- as best you can.

 

ROBERT: Thanks to Ian Waterman and to neurologist Jonathan Cole. Dr. Cole wrote a very nice lovely book about Ian called Pride and a Daily Marathon. They spoke to us together from the BBC studios in Southampton.

 

IAN WATERMAN: Oh, that was -- that was fun. Gosh, I really should read the book, you know? Who's buying lunch? God, this room doesn't get any bigger, does it? It's a nightmare.

 

JAD: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: And today on our program, we're looking at brains and bodies and how sometimes brains and bodies can get wildly out of sync. And let me offer one more flavor on this theme, which has to do with something that neuropsychologist Paul Broks calls body schema.

 

PAUL BROKS: Body schema is the brain's sort of working model of the body.

 

JAD: In order for the brain to keep track of where you are, where everything is, it creates an inner representation of you.

 

PAUL BROKS: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: This is what he thinks. A model, very much in the virtual reality sense, of where it thinks you are in space and where it thinks you aren't.

 

PAUL BROKS: The point is that we, although we think there's a very solid distinction between where our bodies end and the world begins, in fact, the brain has to work quite hard to produce this kind of consistency of experience. And clearly it can go wrong.

 

JAD: This brings us to pilots.

 

DAN FULGHAM: Okay. My name is Dan Fulgham. I spent 32 years in the Air Force, 25 of that in active flying. And this incidence occurred in July of 1952 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.

 

JAD: Our story begins on a normal training day. It was really hot.

 

DAN FULGHAM: In the cockpit, flying down at low level below 3,000 feet it was over 100 degrees.

 

JAD: And Colonel Dan Fulgham was on his fifth run, flying in formation, doing a training maneuver he'd done a million times before. But this time something happened. He pulled the plane up hard, rolled out.

 

DAN FULGHAM: And the next thing I knew, I was -- seemed to be sitting up on the back of the airplane looking down into the cockpit.

 

JAD: Suddenly, he was outside the plane, not inside.

 

DAN FULGHAM: I could see what was going on. I could see the ground, I could see another airplane, and ...

 

JAD: And when he looked in the cockpit where he was supposed to be, he could see a pilot.

 

DAN FULGHAM: I was watching myself not knowing it was me. What's going on here? I'm just gonna watch this for a little while.

 

JAD: So he just sat there on the wing of his own plane watching himself fly the plane.

 

DAN FULGHAM: And just all of a sudden the curtain snaps up and you realize no, it's not a dream. Actually, that's me in the cockpit, and I'm flying the airplane again. But we began to realize at Luke that in the eight weeks of training period that I was there, we lost nine pilots.

 

ROBERT: They died?

 

JAD: Yeah.

 

ROBERT: Wow.

 

DAN FULGHAM: And most of them for running into the ground or running into each other in the air and that sort of thing. And that's an awful lot of pilots to lose just in training.

 

JAD: Okay, fast forward many years. Army engineers are studying this problem, and they figured out some stuff about it but not much. And then along comes this guy.

 

JIM WHINNERY: I'm Jim Whinnery.

 

JAD: Jim Whinnery's his name.

 

JIM WHINNERY: I'm at the Federal Aviation Administration, Air Medical Research Program.

 

JAD: And he had a radical notion. If we're gonna really understand this, I mean, really get to the bottom of this, we have to induce this experience on purpose.

 

ROBERT: Make them go blank? Make them go ...

 

JAD: Yeah. Create the conditions that exist in a fighter jet on the ground in a controlled environment so they can study this.

 

ROBERT: Mm-hmm.

 

JAD: His idea was let's put pilots in a centrifuge.

 

JIM WHINNERY: This big centrifuge.

 

JAD: Like one of these things that the astronauts use. It's got a 50-foot arm that spins round and round.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Around and around. And on the end of that 50-foot arm ...

 

JAD: There's a cockpit.

 

JIM WHINNERY: ... a cockpit.

 

JAD: A pretend cockpit.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Mocked up to be exactly like what a fighter aircraft might be like, with all the controls, the screens, the throttle.

 

JAD: That's where the pilot sits and gets spun around real fast.

 

ROBERT: I see.

 

JAD: So Whinnery put out a call for volunteers.

 

TIM SESTAK: I'm Tim Sestak.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Commander Sestak ...

 

TIM SESTAK: I met Dr. Whinnery ...

 

JIM WHINNERY: ... he was one of the ones that ...

 

TIM SESTAK: ... got involved in his research.

 

JIM WHINNERY: ... heroically volunteered to fly the centrifuge and to deliberately knock himself out.

 

TIM SESTAK: Scared? Pilots don't do scared.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Three, two, one. Pressure.]

 

JAD: This is a recording from the experiment.

 

TIM SESTAK: The task was to chase this little airplane. So I'd sit there and you'd follow it. And first couple maneuvers would be three Gs.

 

ROBERT: G force is the -- is the ...

 

JAD: Well, it's like -- it's like when you're on a roller coaster.

 

TIM SESTAK: Five Gs.

 

JAD: That force that pins you back in your seat.

 

ROBERT: Yeah, yeah.

 

TIM SESTAK: Seven Gs.

 

JAD: Except really on a roller coaster, you're only ever gonna experience about two Gs.

 

TIM SESTAK: And then nine Gs.

 

JAD: Nothing like these guys.

 

TIM SESTAK: The high G forces hurt. The skin on your face sags, your eyelids sag so low that you can't see out from under them, and you wind up tilting your head back to look out from under your own eyelids that are sagging down in front of your face.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Meanwhile, you're tensing all your leg muscles and your abdominal muscles and your arm muscles as hard as you can.

 

TIM SESTAK: You learn to use your body to fight it. And what you do is you tense to every muscle from your toes to your calves and thighs.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Push it out. Push it all the way up. All the way up. Okay.]

 

TIM SESTAK: And you take a breath.

 

JIM WHINNERY: And you start to say the word "Hook." And you hold it for three seconds, and then you finish it off by finishing the K of the hook.

 

TIM SESTAK: Yeah, so these pilots they sound like they're wrestling or fighting or something. They're grunting and groaning and making all these hook noises.

 

JIM WHINNERY: It's like that.

 

TIM SESTAK: The most G I've ever pulled was 12.4 Gs.

 

JAD: Just to give you a sense of what that might feel like, for a pilot like Tim Sestak who weighs about 200 pounds, once he makes a 12.4 G turn his body goes from 200 pounds ...

 

ROBERT: To ...

 

JAD: ... to almost 2,500 pounds. So that's like over the weight of a car.

 

ROBERT: Ah. Because of the pressure pushing down on it.

 

JAD: Yeah, exactly. More crucially says Whinnery, those G forces pull blood ...

 

JIM WHINNERY: The blood ...

 

JAD: ... violently from the brain.

 

JIM WHINNERY: ... is pushed from the head down toward the feet, and it pools in the abdomen and the lower extremities. And when it pools down there, it can't get back up to the brain.

 

JAD: And that's when the problems start.

 

ROBERT: Well, that doesn't sound very good.

 

JAD: No. He -- Dr. Whinnery documented a particular sequence that happens when blood is pulled from the brain.

 

JIM WHINNERY: The first thing you lose is vision.

 

TIM SESTAK: Usually the first thing to go are your eyes.

 

JIM WHINNERY: And you have what's called gray out.

 

TIM SESTAK: Gray out.

 

JIM WHINNERY: Or loss of peripheral vision.

 

TIM SESTAK: And you start getting tunnel vision. And ...

 

JIM WHINNERY: Then you go through blackout where you can see nothing.

 

TIM SESTAK: You lose your sight.

 

JIM WHINNERY: And then if you take the acceleration forces a little higher, you'll lose consciousness.

 

TIM SESTAK: When I woke up, I remember just sitting there and I'm in this little white space. I actually had no idea who I was.

 

TIM SESTAK: Who am I?

 

TIM SESTAK: Where I was, or what I was doing.

 

TIM SESTAK: Why am I doing this?

 

TIM SESTAK: So I'm sitting in this little white ball and I'm looking around and ...

 

TIM SESTAK: What is this all about?

 

TIM SESTAK: I hear this beeping. There's this white light beeping, and then at that moment I realize that I'm in a little room and then I'm supposed to do something, and that one of the things I'm supposed to do is press that button. So I pressed the button. And at that moment, I realized holy mackerel, I'm a pilot and I'm in an airplane and I'm not flying it. And I grabbed the controls and then just made a giant right. I'm Tim Sestak. Holy mackerel, I'm Tim Sestak. I'm Tim Sestak, I'm a pilot. I'm flying in the centrifuge. It all came back to me at once and I was okay.

 

[ARCHIVE TAPE, Dr. Bennett: Commander Sestak, it's Dr. Bennett. How you feeling?]

 

[ARCHIVE TAPE, Tim Sestak: Again, like I've been gone a long time.]

 

JAD: Over the course of 15 years, Whinnery tested about 500 pilots in the centrifuge. He recorded their experiences, measured everything he could think of. And he found a few things. First, that the average blackout lasted somewhere between 12 and 24 seconds.

 

ROBERT: 24 seconds!

 

JAD: Yeah. And while blacked out, this is the interesting thing, pilots experienced these strange little visions.

 

ROBERT: Visions?

 

JIM WHINNERY: I'll give you an example of the individual that lost consciousness, had convulsive movements where he was moving his arms forward and back for about two or three seconds. When he came to, we asked him what had happened and he said, "Yeah, it was a nice warm day and I was out at the lake fishing. All of a sudden, I could feel like I had a -- about a five-pound bass on my line, and he was tugging. And each time he tugged I would pull back. And then all of a sudden I was back in the centrifuge. I don't know what happened."

 

JAD: These little dreamlets, Whinnery thinks, this is the brain confused. It's cut off.

 

ROBERT: Meaning?

 

JAD: Think of it from the brain's perspective. It's lost the body, and yet the body is convulsing, trying to get blood back up to the brain. The brain has no idea why it's convulsing, it just sees arms flailing about and it thinks "Well, my arms are jerking back and forth. I must be bass fishing."

 

JIM WHINNERY: The things that are happening around you frequently get incorporated into those short dreamlets.

 

JAD: Here's one of his own. Turns out he has tested himself in the centrifuge many times.

 

JIM WHINNERY: The little dreamlet that I had, I was going down the aisle of a grocery store, floating if you will. I don't know that I was on a magic carpet, but I sure wasn't having to walk. And I was just really motivated to try to pick up some ice cream as I was going down the aisle. And I was moving down through there and I could see the freezer. I knew the ice cream was over there, and I just could not move my hand over to get it. The next thing I realized was I was trying to turn off the buzzer in the centrifuge with my hand and I could hear it, I could not move it. And then just momentarily I got the ability to have motor control returned and I could turn it off.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I don't know where I am. I honest to God don't know where the hell I am. I thought I was at the grocery store. The other thing is I couldn't control my arm to get -- to get the sound off either.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, doctor: That's interesting.]

 

JAD: This recording you're listening to is from a day when Dr. Whinnery blacked out five times in a row.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I don't remember anything on that one.]

 

JAD: And after that fifth run, which you're about to hear, something weird happened.

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, doctor: Let you take a break just a few seconds. Catch your breath.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I remember about that one. I don't remember starting that one.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, doctor: Last ride coming up.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: God, I don't ...]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, doctor: If you can take one more.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I'm hesitating because I'm not ready yet.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Say what?]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I say I'm hesitating because I'm not quite ready yet.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Okay. Just let me know whenever you get ready. Go ahead and relax. Let you blood flow through your brain a little bit.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: Okay, I'm ready for the last one, I guess.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Okay, final checklist. Data station. Data station is ready. Operator? Operator is ready. Medical? Medical is ready. Final ready, please. Okay, so final ready has been activated. Are you ready?]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I guess. I'm going up this time, right?]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Yes, sir.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: I'm gonna remember going up on this one.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, technician: Yes, sir. Three, two, one, pressure.]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jim Whinnery: Goddamn, I can't get the -- I think that was enough.]

 

JAD: At the end of that last run, Dr. Whinnery got off the centrifuge woozy, and stumbled down the hall.

 

JIM WHINNERY: I was really confused when -- when I got off the centrifuge, and I was walking down the hall back to my laboratory. And all of a sudden I began to realize that I was above and behind myself, and I could see somebody who was myself walking down the hall, and I said, "Oh, man. That's unusual."

 

JAD: Pilots are generally not New Age kind of guys, but at least 40 of them in Whinnery's study did report what he just described: having an out-of-body experience. Weirder still, an even smaller sub sub group reported seeing the classic tunnel with white light type thing. All Dr. Whinnery can say is that that last sub sub group, they were the ones who were out the longest. They had the most intense blackouts. He's not ready to draw any conclusions, but he does suspect that the dreamlets, the visions of seeing yourself from above, even the tunnel and white lights, it's all part of the same situation. The brain is just confused at having lost the body.

 

JAD: Ann Heppermann and Kara Oehler produced that piece for us. Thank you to them. And thanks also to our pilots, Dan Fulgham, Tim Sestak and of course Jim Whinnery.

 

ROBERT: Wow.

 

JAD: That's all the time we have. For more information on anything you heard this hour, visit our website, Radiolab.org. And while you are there send us an email. Our email address, you know it.

 

ROBERT: No.

 

JAD: Come on!

 

ROBERT: I've never really learned it. Radiolab.org or something like that?

 

JAD: No, that's our website address.

 

ROBERT: Oh.

 

JAD: If you would like to email us, and we do like to get email, the address is radiolab@wnyc.org. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: Thanks for listening.

 

[TIM SESTAK: Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad and Ellen Horne, with help from Sara Pellegrini, Sally Herships, Melissa Kevill, Lulu Miller, Amber Seely and Brett Baier. Special thanks to Arwen Curry, Tamar Lewin, Nick Capodice, Ann Heppermann, Kara Oehler and Keith Scott. Production management by Dean Cappello and Michael Alsessor. And a very special thanks to me. I'm Tim Sestak, fully conscious and happy to be speaking to you from this side of the great divide. Radiolab is produced by New York Public Radio WNYC and distributed by NPR. Okay, thanks.]

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