Jul 27, 2009

After Life

This hour: Radiolab stares down the very moment of passing, and speculates about what may lie beyond.

What happens at the moment when we slip from life...to the other side? Is it a moment? If it is, when exactly does it happen? And what happens afterward? It's a show of questions that don't have easy answers. So, in a slight departure from our regular format, we bring you eleven meditations on how, when, and even if we die.

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Robert Krulwich: Hi, I'm Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is supported by LinkedIn, presenting Hello Monday. A new podcast from LinkedIn's editorial team about how we're changing work, and how work is changing us. Every week host Jessi Hempel brings you candid conversations from the front lines of LinkedIn's new offices. Find Hello Monday on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Olivia Fritz: This is Olivia Fritz from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Radiolab is supported by Math for America. Here's a brain teaser. Ever wonder where the best math and science teachers across New York City come together to lead, learn and share? MFA fellowships inspire great teachers to stay in the classroom. Learn about the power of the MFA community at mathforamerica.org.

Jad Abumrad: Wait, you're ...

Olivia Fritz: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: Alright.

Female: You're-

Male: Listening.

Female: ... to Radiolab.

Male: Radiolab.

Female: From?

Male: WNYC.

Female: C?

Male: Yeah.

Female: And NPR.

Jad Abumrad: One.

Robert Krulwich: When you die, we can all agree on this. Something changes. You get the feeling that something that was there isn't there or leaves but what leaves?

Lee Silver: One, two, three can you hear me?

Robert Krulwich: We talked to a biologist at Princeton University Lee Silver who told us a story about a guy back in 1907 who did a very interesting experiment. His name is Duncan MacDougall. I don't remember exactly who he was, what his ...?

Lee Silver: He was a doctor.

Robert Krulwich: A doctor.

Lee Silver: A physician, yes.

Robert Krulwich: And what's his story?

Lee Silver: He wanted to prove that the soul exited the body after death. He thought the soul had a certain amount of weight, that it was a substance. And so what he did was he had these people who were dying from tuberculosis, and they were lying on beds on this gigantic scale.

Robert Krulwich: He literally put people almost dying onto a scale?

Lee Silver: Yes.

Robert Krulwich: So imagine how a patient on one side of the scale, and on the other side are weights, and they're there in perfect balance.

Lee Silver: And then at the moment of death-

Robert Krulwich: Right at the last breath.

Lee Silver: ... he tried to determine whether or not the scale changed.

Robert Krulwich: Did they lose weight when they died? That was the question?

Lee Silver: Right. And he claimed that on average they lost 21 grams the instant they died.

Jad Abumrad: Does he describe the moment that suddenly the scales shift, one way or the other.

Lee Silver: Yeah, death was easy in those days because you stopped breathing, you were dead. They weren't hooked up to machines-

Robert Krulwich: [crosstalk 00:02:52] And do brain scans or stuff yeah.

Lee Silver: Right. So it's the last breath.

Jad Abumrad: The last breath.

Lee Silver: Yes.

Robert Krulwich: And the New York Times headline was soul has weight physician thinks.

Lee Silver: Right, great headline, right?

Robert Krulwich: Yeah pretty good.

Lee Silver: And this is the beginning of the 20th century. We're not talking about medieval times, to remember that.

Robert Krulwich: What did he conclude from this?

Lee Silver: Soul has weight, okay? And-

Robert Krulwich: I've seen a soul. It was here when he was alive and it flew off and it weighs 21 grams.

Lee Silver: Yes. Now there was one person whose weight didn't change immediately. It changed a minute later. And so his hypothesis was that this was a very kind of dumb guy, and the soul didn't realize it was free, and so it took a minute after the death before the soul realized it was freeing and it flew out of the body.

Robert Krulwich: So A true idiot would be hanging out for five minutes while the soul doesn't know where to go.

Lee Silver: Now this was very serious, of course.

Jad Abumrad: How would you explain what he saw or thought he saw? The 21 grams I'm still stuck on that. I mean-

Lee Silver: Oh the 21 grams, it's statistically insignificant. I mean three quarters of an ounce compared to the weight of a body is a minuscule amount.

Jad Abumrad: Particularly says Lee when you consider how crude the scales were at the time, almost anything could have swayed them, a breeze, a pressure anything really.

Lee Silver: Today, he would be laughed out of the Academy.

Robert Krulwich: Have you ever seen someone die or ever seen a dead person?

Lee Silver: I've seen dead people. I mean, I've seen dead bodies.

Robert Krulwich: I saw my mom just before she died and just after she died. And I thought to myself, "There's a real difference here." It's beyond power, or it's a very noticeable, deep absence of something. And it does make you think that something, and I'll use the word carefully, vital has gone away suddenly.

Lee Silver: We have to be very careful about the words, I mean something has gone away, the brain has ceased to function, and therefore, I would say there is no person.

Jad Abumrad: But still, the unanswered question is what really happens in that moment when a person is suddenly gone to-

Robert Krulwich: The other side.

Jad Abumrad: ... the other side. Those of us with the benefit of being alive cannot help but ask this question. It's like a curse we want to know. But obviously, it's not something we can know. Because this will just always be one of those domains-

David Eagleman: ... where the tools of science just can't be used.

Jad Abumrad: Alas, but then there are those folks like neuroscientist David Eagleman who say, "Screw it. We're going to ask, we're going to wonder because that's just what we do."

David Eagleman: When you walk to the end of the pier of science, you look out and you've got everything beyond that, you've got the whole ocean of what we don't know past the end of the pier. What a scientist does is sort of leap out on to different islands and just try things out.

Jad Abumrad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: And I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: Today on Radio Lab, we're going to do what David Eagleman suggests, we're just gonna hop around.

Robert Krulwich: This is unusual for us, but what the heck. We're going to look at different aspects of death and the other side in no particular order.

Jad Abumrad: But here's what we can tell you, we're going to make 11 stops. 11 meditations shall we call them. On various questions relating to-

Robert Krulwich: Death and dying.

Jad Abumrad: And what happens after. But it won't be depressing.

Robert Krulwich: No.

Jad Abumrad: You just heard the first one, soul has wait physician thinks.

Robert Krulwich: Here's our second.

Jad Abumrad: It comes to us from the guy you just heard David Eagleman who is a neuroscientist but wrote a book called Some, which is very not neurosciencey at all.

David Eagleman: The truth is I haven't talked about this book with any of my science colleagues.

Jad Abumrad: Why not?

David Eagleman: I have reasons why but I'm not sure I want to say them on the radio.

Robert Krulwich: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: In any case, the book consist of 40 different versions of the afterlife, and here's one. It's called Metamorphosis written by David Eagleman and read by Jeffrey Tambor.

Robert Krulwich: The actor.

Jad Abumrad: Right.

Jeffrey Tambor: There are three deaths. Now the first is when the body ceases to function, of course, and the second is when the body is consigned or put in a grave. The third is that moment sometime in the future when your name is spoken for the last time.

So, you wait in this lobby until the third death. There are long tables with coffee and tea cookies, you can help yourself and there are people here from all around the world, and with a little effort you can strike up some convivial small talk. Just be aware that you conversation could be interrupted at any moment by a ... well we call them the callers.

Callers: Thompson Harris. Miyuki Himoto.

Jeffrey Tambor: And what they do is they broadcast your new friends name to indicate that there will never again be another remembrance of him by anyone on the earth. Your friends, slumps, saddened even though the callers ... They tell him kindly, "Look, you're off to a better place." The thing is, no one knows where that better place is or what it offers because no one exiting through that door has returned to tell us.

Callers: Alex Gonzales-

Jeffrey Tambor: [crosstalk 00:08:42] And tragically many people leave just as their loved ones arrived, since the loved ones were the only ones doing the remembering, and we all wag our heads at that typical timing. Now not everyone is sad when the callers shout out the next list of names. On the contrary, some people beg and they plead. These are generally the guys who have been here a long time, too long.

Now take that farmer over there who drowned in the small river 200 years ago. Now get this, his farm is the site of a small college now, and the tour guides each week tell his story, so he's a stuck, he's miserable. The more his story is told the more the details drift. He's utterly alienated from his name, it's no longer identical with him, but it continues to bind. And that cheerless woman across the way is praised as a saint even though the roads in her heart believe me, are complicated. And I guess that is the curse of this room. Because since we live in the heads of those who remember us, we lose control of our lives and become who they want us to be.


Jad Abumrad: What gave you the idea for that story?

David Eagleman: This actually, I should say came out of my work as a neuroscientist, because what happens in the brain is you make models of other people when you think, "Well, what would my friends such as such, say? Or what would my wife say?" You're actually running a little simulation of that person in your head. Well, what happens when somebody dies is then they exist only in the scattered heads around the globe of people who knew them. They exist in some way as these algorithms that continue to run. But through time your model of somebody might drift.

Robert Krulwich: [inaudible 00:11:54] ready?

Jad Abumrad: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Krulwich: Number three.

Jad Abumrad: We're going to change up the question a bit.

Robert Krulwich: When am I dead?

Jad Abumrad: How do you decide if somebody is alive or dead? If you take it as your starting point. King Lear from Shakespeare when Cordelia his daughter dies.

King Lear: How? How?

Jad Abumrad: Lear takes out a mirror.

King Lear: Lend me a looking glass.

Jad Abumrad: And puts it right under her nose to see if there is some breath.

King Lear: If that her breath were mist or stain-

Jad Abumrad: And he takes out a feather.

King Lear: This feather.

Jad Abumrad: And does the same thing, and that is how he decides if she's on or off.

Gary Greenberg: Yes. And it's really one of the most beautiful scenes in Shakespeare.

Jad Abumrad: That's Gary Greenberg. He wrote a book called, The Noble Lie.

Gary Greenberg: When it's done right, it's impossible not to weep-

King Lear: She's gone forever.

Gary Greenberg: ... at that scene.

King Lear: Cordelia.

Gary Greenberg: And the intimacy of that moment.

Jad Abumrad: But if you fast forward a few hundred years, things change. Alright it's 1816 there's a fat lady in a hospital, we're in France, and in walks a guy by the ... What was his name?

Robert Krulwich: [inaudible 00:13:09] Laennec.

Gary Greenberg: Laennec.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: He's a doctor? This fellow?

Gary Greenberg: He's a doctor, yes. And he is called in to consult with a patient who is obese.

Jad Abumrad: Obese and ill. He says to this lady, "Please, may I see your wrist so that I can feel your pulse."

Gary Greenberg: But this woman had so much flesh on her that the only way he could imagine to do it was to put his ear on her chest, which would have been indecent.

Jad Abumrad: So he came up with an idea.

Gary Greenberg: He fabricated quite quickly a device, rolled up paper really, and fashioned it into a to tube, put one end of the tube on the woman's chest and his year on the other end.

Robert Krulwich: Oh, how very decent of him. So he doesn't have to touch her flesh.

Gary Greenberg: He doesn't have to even really look at her chest. His head is actually turned away from the patient.

Jad Abumrad: And so what we've got here in 1816 is the world's first stethoscope. And a very un-intimate and increasingly precise and technological approach to defining death, which now is all about the heart.

Gary Greenberg: Up until then, death was heart death. People were dead, when their heart stops beating.

Jad Abumrad: But if you fast forward again, things take another term. Just imagine thought experiment. If King Lear had been written, not in 1604, but 1968. LBJ administration, okay, Cordelia would die.

King Lear: How?

Jad Abumrad: Lear would be distraught, but instead of doing the mirror thing again, he would call a doctor, who would rush her to the hospital, shocker hurt, resuscitate her, hook her up to a ventilator and a feeding tube and there she would be alive again, sort of. I mean, technically yes she'd be alive because her heart would be. But the Cordelia that he knew, his daughter, would be gone.


And this was the problem in 1968, with all this new technology, ICU units were filling up with these purgatorial Cordelias who floated somewhere in a comatose state between life and death.

Gary Greenberg: You could minister to these people, you could feed them, you could clear their infections, but you could not restore their consciousness. What are you going to do with these people?

Jad Abumrad: In walks a physician.

Gary Greenberg: A very prominent American physician named Henry Beecher.

Jad Abumrad: He decided that the time had come to-

Gary Greenberg: ... acknowledge the obvious, which to him was-

Jad Abumrad: These people weren't just dying.

Gary Greenberg: They were dead. He'd convened a committee at Harvard, and he simply move the line that divides life from death back a little bit toward what most people would consider life.

Jad Abumrad: And so you get in that moment, the concept of brain death. A person is really dead, really dead not when they stop breathing, not when their heart stops beating, but when their brain winks out. That now is when a person really dies.

Gary Greenberg: Exactly.

Jad Abumrad: Totally invented concept, but it stuck.

Gary Greenberg: One way to argue it was, that the brain was considered to be sort of the maestro, the coordinating organ that made all of the rest of the body work, and that without it, the center no longer holds, and things fall apart.

Jad Abumrad: Nowadays, most people go with this brain dead definition of death. But where it gets weird, is that there are some holdouts, just a few. For instance, some sects of Orthodox Judaism will say that if the heart is beating, the lungs are still filling with air, and if the lungs are still feeling with air-

Gary Greenberg: There's still a soul, the Spirit of God is in you, and you certainly can't be said to be dead.

John Troyer: Well, I'll give you another example-

Jad Abumrad: That's John Troyer Associate of Death and Dying Practices at the University of Bath.

John Troyer: For example, Italy they use the brain death criteria. The Vatican however, its own city state within the country of Italy does not. The Vatican goes only by heart.

Jad Abumrad: So technically, according to John, it's possible that if I were brain dead in Italy and the doctor wanted to pull my plug but my family didn't, they could just wheel me down the street into the Vatican and voink! I'd be alive, again.

John Troyer: Yeah, I mean, you'd need a really long extension cord probably because of course, these are all ... I mean, you'd be on machines and devices that require power. So it would be a laborious process, to say the least.

Jad Abumrad: Nonetheless, the real question here, the deeper one, isn't when do you die? Is it brain versus heart? It's when are you gone? Like when is a father, a son, a daughter really gone to us, and who gets to decide that?

John Troyer: Their in lies the rub. Dead to family can be very different than dead to an institution that might be caring for that body.

Jad Abumrad: You know that that scene of Lear with the mirror and the feather-

King Lear: She's gone.

Jad Abumrad: ... it's not a medical diagnosis. It's a diagnosis about love and loss.

King Lear: Cordelia, stay a little.

Robert Krulwich: And number four.

Jad Abumrad: Tennis anyone.

Robert Krulwich: Let me tell you about a woman.

Dr. Adrian Owen: She was the victim of a road traffic accident.

Robert Krulwich: That's Dr. Adrian Owen. He's a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, and he told me about this patient he had.

Dr. Adrian Owen: A patient who's in her 30s and she came to us after five months in a vegetative state following a blow to her head.

Robert Krulwich: So for five months she'd been lying in the hospital-

Dr. Adrian Owen: Couldn't talk or couldn't move.

Robert Krulwich: She could breathe but-

Dr. Adrian Owen: No evidence of any awareness.

Robert Krulwich: You could shine light in her eyes, she wouldn't have the normal response. In effect that woman was gone.

Dr. Adrian Owen: That's right.

Robert Krulwich: But in spite of the fact that she was giving the world nothing back, Dr. Own wondered would it just be possible that there was somebody in there.

Dr. Adrian Owen: So we tried a new kind of approach with her-

Robert Krulwich: Because they had a new and sophisticated tool that previous scientists had never had.

Jad Abumrad: You mean your brain scanner.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah this is a stethoscope for the brain. Dr. Owen stood by her bedside, and said, "I'll tell you what, in a few minutes, we're going to take you to a machine." You chat with her, you say, "Hey."

Dr. Adrian Owen: Well that's exactly how it's done. Yes is it sounds a little bit bizarre because of course you don't get any responses back from these patients, you don't even know whether they can hear you. But we make the instructions very clear.

Robert Krulwich: And he says, "Now when we put you in the machine, there's going to be a click, and I'm going to say into your ear, please begin to ..."

Dr. Adrian Owen: To imagine playing a vigorous game of tennis.

Jad Abumrad: What?

Dr. Adrian Owen: We said imagine that you're standing there at the baseline of Wimbledon carrying out the movements.

Jad Abumrad: Tennis why?

Robert Krulwich: See, because here's the thing we now know enough about brains to know that if you are imagining tennis-

Dr. Adrian Owen: That will produce activity in your motor cortex, very similar to the activity that you would see if you could scan somebody when they were actually playing a game of tennis.

Robert Krulwich: And this is true of all healthy people.

Dr. Adrian Owen: That's right.

Jad Abumrad: Always the same pattern?

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Dr. Adrian Owen: It lights up very reliably.

Jad Abumrad: Okay. So he puts this patient into a brain scanner then what?

Robert Krulwich: He rolls her into the machine.

Dr. Adrian Owen: And we say right, play tennis. Now relax. Play tennis, now relax.

Jad Abumrad: And he said this woman's been vacant for five months.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: I got to say this seems quite literally a shot or a forehand in the dark.

Robert Krulwich: This was his first patient.

Jad Abumrad: Really?

Robert Krulwich: He does this. He says play stop, play stop. She hadn't spoken or shown any sense of awareness or any interior life at all for months and months and months and months.

Jad Abumrad: And?

Dr. Adrian Owen: Play tennis.

Robert Krulwich: On the screen there's a tennis game.

Dr. Adrian Owen: What we saw is exactly what we see in healthy volunteers, and her premotor cortex was turning on and turning off when we asked her to relax, turning on when we asked her to do the task, and it would stop when we asked her to relax.

Jad Abumrad: So she's in there.

Robert Krulwich: She's in there. Were you amazed, or were you expecting ... What happened to you?

Dr. Adrian Owen: Well, I mean, it was pretty exciting. I have to say the fact that it was the first person we tried it in was perhaps the biggest surprise. And we've scanned about 20 patients since then doing the same thing, and we've seen three so far who showed clear signs of being aware.

Robert Krulwich: See, that's the thing that frightens me about what you've done. It seems to me you've discovered that there may have been and there may be lots of people in this world who are somehow aware but who are invisible to the rest of us whom we could in effect murder by mistake.

Dr. Adrian Owen: Yeah, well, that's obviously a very loaded question. I think we have to face the fact that historically we haven't always had the tools that we have today, that can help us to make complex decisions. But we're at very early stages of this. And there are some, some also very technical reasons why one needs to be extremely cautious about drawing conclusions from this. For example, we could tell with this patient that she was aware, but what we can't do is to conclude that the rest of them were definitely unaware.

Imagine if you were stone deaf. You appear to be in a vegetative state. Now, in that situation, we wouldn't necessarily know that you were stone deaf because you've had a major brain injury and we can't talk to you and find out, so we don't know that you're stone deaf, we put you in the scanner and we ask you to imagine playing tennis, but you can't even hear the instructions. Now clearly that patient wouldn't imagine playing tennis, they wouldn't activate their pre motor cortex. But it wouldn't be because they weren't aware, it will be because they were deaf.

Robert Krulwich: Oh dear.

Dr. Adrian Owen: So even though we can tell when a patient is aware, we can't tell when a patient is unaware and that's a very, very important distinction.

Jad Abumrad: But if you can't really know that someone is unaware, then you can't actually ever really know if they're gone.

Robert Krulwich: We've entered into this very difficult space, where we have learned enough to know that we know much less than we thought.


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Speaker 18: WNYC studios is supported by the Metropolitan Opera, presenting their new podcast Aria Code. This month The Met's neon lit Las Vegas production of Verdi's Rigoletto returns, followed by the same composers Falstaff with Ambrosio Maestri as the larger than life Shakespearean hero. Also on stage Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Kathleen Turner in La Fille du Régiment. And soon Wagner's complete ring cycle. For video clips, interviews and tickets go to metopera.org.

Kathy: Hey folks, it's Kathy and Tobin here from the Nancy podcast.

Tobin: And we went to tell you about a really exciting project we've been working on.

Kathy: All this week we're running a series called queer money matters. It's about how the economy is built for [inaudible 00:27:15] gender, heterosexual people, and what as queer folks have to do to navigate it.

Tobin: We'll be covering topics like healthcare, family planning, marriage and retirement. Plus, financial experts and our listeners weigh in.

Kathy: Tune in on Apple podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Tobin: Or you can head over to nancypodcast.org/money. Thanks.

Jad Abumrad: Hello, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radio Lab.

Robert Krulwich: We're back from our break.

Jad Abumrad: Yes, we are.

Robert Krulwich: What do we do during our breaks? What would you say we do during a breaks?

Jad Abumrad: We don't do anything, we don't exist.

Robert Krulwich: Really?

Jad Abumrad: And we're going to continue with our show here to how many meditations? 11.

Robert Krulwich: 11.

Jad Abumrad: 11 meditations on things relating to death and what happens after.

Robert Krulwich: But we're not up to 11.

Jad Abumrad: No.

Robert Krulwich: This is-

Jad Abumrad: Five.

Robert Krulwich: Five.

Jad Abumrad: It's called?

Robert Krulwich: Four Seconds Down.

Jad Abumrad: From producer Soren Wheeler.

Ken Baldwin: Wake up. Everything's pretty black, same as it has been the last couple of weeks.

Soren Wheeler: This is Ken Baldwin, the day he's talking about is August 20th, 1985.

Ken Baldwin: Say goodbye to my wife, and I just say, "I'll be home late, do some overtime."

Soren Wheeler: At the time he's living a couple hours east of San Francisco.

Ken Baldwin: Say goodbye, say I love her. And I know right now that I won't survive the day. She has no idea how I feel.

Everything is dark, everything is black.

So I get in my car-

I'm just not a very good person.

Drive to work because I think maybe I can do it one more day. The closer I get to work the more I realize I've got to disappear, to start over and get rid of whatever it is, I've got.

It's got to end.

I drive right past work. And then I'm on the freeway, kind of relaxed. And I finally see the bridge and it's huge. It's gigantic.

Soren Wheeler: He parks his car at the bridge, puts money in the meter.

Ken Baldwin: And I start walking, and I'm walking on the bridge just like any other tourists. It's a beautiful day. It's a gorgeous Wednesday. I see everything around me and it's just gorgeous. And I find a place, it's an outcropping. You can see straight down into the water. And I say, "This is time to do it. You really got to do this."

I really believed that everybody would be better off without me. That everybody would just get on with their lives feeling better about me being gone than me being here.

I put my hands on the railing, count to 10. Go. And I volted over. And the last things I saw leave the bridge when my hands, and that moment, that very moment I said, "Oh my god, this is a mistake." And nothing I can do about it, except fall.

Soren Wheeler: The fall from the bridge to the water takes about four seconds.

Ken Baldwin: And it was almost like a quick flickers of what I was trying to think of.

Oh my family.

My daughter, three years old, I'll never see her grow up.

The things she's going to see that I don't get to see. Man the misery that I caused, this is bad. I'm sorry guys that I did this to you. Wow. I do want to live.

This how it's gonna end. Then I just blacked out. And I woke up and I was swimming for my life. And I was saying, "Oh my god, somebody please save me, somebody saved me."

Soren Wheeler: He hit the water in a cannonball. He bruised his feet, his backside, but no serious injuries. Some workers saw him jump and called the Coast Guard.

Ken Baldwin: And then the next thing I remember I was on the Coast Guard cutter.

Soren Wheeler: Only 26 people have made it onto that boat out of 1000 or so that have jumped. And nearly all of them say that in the middle of the fall, when they're facing their death something inside them changed, and they didn't wanna to die. For Ken that change happened the very moment he saw his hands leave the bridge.

Ken Baldwin: I can see that perfectly. I can see my hands leave the bridge. I don't know if it was a mechanical switch or some kind of switching in the brain function but it for some reason, it became a switch to another life.

Jad Abumrad: Number six.

Robert Krulwich: Am I dead.

Jad Abumrad: I hear some seagull.

Paul Broks: You hear the seagulls, yeah.

Jad Abumrad: Where are they coming from?

Paul Broks: We're just on the edge of the English Channel in the Atlantic-

Jad Abumrad: Really, so they've got you in a little box floating in the ocean?

Paul Broks: Actually we're not that far away from the sea, so we get lots of seagulls here.

Jad Abumrad: This is Paul Brock's, he not really floating in a box in the ocean, he's just in a box near the ocean. And the reason we've connected our box in New York to his in England is because of a question he was once asked.

Paul Broks: If you work in the sort of line that I've worked in over the years, you get the most bizarre statements and questions.

Jad Abumrad: Which is because Paul is neuropsychologist, which means he diagnosis patients with various mental disorders. And he describes this one case about eight years ago involving a woman named Jeannie.

Paul Broks: Just an ordinary pleasant, middle aged woman from the north of England.

Jad Abumrad: Early '50s.

Paul Broks: Well, loved by her family.

Jad Abumrad: She comes into his office, he runs her through some basic tests. I just did a basic assessment of as I would in that sort of case of general intellectual level. And at first she seemed pretty with it, she answered all his questions, he seemed pretty alert. But then ...

Paul Broks: We then got into a conversation about whether things seemed real.

Jad Abumrad: What does that mean?

Paul Broks: Well, it's difficult to pin that one down. She just felt that things weren't real. She would point to objects in the room and say well that cup there doesn't seem real, does it? Or the chair doesn't seem real. It just doesn't feel real. So I can see it and I can describe it to you, but it just doesn't feel real. And the thing that really made me sit up was when she said ... I forget the exact phrase, but it's in the book-

Eventually Jeannie said, "Am I dead?"

Jad Abumrad: Am I dead?

Paul Broks: Yes, do you think I'm dead? Do you think I died.

I didn't respond immediately, and let the silence flow. Jeannie smiled. Her face was lit with a benign perplexity. There was a smear toothpaste around the corner of her month. She didn't seem to notice the droplets of tea spilling on to addressing gown. But there was a glint in her eye. "In the middle of the night I was convinced." she said, "I thought they would come to take me away." "I can't say for sure that I'm dead", she continued. "But things are not the same. I don't feel real. It seems to me I might be dead. How would I know if I was dead?"

It immediately made me think this may be an example of Cotard's syndrome.

Jad Abumrad: No one really knows what causes Cotard's syndrome.

Paul Broks: It's very rare. I mean, I've come across three cases.

Jad Abumrad: But one of the symptoms he says, is often this sense, deep sense that you're somehow not completely here.

Paul Broks: One idea about this syndrome is that somehow there's a decoupling of thoughts and feelings.

Robert Krulwich: Which means what exactly?

Jad Abumrad: Here's how he explained it to me. The brain has two jobs it's doing it all times. The first is to keep track of what's happening outside your body. Like the sites that are coming at you, smell, touch. Your sensual experience of the world.

Paul Broks: Immediate consciousness of the body and the world, and the body being in the world.

Jad Abumrad: All the while the brain also is maintaining this inner life, where you think thoughts and you have memories, personality.

Paul Broks: What you normally think of when you think about yourself.

Jad Abumrad: You, right? What do you think happens in this condition, is that that outer you-

Paul Broks: The sensual self.

Jad Abumrad: ... somehow gets cut, cut off from that inner mental you and it just drifts off to sea leaving you with just thoughts.

Paul Broks: But it's the feelings that give us our in the moment sense of self. So if you don't have feelings attached to thoughts and perceptions.

Jad Abumrad: Then you're like a vapor. You're there but you have no weight. Isn't what you're describing, basically, one version of the afterlife? Like my body is gone, but something remains.

Paul Broks: Yeah, I haven't thought of that, that's a very interesting way to think about it. But is that any different than the story persisting in someone else's head?

Robert Krulwich: Seven.

David Eagleman: Do you guys know this group, Edge.org? It's John Brockman's group.

Robert Krulwich: Yeah, we do.

Jad Abumrad: That's David Eagleman again. And for number seven, a brief excerpt from a conversation we had with him, "If I only had a brain."

David Eagleman: I just wrote an essay on there yesterday it came out.

Robert Krulwich: Is this, Big ideas that will change the world"? That one?

David Eagleman: Yeah exactly. What's the thing that will change everything? And my answer was, and I think this is something I'll actually see in my lifetime. The idea is silicon immortality. In other words, downloading your consciousness into a computer, and we'll really have reached a new point where there'll be immortality.

Jad Abumrad: How would you figure this would work?

David Eagleman: Imagine you make an exact copy of the three dimensional structure of the brain, all the neurons, all the connections between the neurons, the proteins inside, the phosphorylation states of the proteins, you make a copy of this whole thing. What matters is the algorithms that are running on top of the brain. It's not the wet, gushy stuff that matters, it's what that wet gushy stuff is implementing. And the idea is that if you could recreate the brain out of let's say, beer cans and tennis balls, and you get all the structure the same, and it runs the same algorithms, then that would be you. It would have your consciousness, your memories, your thoughts and so on. Right now it's science fiction because it's so much data our current computers couldn't handle it.

Jad Abumrad: Is that the only limitation, just the hard drive size?

Robert Krulwich: No there's other limitations.

David Eagleman: There are two limitations right now. One is our imaging technology, and the other is the amount of storage capacity-

Robert Krulwich: And error.

Robert Krulwich: I mean, you get one atom or two wrong, and all of a sudden instead of your cat named Coco, it's now named Boko and then you're not the same person.

David Eagleman: No, that's not true in fact, because every time you hit your head on a cabinet, you're actually killing lots of neurons. But that doesn't change who you are. You don't misremember your cat's name. Imagine that you changed one word in the novel, Moby Dick, it would still be Moby Dick.

Robert Krulwich: Well it'd be almost Moby Dick.

David Eagleman: It would be almost Moby Dick, but you are almost the same person day today. And you're never exactly the same person that you were yesterday, because of small changes in your brain.

Jad Abumrad: But let's imagine that you're right, despite Robert's objections.

Robert Krulwich: I'm not even imagining it.

Jad Abumrad: Let's just say you are-

Robert Krulwich: I'm just listening to the hubris of this.

Jad Abumrad: .. what would you actually do with a Xerox brain.

Robert Krulwich: He wants to be immortal don't you have [crosstalk 00:39:40].

Jad Abumrad: No, but I mean like-

Robert Krulwich: He's doing this in his own life time?

Jad Abumrad: No but how would you interface with a Xerox brain?

David Eagleman: So the idea is if we can recreate a brain in zeros and ones on a computer, then you could actually live inside of a virtual world, and you could enjoy living in this world indefinitely.

Robert Krulwich: Or like the Scarecrow.


He didn't have a real brain, he had straw and a certificate.

David Eagleman: Well you don't actually know that you have a real brain either, right?

Robert Krulwich: What?

David Eagleman: There are modern philosophers who deal with this in a very ... in a real way, they ask, how would we know if we are a simulation?

Jad Abumrad: But why would we die if we were a simulation?

Robert Krulwich: He's not gonna die, that's the whole [inaudible 00:40:33].

David Eagleman: Well, so this is the point of my book Some, is to illustrate that there are lots of possibilities out there, right?

Robert Krulwich: Here it comes.

David Eagleman: Yeah, when you-

Robert Krulwich: Go ahead, go ahead I don't want interrupt you, because you're about to become immortal.

David Eagleman: So there are many different stories written here. And some of them god is actually a married couple that got separated and then reunited or that God is the size of a microbe, and he's ....

Jad Abumrad: Eight, do we say eight or is it nine?

Robert Krulwich: I think it was nine.

Jad Abumrad: No, I think we're eight, ineffable.

Robert Krulwich: Another story by David Eagleman.

Jad Abumrad: From his book some read for us again by actor Jeffrey Tambor.

Jeffrey Tambor: When soldiers, part ways and wars and the breakup of the platoon triggers the same emotion as the ... well, the death of a person. It's the final bloodless death of the war. The same mood haunts actress on the drop of the final curtain after months of working together, something greater than themselves has just died. After a store closes its doors on its final evening, or Congress wraps its final session, the participants amble away feeling that they were just part of something larger than themselves. Something they intuit had a life, even though they can't quite put a finger on it. In this way death is not only for humans but for everything that existed. And it turns out that anything that enjoys life enjoys an afterlife. Platoons, and plays and stores and Congress's, they don't end, they just move on to a different dimension.

Although it's difficult for us to imagine how these beings interact. They enjoy this delicious afterlife together, they exchange stories of their adventures. They laugh about good times, and often ... Well, just like us, just like humans, they lament how short this thing is, how brief it is. It may seem mysterious to you that these organizations can live on without the people who composed them, but the underlying principle is simple, the afterlife is made of spirits. I mean, after all, you don't bring your kidneys, your liver or your heart to the afterlife with you. Instead, you gain independence from the pieces that make you up. Now a consequence of this cosmic scheme is going to surprise you. When you die you aggrieved by all the atoms of which you were composed? Yeah. I mean they hung them together for years, whether in sheets of skin or communities of spleen, but with your death, they don't die.

Instead, they part ways moving off in their separate directions, mourning the loss of a special time they shared together. Actually haunted by the feeling that they were once playing parts in something larger than themselves. Something that had its own life. Something ... well, they can hardly put a finger on.

Josh: Hi, my name's Josh, and I'm calling from Harlem, New York. Radio Lab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org. Thanks.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radio Lab, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: And today on the show 14 medications-

Robert Krulwich: 12.

Jad Abumrad: 12.

Robert Krulwich: 11.

Jad Abumrad: 11, 11 meditations on the moment of death and what happens after now?

Robert Krulwich: Number eight.

Jad Abumrad: Nine, nine.

Robert Krulwich: A title which simply escapes me, Booyah Mozart.

Jad Abumrad: From producer Lulu Miller.

Lulu Miller: Hi there, can you hear me?

Jan Zalasiewicz: Yes I can.

Lulu Miller: Okay great. So I called up this guy at the University of Leicester.

Jan Zalasiewicz: Jan Zalasiewicz I'm a geologist who basically works on Earth history.

Lulu Miller: By day, but in his spare time he's been studying what he calls ...

Jan Zalasiewicz: Future fossils.

Lulu Miller: Let's go ahead a hundred million years.

Jan Zalasiewicz: Which is roughly the time that separates us from the dinosaurs. We will be dead, all the species that are around us will be dead.

Lulu Miller: So I asked him, will any of our stuff, the books we write, the buildings we make, will any of that still be here. And here's what he found.

Jan Zalasiewicz: Concrete is probably going to preserve pretty well. Glass will preserve but it will probably turn opaque. Bits of brick work, corroded piping, some types of plastic and our rubbish dumps, all stand a pretty good chance of being preserved.

Lulu Miller: What about paper? Do we know about that?

Jan Zalasiewicz: Paper again is, we can treat that paper is plant material, it will carbonize, just as when we see fossil plants, they can be preserved for 10s or even hundreds of millions of years. So the shape of paper will be preserved, almost forever but the print on paper will almost certainly be lost. If you have a book preserved, it will like a little piece of oblong coal. So the ideas that we produce that I cannot see surviving this. Shakespeare and Garter, and all the people we call the immortals, you know, Mozart, music. That information I think will be lost forever.

Jad Abumrad: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine 10.

Robert Krulwich: 10.

Jad Abumrad: 10.

Robert Krulwich: Cyberternity. It's a word of our own coinage, Cyberternity.

Jad Abumrad: And it comes to us from producer Emily Voight.

Emily Voight: This story is about dealing with death in a world where no one really dies. At the center of the story is a guy named Wyatt Amman.

Donald Dover: I knew Wyatt and I had considered him my best friend.

Emily Voight: That's Donald Dover.

Donald Dover: Wyatt and I both had office jobs at the same time. And together, we decided that this wasn't enough, because both of us are spending so much time in front of computers, so the goal was going to be to join the Peace Corps, and we had talked about doing the Peace Corps together.

Emily Voight: But Wyatt got things going first. He quits his job, he signs up for the Peace Corps and within a few months was headed off to Zambia.

Donald Dover: He called me to see him off and we sat there, and sat there, and sat there sort of avoiding the fact that he was gonna actually have to leave. Finally, he's like, "All right, you need to go home. I need to get on a plane." So he walked me to my car and gave me a big hug and he said ... He said, "You've been a great friend to me Donald." And I said, "Yeah, you too." And he said, "Don't worry, I'll be back in two years. Nobody's gonna die."

Emily Voight: But 10 weeks into the trip, Wyatt was hanging out with some friends on the fourth floor of a hotel, and he leaned back against a window almost floor to ceiling and the plate glass gave out. He fell for stories and he bled death, his lungs filled with blood, he never regained consciousness.

Jeannie Ammon: When the Peace Corps called, I just said, "I don't believe it. Who is this? What kind of sick thing are you doing?"

Emily Voight: This is Jeannie Ammon, Wyatt's mom.

Jeannie Ammon: He said, fatal injuries. I said, "What do you mean fatal? What does fatal mean?" I couldn't, my mind would not comprehend what that word meant. I felt so betrayed by God. I'd prayed for Wyatt and had felt that God would keep him safe. And you know, it's such a crock.

Emily Voight: So two years go by, and right at the time that Wyatt would have been returning from the Peace Corps, something happened. Jeannie can you tell me about getting the letter?

Jeannie Ammon: Yeah. I remember so clearly, Greg and I were both home and we went to the mailbox and walked to the kitchen and we ripped open the envelope. And-

Emily Voight: And inside was a letter from Wyatt.

Jeannie Ammon: We were really unsure what was going on. It's hard to describe. It was really incredible.

Emily Voight: So what happened is this, before Wyatt died, he had been playing around on the internet, and he went to the site called future me. A website where you can send a letter to your future self. Wyatt wrote his right before he joined the Peace Corps, and the idea was, the site would hold on to it and email it back to him in two years. But of course, Wyatt wasn't there to get the letter. But Donald, his friend found it and sent it to Jeannie.

Jeannie Ammon: And so Greg and I both stood there at the counter, and we read the letter. Okay-

Jad Abumrad: What did it say?

Jeannie Ammon: Dear future me, I'm leaving DC so far, I've managed to do pretty much everything other than what I needed to do.

Emily Voight: It's about the fact that he's leaving for Zambia, first of all.

Jeannie Ammon: I have no idea what to expect.

Emily Voight: He talks about his ex girlfriend.

Jeannie Ammon: Sometimes love is like crack.

Emily Voight: How he hates his office job.

Jeannie Ammon: I truly believe that I was meant to be a semitransient being.

Emily Voight: He's sort of being a little melodramatic.

Jeannie Ammon: I want the Sistine Chapel, not a ranch style home in the suburbs.

That letter really captured Wyatt was. My life is my canvas. With all his ramblings and these grandiose things.

Already schizophrenicly colorful, intricate, and dizzyingly amorphous.

He knows that he's saying too much, and that he kind of has to humble himself.

How pretentious is that?

And that's what he was like. He was always keeping a check on himself.

One thing's for sure, I'm capable of rambling on and on and on and on and on, and on and on.

I have the same problem. I just remember feeling ... I felt like Wyatt had just sent us a letter. Greg shook his head and he said, "That kid you know," and it was like a part of him was still alive.

Jad Abumrad: Emily.

Emily Voight: Uh-huh.

Jad Abumrad: Let me just interrupt for just a second.

Emily Voight: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: Because it will be easy to hear this story as just like a fluke, like a letter shows up from a kid who died and look what it means to the mom and his friend. But no, this might be where we're all headed because the internet, you know it's always on. And one of the things that's happening is that there are sites that are popping up that allow people to speak from beyond the grave, and to keep on speaking. In fact, David Eagleman, who we heard from earlier the guy who read those stories and the neuroscientist. He started one.

David Eagleman: I started the company deathswitch.com.

Jad Abumrad: This is a real thing.

David Eagleman: There are hundreds of subscribers. Yeah.

Jad Abumrad: No kidding.

David Eagleman: Oh, yeah.

Jad Abumrad: The way it works is you sign up for the site and then you keep checking in with the site to prove you're alive. And if you disappear for too long-

David Eagleman: The computer deduces you are dead.

Jad Abumrad: And then it sends out all those emails that you told it to.

David Eagleman: To your company, telling them what the passwords are. To your family, telling them where the gold is buried, or even just to remind them that you love them.

Jad Abumrad: And he says that these switches, these death switches are going off all the time.

David Eagleman: But lots of people test the death switches to make sure that it works.

Jad Abumrad: So that might not be real yet, but they will be pretty soon. So it's easy for him to imagine a letter like this.

David Eagleman: Happy 87th birthday, it's been 22 years since my death. I hope your life is proceeding delightfully.

Jad Abumrad: Which may sound funny but imagine that that's you in the kitchen, getting a letter from your mom or from someone that you lost too early. How would you feel?

Jeannie Ammon: It was like a part of him was still alive.

Jad Abumrad: So after Jeannie gets the letter what happens?

Emily Voight: Well Jeannie starts writing Wyatt as if he hadn't died.

Jad Abumrad: What do you mean? Writing him where?

Emily Voight: Wyatt, had been a huge blogger and Jeannie discovered that a lot of his blogs were still active. One of them was even updating his age.

Jeannie Ammon: It shows his age is what he'd be now, it doesn't know that he's not here anymore.

Emily Voight: So she goes on and leaves him comments.

Jeannie Ammon: My latest one was on November 5th this year. Do you want me to read that one?

Emily Voight: That'd be great.

Jeannie Ammon: Wyatt it feels like you're still here living in Zambia and it is 2005. I feel frantic to do something to stop the 17th from happening-

Emily Voight: In your mind when you comment on a blog.

Jeannie Ammon: Oh, Wyatt, another holiday without you-

Emily Voight: Where do you picture that it's going?

Jeannie Ammon: Well, I think ...

I wish you could just let me know what it is like and how you feel now. Maybe in the ...

I think I just figured it's like on a screen and somehow he's getting it.

Donald Dover: Wyatt's dead.

Emily Voight: For Donald getting the letter was just a reminder of that.

Donald Dover: Wyatt died in Zambia.

Emily Voight: And in fact, the idea that technology could keep him around ...

Donald Dover: I guess I'm sort of-

Emily Voight: That just didn't work for Donald.

Donald Dover: I sort of feel the way I imagined Wyatt felt. In his letter he talks about not being static. I want to learn and grow and see how others ... I want to continue moving and seeking and building and growing and ... I will not rest. It can be kind of frustrating. Like he's stuck in the 24 year old Wyatt. Before Wyatt died, we had decided we were Luddites, that we were anti-technology, and the hilarious part is that then Wyatt then Googled Luddite to find out things about Luddites. But initially the plan was to leave to meet Wyatt in Africa. And when Wyatt died I knew that I still needed to make that break.

Emily Voight: So he did.

Donald Dover: I left my office job to go live on a small island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. It's 240 acre Island and I live there with three other people. There's no cell phone service, you won't be logging on to the internet.

Emily Voight: He's sure Wyatt would have loved it there.


Robert Krulwich: And 11, Goodbye. Here's Peter Ward, a paleontologist and professor of Biology, and Earth, and space Sciences at the University of Washington.

Peter Ward: In 7 billion years our sun will suddenly go red giants, and the earth is just burned to a crisp.

Robert Krulwich: Does that happen like one morning? Or does that happen over several hundred years or ..."

Peter Ward: It actually will take a few thousand years, but the oceans will have been actually long gone, the oceans are going away in 2 billion years.

Robert Krulwich: Oh dear.

Peter Ward: Because the sun, that nasty old son just keeps getting brighter and brighter and brighter, and about 50 to 60 centigrade, we start rapidly losing the ocean into space.

Robert Krulwich: This is the opposite of Noah's Flood. Instead of the gas descending into the giant oceans, now the oceans pick up and go back into the sky.

Peter Ward: Exactly.

Robert Krulwich: And then things get worse from there, because 5 billion years after the oceans are gone, the sun starts to expand, and it happens in pulses.

Peter Ward: There are actually four to five pulses that are going to take place. The first four pulses will not eat up the earth but it will certainly sterilize it. The whole surface will melt, it will be glowing. The last one the sun just keeps expanding. Our sun will expand almost to the orbit of Mars, and so the earth is totally gone, it just gets snuffed out. But the nice thing is that Europa will become the new Maui.

Robert Krulwich: Oh really?

Peter Ward: Yes, Jovian satellites. If you buy real estate there now and hear it's dirt cheap, that will be the tropics.

Robert Krulwich: Jovian moon.

Peter Ward: Jovian moons.

Robert Krulwich: How many are candidates for Maui's?

Peter Ward: There's Europa, and Ganymede and IO not so much.

Robert Krulwich: But isn't Europa, when the ice melts on Europe isn't it an all watery ...

Peter Ward: This just could be a nice warm ocean.

Robert Krulwich: Would just be a bottle of water?

Peter Ward: Bottle of water. 100 mile deep water too at that.

Robert Krulwich: That's regular liquid water, H2O?

Peter Ward: Yes. Oh, it's beautiful stuff. Think of the view. Think of the views of Jupiter, that would be so spectacular. The downside with these Jovian moons is that you couldn't breathe there.

Robert Krulwich: What? You left that out?

Peter Ward: Minor detail. You can't breathe it. But I mean that you can certainly go water skiing, you'll just have a little respirator on.

Robert Krulwich: Oh, that was a small little asterisk you just [crosstalk 00:58:07].

Peter Ward: Oh, come on now, just compared to the end of the world, that's minor detail.

Robert Krulwich: I see. Alright, so now let's go further out. At what point does any possibility of solar system existence end?

Peter Ward: That one's tougher. That one's very tough. Because after the red giant we become a M class or a dwarf.

Robert Krulwich: Which means the sun after being this big, now expanding red star, red giant sinks back into itself and becomes much, much smaller and much, much cooler, so Europa our little paradise now freezes.

Peter Ward: Exactly.

Robert Krulwich: The only thing left is things like Voyager, things that you sent off that are still going off somewhere, bits of us.

Peter Ward: They're going, and going, and going gone. And the chance that they'll ever intersect a star is very special. The end.

Robert Krulwich: The end.

Peter Ward: Now the final end, of course is way off into the future, because the universe keeps expanding. That means eventually atoms themselves get pulled apart. Little protons and neutrons they get ripped away from one another. And we're somewhere else, something else somehow else.

Robert Krulwich: And then everything that is isn't.

Peter Ward: Exactly. Goodbye. Well goodbye.

Robert Krulwich: Goodbye proton.

Peter Ward: Goodbye neutron.

Jad Abumrad: Goodbye Robert Krulwich.

Robert Krulwich: Goodbye Jad Abumrad.

Jad Abumrad: Goodbye everyone.

John Troyer: Hello, this is John Troyer from the Center for Death and Society. Radio Lab is produced by Lulu Miller and Jad Abumrad. Our staff includes Helen Horn, John Wheeler, Jonathan Mitchell.

Speaker 34: And Amanda [inaudible 01:00:04]. With help from Jessica [Bento 01:00:06], Katie [Sool 01:00:06] Charles Choi.

Speaker 35: Emma Jacobs and [inaudible 01:00:09]. Special thanks to Jeffrey Tambor, Richard Hakes, Rex Stone and-

Speaker 36: Vicki Merrick, Fran [Ailes 01:00:16] and Elizabeth [Shoore 01:00:17]. I'll see you all on the other side.

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