Apr 22, 2021

Deep Cuts

Today, Lulu and Latif talk about some of their favorite episodes from Radiolab’s past that hold new power today.  

Lulu points to an episode from 2008: 

Imagine that you're a composer. Imagine getting the commission to write a song that will allow family members to face the death of a loved one. Well, composer David Lang had to do just that when a hospital in Garches, France, asked him to write music for their morgue, or 'Salle Des Departs.' What do you do? This piece was produced by Jocelyn Gonzales.

And Latif talks about an episode Jad made in 2009. Here’s how we described it back then:

Jad--a brand new father--wonders what's going on inside the head of his baby Amil.

(And don't worry, you don't need kids to enjoy this podcast.) The questions here are big: what is it like to be so brand new to the world? None of us have memories from this time, so how could we possibly ever know? Is it just chaos? Or, is there something more, some understanding from the very beginning? Jad found a development psychologist named Charles Fernyhough to explore some of his questions.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Listener-supported WNYC Studios.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Wait. Wait. You're listening (laughter)...





UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're listening...







LULU MILLER: Hi there. I'm Latif Nasser.

LATIF NASSER: And I'm Lulu Miller. We already messed it up.

LULU MILLER: This is Radiolab.

LATIF NASSER: (Laughter) OK, the reason we are being so awkward is because...

LULU MILLER: We're awkward.

LATIF NASSER: ...We are awkward, but also we're here to ask for money, the money that we need to keep doing our jobs that we love so much. This is listener-funded journalism.


LATIF NASSER: And you are the listener because you are listening to my voice right now. And, Lulu, what's the case? Make the case.

LULU MILLER: OK, the case is like - OK, have you ever turned to anyone and been like, oh, that reminds me of this Radiolab episode? OK, if you've said that phrase, we're in your head, and we're so honored to be in there.

LATIF NASSER: But maybe, like, you could just buy us a drink kind of thing.

LULU MILLER: Yeah, like, we'll keep giving you factoids and new ways of seeing the world, we hope. Just buy us a fancy coffee or a beer.

LATIF NASSER: And we know, like, this has been a really hard year, and a lot of people are strapped, and we understand that. And if you can't afford it, that's OK. But if you can afford it...

LULU MILLER: A little bit goes a long way.

LATIF NASSER: A little bit does go a long way, yeah.

LULU MILLER: A little bit goes a long way. The average donation is $8 a month, and to do it, to actually throw some money our way, all you have to do is go to radiolab.org/donate or text the word Radiolab to the number 70101. (Singing) 70101. There will be so much fun. 70101. That's how you get the donate job done.

LATIF NASSER: And if you pay us extra, we can make sure Lulu never does that again.

LULU MILLER: Sings again.

LATIF NASSER: Sings that song again.

LULU MILLER: If you donate $12, I promise to never sing again. (Singing) My fingers are crossed.

LATIF NASSER: (Laughter).

LULU MILLER: But really, I mean, one of the things we put effort and time and money into is making things that last. And that's why there are maybe shows you mention at a party to a friend, even shows that came out years ago.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah. And, like, we do that, too. Like, we say, have you ever - like, that reminds me of a Radiolab episode.

LULU MILLER: Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally.

LATIF NASSER: There are episodes that - from before I got here that I listen to and I think about, and they kind of haunt me in a way that stay with me.

LULU MILLER: Yeah. And so what we've got for you today is a little celebration of durability. We're going to play a couple pieces that have stood the test of time for us.

LATIF NASSER: They're - like, even if you're a big-time listener, these are deep cuts. They're from, you know, years back. You may not remember them or ever have heard of them. They were not our biggest hits. But I don't know. Just in the last year, these pieces have sort of popped back into our minds, and we heard them anew.

LULU MILLER: So to start us off - I truly had this just the other day, where I was just swirling in the grief of still so much uncertainty with all the things in our world right now. And there was so much talk. There was so much, like, people making sense of how we got here and what the path is out. And I was on a run. I wanted to listen to something. And then I suddenly remembered this old Radiolab piece called "Salle Des Departs" that, in a way, is about how to make sense of grief without words. And it's by this producer, Jocelyn Gonzales. I listened to it, and it was just as beautiful. It, like, was helpful to me in this new way. And you know what? I mean, like, enough of me talking. Let's just play it.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.


JAD ABUMRAD: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad. Welcome to the podcast. This week...

LULU MILLER: I think all you really need to know is that it's about this composer named David Lang who got a commission to - I'll just let Jad pick it up from here.


JAD ABUMRAD: He was commissioned to create background music for the most unlikeliest of places - the morgue. He was asked to write background music for that moment when you see a loved one for the last time. Like, what kind of music do you write in that circumstance? Do you even do it? And if you do, like, what's the right mood? What, as a composer, do you want to accomplish in that situation? What's appropriate? Well, the project is called "Salles De Departs." I think it means - translates from French to chamber of departure, maybe. I don't know. Someone correct me if I'm wrong. And producer Jocelyn Gonzalez spoke with David Lang about it.


DAVID LANG: When I was very young, I had a brother who died. I've had a lot of relatives who've died. And so in a lot of my work, I actually have many pieces which are about how to memorialize someone, how to use a piece of music as a way to capture a moment in a relationship between that person and me or how to freeze something so that I never forget it or how to express a feeling of rage at finding out that someone died that I knew was going to disappear as soon as time took the edge off.


DAVID LANG: Some doctors from a very major hospital outside of Paris, in a suburb of Paris called Garches - and the doctors got together and thought, you know, we have so many people who die in this hospital, and they die in this very strange way. They die not after being sick for years and years. They just die instantaneously. One moment, they're alive on the road. The next moment, they're dead. Their family hasn't had a chance to grieve.
So the doctors got together. They went to the Fondation de France. And they commissioned an Italian artist, Ettore Spalletti, to make a little chapel. But it's really a morgue, this beautiful, blue, sensuous, relaxing room, the idea being that when your loved one would die in this hospital, then they would take the body and move it into this room so that your last memory in the hospital wouldn't be, you know, in this bright white light, in this horribly compromised position and this, you know, real message of eternal defeat. So they made this little space. And then they thought, now that we have the space, we should see if music can participate in this space. So they commissioned a piece both from Scanner and from me.


DAVID LANG: It's made for three cellos and women's voices, but I deliberately wanted to make a piece which could not be played live because I felt that the whole point of this was a piece about death. So the idea that this could have a live performance seemed really like cheating to me, so I made a piece that was supposed to have the unending vocal part that no human being could sing. There are singers who sing their part, and through the beauty of the recording studio, there's no breath. Basically, it's sort of one giant, long tune, so in the instruction of how to play it in the score is to play it like angels. It's supposed to be something that's past the ability of human beings to play it.


DAVID LANG: It's not as if it's, you know, piped in like Muzak. People are given the opportunity to decide whether or not they want an intrusion at that moment. That was something that was very important to me at the beginning - was to not feel like I was dictating something. I don't want to intrude on these people. It's strange to do a project like this because your goal is you hope that no one ever hears this piece, actually. You know, I mean, your goal for life is that no one should ever have to hear this music.


DAVID LANG: The other thing was the idea of how long it should last because the idea that the doctors had when they came in was that I should write music that was on a loop. And I was adamant with them that I felt like this music should last a certain amount of time until it accomplishes its musical task, and then it should be over. And then if you decide that you would like to stay there longer, that's between you and the silence. Here's, you know, the contribution that I can make. And when I've made that contribution, I should get out.

Music goes into you in the - you know, it sort of bypasses all of your normal protection mechanisms, so it goes to the place of you which is not dealing with language or rationality. And that's why it's so useful to sell cars and toothpaste and why it's so useful in movies to get people to all burst into tears at exactly the same moment. I mean, it has this ability to go around all of your defenses.


DAVID LANG: So I imagined this music in this morgue as having this horrible power to make people feel cold or make people break down. And I wanted to actually do something which I thought was much more neutral, which was to say, here is an environment which does not tell you specifically how you are supposed to feel, but it's an environment which may loosen your resolve enough to give yourself permission to feel whatever you want to feel at that moment. You know, all of our training in our society is to avoid those horrible experiences and avoid those horrible emotions. I understand why you are being strong, but it's OK if you don't want to be strong. For this piece, I wanted to make something which gave people permission to examine which way they wanted to go with their emotions.


DAVID LANG: Well, I felt it - as ridiculous as it sounds, when this commission came my way, I felt like I'd been waiting my whole life to get this. And I got really happy about the opportunity to make this environment for mourning, that getting, you know, this miserable, horrible commission, which - it was about people in their most vulnerable moments but actually, you know, made me so excited. But what I really liked about this was I really felt like I was trying to make the environment that would have been the right environment for the experiences I have already had. I never imagined it in a frivolous way. I could imagine somebody taking it very frivolously. I could imagine somebody thinking, here's my opportunity to write the tune that's going to make people cry. But I certainly didn't want to do that.


LULU MILLER: When we come back, we're going to go from the end of life to the beginning. Stay with us.


LATIF NASSER: All right.




LATIF NASSER: And yeah, today, we're just kind of calling back episodes that happened, like, even before our time - before my time, at least - at Radiolab that really do stand the test of time and have kind of stood up to listens even, you know, 10 years later. And there's an episode I wanted to put in front of you. In a way, it's sort of taking it from the last one, which was about death, to - this one's about birth and about babies and about sort of the wordless place, not the wordless place of grief but the wordless place of, like, potential and possibility and, yeah, like, just what's going on in all of our heads right after we're born. And - so yeah, so Jad made this in 2009. It's beautiful. Take a listen.


JAD ABUMRAD: All right. So for this podcast, I want to talk about my kid.

AMIL ABUMRAD: (Babbling).

JAD ABUMRAD: His name is Amil. This is him right here.

AMIL ABUMRAD: (Babbling).

JAD ABUMRAD: And, by the way, I do plan to make this interesting to people who don't have kids because I was just one of those people two months ago, so bear with me. But, OK, Amil - he's 2 months old. He's still in the munchkin phase.

AMIL ABUMRAD: (Babbling).

JAD ABUMRAD: And he's just starting to tune in the world.


AMIL ABUMRAD: (Babbling).

JAD ABUMRAD: And so there are these moments - like yesterday, for example - where he gets real quiet and he just stares at me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello, bubs (ph).

JAD ABUMRAD: It's kind of amazing, actually. But it also kind of presents an interesting question, which I want to explore right here. In fact, you can't avoid it. You're just staring at this thing, and you're like...

AMIL ABUMRAD: (Babbling).

JAD ABUMRAD: What is this little creature experiencing? Like, here is a little human being that is brand-new in the world. What does the world look like to a tiny baby? What does it smell like? What does it sound like? And I happened to find somebody who could help me at least begin to answer these questions.




JAD ABUMRAD: Hi. Is this Charles?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Yes. That's right.


CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Good to talk to you.

JAD ABUMRAD: Charles, before we get started, can I just have you introduce yourself so I can get your name right?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: OK. Hi. My name is Charles Fernyhough. I'm a writer and developmental psychologist from Durham University.

JAD ABUMRAD: And back when Charles had his first child, Athena, he decided to tackle the question.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: What is it like? What's going on for this little person as a dad, you know, as an awestruck new dad?

JAD ABUMRAD: But also as a scientist. So he wrote a book.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Called "A Thousand Days Of Wonder: A Scientist's Chronicle Of His Daughter's Developing Mind."

JAD ABUMRAD: It's an amazing book where he basically goes through what we do and don't know about what's happening in the minds of little babies when they're brand-new. So I put the scenario to him. OK, Amil's brand-new.

AMIL ABUMRAD: (Babbling).

JAD ABUMRAD: When I'm sitting there holding him and we're staring at each other, what exactly is he seeing?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: One difference that does relate to the visual system is that their - the lens of their eye is absolutely crystal clear, whereas your lens, my lens - because they're of a certain age, they've become slightly yellowed. So they filter out some of the blue frequencies of the light that we see.

JAD ABUMRAD: So wait. Paint the picture. What would that be like for them?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: I mean, this is my stab at imagining what this would be like, but if you can imagine being in a Greek village in the summer...



JAD ABUMRAD: Sun is directly overhead, and it's one of those villages where...

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Everything is white. You know, the houses are all painted white. You're wearing sunglasses, and you suddenly take off those sunglasses.


JAD ABUMRAD: It's that bright?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Yeah. I think light is a big - it's probably the biggest shock to newborn babies.

JAD ABUMRAD: It's interesting to consider that that blinding haze of whiteness might actually be how the world really is. We just don't see it. In any case, then I asked him about sound. Do babies hear things differently than adults the same way they see things differently? And he said, yeah, we think so. We think they hear echoes.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Yeah. The echoes are actually there, but our brains filter them out.

JAD ABUMRAD: Woo (ph).

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: But it takes some time for them to learn to do that. I mean, the science behind it is quite complicated, and I don't think I could explain it now. But it's to do with the relative times of arrival that the sound makes on the two ears, but the brain basically has to learn to make this adjustment. It can't do it straightaway. And so a newborn baby's hearing, we guess - we don't know for sure, again, because we can't know what it's like - but we guess that babies hear things in a very echoey way.


JAD ABUMRAD: But it gets even stranger. Tell me about the experiment with the babies and the brain cap.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Yeah. I described a study that was done with babies where they were taking EEG measurements, and these are the kind of measurements that you get when you put a net of 16 or so electrodes over the scalp. And these electrodes pick up the very small electrical changes that go on as your brain works, and it's a perfectly safe, harmless procedure which you can do with very young babies. Well, usually when you do these studies, you can see the way in which particular parts of the brain respond to different kinds of stimulus.

JAD ABUMRAD: In an adult brain, he says, if you show someone a picture, you will see a little - bzzt (ph) - bit of electricity towards the back of their brain.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: If, on the other hand, you heard a sound, then the bit of your brain sort of slightly further forward from that, the auditory cortex, would fire. And you wouldn't see any in the visual cortex.

JAD ABUMRAD: Because different parts of the brain have different jobs. But what happened with these babies is that things got very strange. Like, the researchers would show them a bunch of pictures. Like, boop (ph), here's a circle. Boop, here's a cross. And often things would work as they were supposed to. They would see, like, a little spark in the back of the baby's brain where vision is processed. Sometimes they wouldn't. Sometimes when they showed them say a cross, the vision part would be silent, but they'd see a spark...

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: ...In the auditory cortex, the hearing part of the brain.

JAD ABUMRAD: So the picture would trigger a sound in their head?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: We don't know what it triggered in their head for them subjectively, but we do know that a part of the brain that shouldn't have fired did fire.

JAD ABUMRAD: They were - what you're saying but not quite allowing to pass through your lips...


JAD ABUMRAD: ...Is that they were hearing the picture.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: But we don't know what they heard. But it's a good basis for saying that when a newborn's brain is developing, these different wirings that lead information into different parts of the brain are still taking shape.

JAD ABUMRAD: It might be, he says, that inside Amil's brain right now at 2 months, all of his senses are in a big synesthetic knot so that when he hears my voice, maybe he sees flashes of color. Or maybe when he looks at the wall, he hears tones. Or maybe when light comes in through the window, he tastes it like salt or something. I don't know. I mean, that's the thing.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: We can't know. I mean, there is really strong philosophical grounds for being skeptical. I mean, actually, I can't know that anybody is conscious.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wait, what does that mean?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: I can't know that you're conscious.

JAD ABUMRAD: But I'm talking to you.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Sure you are. But, you know, you could be a really smart zombie. You could be a robot.

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: You know, I can't see you. You're 5,000 miles away. I mean, it may be that I'm the only person in the universe who is conscious. We tend to - you know, the vast majority of us tend to say, well, he looks like me and he talks like me and he thinks like me and he perceives like me so he's going to be like me. But it is a leap of faith.

JAD ABUMRAD: Then I told him about the stare, how, you know, just in the last little bit, Amil has started to really stare at us, and we stare back. And it's - that's not a leap of faith. That's for real. And he told me something really depressing.

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: In those first couple of months, the visual system is controlled by the subcortical regions, and they're kind of the old bits of the brain. The cortex is the relatively new - evolutionarily speaking, the relatively new part of the brain that surrounds the whole thing. And there's a switch between one kind of control system, the subcortical system, and the cortical systems. But as the handover happens - and this is happening at about two months. It'd be interesting to know if he's doing this now. As the handover happens, there's a kind of struggle for power. And the subcortical regions, which were controlling vision, kind of don't immediately want to cede power to the cortical regions. So the baby loses - temporarily loses control of where he or she is looking because of this struggle for power.


CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: The scientists call this sticky fixation. And it's where a baby will just keep staring at you. It's as if the baby can't take its eyes off you.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yes, this is what's happening now. You're telling me this is a brain glitch?

CHARLES FERNYHOUGH: Yeah. It's quite a well-documented phenomenon. And it's bad news for the parents who think that their babies are gazing at them adoringly because actually, they're just kind of - they don't know where to look. They can't control where they're looking. They don't know how to look away basically.

JAD ABUMRAD: Depressing. This might actually be one of those cases where ignorance really is bliss because the truth is you have to project. You have to make that leap of faith, or at least you have to believe whatever it is you have to believe so that when he looks at you and you look back at him, you smile because eventually, that will teach this little dude how the world works, that humans operate on relationships, which are these feedback loops, which - OK - at this moment in time for him are not real, but they will be soon.


LATIF NASSER: That's it for Radiolab this week.

LULU MILLER: See you again next time.


SPENCER: Hi. This is Spencer (ph) calling from beautiful Barre, Vt. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster, with help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach and Carin Leong. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly and Emily Krieger.

Copyright © 2021 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.


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