Nov 4, 2022


This hour, we dive into the messy mystery in the middle of us. What's going on down there? And what can the rumblings deep in our bellies tell us about ourselves? 

We join author Mary Roach and reach inside a live cow's stomach. Talk with writer Frederick Kaufman about our first peek into the wonderful world of human digestion that came about thanks to a hunting accident. And explore with show regular, science writer, and fellow water drinker, Carl Zimmer, about the trillions of microscopic creatures that keep us regulated, physically, but also, maybe, emotionally and spiritually.

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LATIF NASSER: Hey, I'm Latif Nasser. This hour, we dive deep into the vault back to 2012 to explore the grotesque tube slide that lives inside all of us. I mean, it seems straightforward, right? It should be. Like, every day, several times a day, put food in your mouth, sometime later comes out the other side. But what really happens in between? Now I so vividly remember listening to this episode when it came out. What I still love about it is just this idea that one errant gunshot wound opened up this portal for us to peer inside ourselves and to see what's actually going on in there in real time. And that what we saw upended so much of what we thought we knew about the kind of messy mystery in the middle of us.

LATIF: I have a feeling—call it a gut feeling—that you're gonna enjoy it. So without further ado, I give you Guts. Best enjoyed after a meal.



JAD ABUMRAD: We're gonna start this show today.

TIM HOWARD: Hey, Mary.

JAD: With Mary Roach.


TIM: Tim here.


TIM: Hey, let me see if I can ...

JAD: Mary is one of our favorite authors, mostly because she kind of writes about stuff that's ...


JAD: Gross.

MARY ROACH: I'm the kind of person, if I find myself in an operating room for whatever I'm reporting on, I'm the kind of person where they'll be like, "Ms. Roach, you need to step back. Your head is actually inside the body cavity."

TIM: [laughs]

JAD: And for her latest book ...

MARY ROACH: Called Gulp.

JAD: She got really, really into—and inside—cows.

MARY ROACH: Yeah. The fistulated cows that the agricultural schools have.

JAD: And what's a fistulated cow?

MARY ROACH: A fistula is irregular anatomical passageway.

JAD: And a fistulated cow ...

MARY ROACH: You know, in this case ...

JAD: ... has a hole ...

MARY ROACH: ... has an opening ...

JAD: ... right in its side. So that you can actually stick your hand into its side and reach all the way down ...

MARY ROACH: ... to the stomach.

ROBERT: And this is a living cow, right? It's a mooing ...

MARY ROACH: It's a live cow.

JAD: And you've done this?

MARY ROACH: Yeah. It was—it was this amazing—because really, you know, a cow is a ...

ROBERT: She did it at the University of California-Davis.

MARY ROACH: You're standing there, and sort of normally. And for some reason I've worn a skirt and kitten heels, and my hosts are wearing manure encrusted muck boots, and it's a source of great entertainment that I'm here.

ROBERT: And you're in pearls.

MARY ROACH: Yeah. And it's packed really tightly. You got to really work your arm. The guy I was with, Ed DePeters, he's like, "No, keep going. Keep going." I'm like, "I don't know, Ed. I'm not sure. Really?"

ROBERT: Go further in? Or ...

MARY ROACH: Yeah, keep going, keep going. I'm literally up to my shoulder inside this cow.

JAD: I so want to do that.

MARY ROACH: Where are you guys?

ROBERT: We're in New York.

MARY ROACH: Yeah, I know where there's one out there. I can get you a fistulated cow.

JAD: [laughs]

SCIENTIST: You want to walk him down towards the barn and I'll go get the group?

JAD: I didn't actually get to do it, unfortunately, but we sent our producer Tim Howard ...

TIM: Hi, I'm Tim.

JAD: ... out to Rutgers University ...

SCIENTIST: Come on in closer.

JAD: ... where a bunch of high schoolers had come to see ...


TIM: Lily.

JAD: ... Lily the fistulated cow.

SCIENTIST: Okay, let's give it a go. I'm gonna pop the cork.

ROBERT: Did he say cork?

JAD: Yeah. You have to uncork the hole in the cow.

SCIENTIST: You can see all the steam coming out? Ready?

TIM: All right.

JAD: This is Tim reaching his hand in.

SCIENTIST: Go straight across the top to the far side.

TIM: Okay. Oh my God!

MARY ROACH: It's powerful in there.

TIM: Oh, God!

MARY ROACH: I mean, I was a little worried it was gonna break my hand.

ROBERT: What, you mean like pressure?

MARY ROACH: It's a very muscular organ.

STUDENT: It's squeezing my arm.

MARY ROACH: It's mixing and ...

TIM: Wow. I can feel the side of the stomach pushing against me.

MARY ROACH: ... squeezing and contracting.

JAD: Whoa!

TIM: It's really squeezing!

MARY ROACH: It's groping you back.

STUDENT: I'm stuck.

TIM: So I'm just gonna try to go a little bit deeper.

MARY ROACH: And it's hot. It's steamy.

STUDENT: I don't know. It's, like, bubbly.

MARY ROACH: Physical. It's very—yeah.

JAD: [laughs]

TIM: And she is so calm right now. I can't believe it.

MARY ROACH: The cow's bored, and I've got this look on my face like I've seen God or something. I'm like, "Whoa!"

ROBERT: Mary says that, for all her times in morgues and in all the places she's been, this one, this one was really different.

MARY ROACH: The expression I was wearing, I'm sure I've never had cause to use.

JAD: And here's why: if you think about it ...

FRED KAUFMAN: The stomach is a center of magical transformation.

JAD: That is Fred Kaufman, who wrote a whole book about the stomach.

FRED KAUFMAN: You take something outside of your body, you put it in your body and it turns into you.

JAD: So it's like this conduit between what's outside you and what's inside.

FRED KAUFMAN: The other thing that's weird is that the human body is a torus. We're donuts. We've got a hole going through the middle of us, all the way through us. So what seems to be inside us, what seems to be inside our stomach, actually is always outside us.

ROBERT: Oh, this is getting so deep!

JAD: You don't like the torus?

ROBERT: No, I think it's great. I think I'll go with it.

JAD: Because I was thinking we could start that way because that's what we're kind of doing this hour. We're gonna take this thing that's deep inside us ...

ROBERT: And turn it inside out.

JAD: Yeah. I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today? Guts! That mystery that lies between our mouth ...

ROBERT: ... and our butts.

MARY ROACH: We are these sacks of guts and we've got these skeletons, and we walk around and we never even see them. And for centuries, nobody really knew what's going on in there.

JAD: But then something happened that opened up a window.

MARY ROACH: Yeah. Do you want to start back at the ...

ROBERT: Yeah, let's start at the beginning of it.

JAD: Yeah, let's once upon a time it.

MARY ROACH: Okay. So ...

ROBERT: Once upon a time ...

MARY ROACH: ... it all begins.

JAD: And when is this?

MARY ROACH: They first met in 1822.

JAD: Once upon a time in 1822, there was a guy named William Beaumont.

FRED KAUFMAN: William Beaumont is a farm boy from Lebanon, Connecticut. Five brothers and six sisters.

ROBERT: And William ...

FRED KAUFMAN: ... clearly is the smart one.

ROBERT: He was the one with big dreams.

JAD: So at an early age ...

FRED KAUFMAN: He leaves home ...

JAD: And gets himself a job as a doctor.

FRED KAUFMAN: An army doctor.

JAD: Up north.

MARY ROACH: At Fort Mackinac, which is this—it's a trading post, basically.

JAD: So Beaumont, he has a little doctor's office at the top of this hill. And at the bottom ...

MARY ROACH: There's a general store.

JAD: For fur traders who would come in from Canada.

MARY ROACH: Super hardy dudes. Like, it's cold up there and they're going out in canoes and they're running with these huge packages of furs on their backs.

JAD: I imagine big beards.


JAD: In any case, that was all just set up. Here's the actual story: one day ...

FRED KAUFMAN: June 6, 1822.

JAD: Normal morning.

MARY ROACH: All the fur traders come in and are unloading and loading.

JAD: Getting their coffee, salted meat.

MARY ROACH: Supplies to go out.

JAD: Trap some fur. When all of a sudden.


JAD: Right outside the shop ...

MARY ROACH: Somebody's gun went off. Somebody calls "Beaumont! Beaumont!"

JAD: ... dashes out the door.

MARY ROACH: Runs down the hill. Finds this guy.

JAD: This 18-year-old kid ...

MARY ROACH: Really in bad shape.

JAD: The kid's lying on the ground. He's a big guy, muscular, but he's covered in blood.

FRED KAUFMAN: And he has a hole ...

JAD: ... right below his rib cage ...

FRED KAUFMAN: ... about the size of the palm of a grown man's hand.

ROBERT: Nobody was sure what happened, but someone's gun had gone off ...

FRED KAUFMAN: ... by accident ...

ROBERT: ... and shot this boy point-blank.

FRED KAUFMAN: His lungs are dripping out. There's blood.

JAD: This is what Beaumont sees when he shows up.

FRED KAUFMAN: This is what Beaumont sees. And the other thing Beaumont sees is food coming out of his stomach.

MARY ROACH: Meat and bread and coffee.


MARY ROACH: Basically, the remnants of his breakfast spilled out.

JAD: On the ground, right in front of him.

MARY ROACH: You can kind of see the gears turning in Beaumont's head as if he's thinking ...

JAD: "Whoa, there it is."

MARY ROACH: Digestion in action.

ROBERT: Which was kind of disgusting, but it was also something of a revelation, because in 1822 ...

FRED KAUFMAN: ... the stomach was an area of mystery. Just like today we're aware the brain is an area of mystery.

JAD: And for centuries, people believed that the stomach—more broadly, the gut—was, in a very real way, the center of our beings.

FRED KAUFMAN: Yes, in Puritan times, the bowels are the seat of human sympathy.

JAD: You know, like, where our deepest feelings come from.

FRED KAUFMAN: If you have bowels for somebody, that means you sympathize with them.

JAD: Was that something people would say?

FRED KAUFMAN: Absolutely.

JAD: Wow, we should bring that term back.

ROBERT: That's very interesting. "I have bowels for you."

JAD: Point is, medical science was pretty fuzzy on what happens down there. I mean, they knew it was important, but they had no idea how it worked. Like, how does food become us?

FRED KAUFMAN: Nobody understood it.

MARY ROACH: Because they can't see. You can't directly observe it without opening the person up.

ROBERT: But here was a guy opened right up.

JAD: But of course, Beaumont is a doctor, so he's like, "Wait, I've gotta save this guy." So he starts sewing him up frantically. Pretty sure this fellow's not gonna make it.

MARY ROACH: And he was surprised that two days later the guy was alive.

JAD: Really surprised. And as the months passed, this kid ...

MARY ROACH: St. Martin.

JAD: That was his name: Alexis St. Martin. He gets better, but ...

FRED KAUFMAN: A year later, he still has this hole in his stomach.

JAD: The hole never closes.

MARY ROACH: What happened is he grew a fistula.

ROBERT: You know, just like the cow we talked about earlier, except in this case, he didn't have a cork where he was wounded. He had a flap of skin covering the hole. If you wanted to, you just pulled back the flap and look inside.

JAD: And we don't know if Beaumont left it that way on purpose. What we do know is that he sees an opportunity.

MARY ROACH: To make the body give up its secrets.

FRED KAUFMAN: He sees he's got something that nobody else has.

JAD: Maybe he even thinks ...

MARY ROACH: This man could be my ticket out of being a lowly Fort Mackinac doctor.

FRED KAUFMAN: So Beaumont kind of hires him as a man around his house.

MARY ROACH: As a manservant. You know, he said, "Oh, it was a charitable thing. I wanted to help him."

JAD: You know, because he couldn't work.

MARY ROACH: And I'm thinking, "I don't know. Maybe, maybe not."

FRED KAUFMAN: And so about a year later, he starts.

ARLENE SHANER: Come on in.

FRED KAUFMAN: He starts his experiments.

JAD: Oh my Lord, this is straight out of a movie.

JAD: While reporting this story, we ended up visiting the rare book room at the New York Academy of Medicine, which is pretty much the coolest room ever. It's all mahogany, and they've got, like, ancient skulls sitting on top of bookshelves. And the books are ...

ARLENE SHANER: Hundreds and hundreds of years old.

JAD: In any case, the librarian Arlene Shaner ...

ARLENE SHANER: That's me. [laughs]

JAD: ... showed us around. And then put on some white gloves, disappeared between some stacks, and came out ...

ARLENE SHANER: But here we have ...

JAD: ... with a little purple book.

ARLENE SHANER: Beaumont's observations. Experiment one is on August 1, 1825. "So at 12 o'clock, I introduced through the perforation into the stomach, the following articles of diet ..."

FRED KAUFMAN: So what he does is he takes different foods.

ARLENE SHANER: "A piece of raw, salted fat pork."

FRED KAUFMAN: Some corned beef. You know, like a one-inch square of corned beef.

ARLENE SHANER: "A piece of stale bread."

FRED KAUFMAN: And he attaches them to a silk string, and he inserts them ...

ARLENE SHANER: ... through the artificial opening into the stomach.

FRED KAUFMAN: Into the stomach for an hour. Then he takes it out.

ROBERT: Like a fisherman?

FRED KAUFMAN: Yeah. Yeah, he's fishing. He's doing stomach fishing. And he takes it out and he records, you know ...

ARLENE SHANER: So it was an hour later ...

FRED KAUFMAN: ... how much was digested.

ARLENE SHANER: "Withdrew and examined them. Found the cabbage and bread about half-digested. The pieces of meat ...

JAD: This went on for hours ...

ARLENE SHANER: ... returned them into the stomach. At two o'clock p.m., withdrew them again.

JAD: ... and hours.

ARLENE SHANER: "Returned them into the stomach again."

ROBERT: For years! Over the next few years, Beaumont puts anything he can possibly think of into that stomach.

ARLENE SHANER: Pig's feet, soused. Take an hour. Animal brains, boiled, take an hour and 45 minutes. Fresh eggs, hard-boiled, take three hours and 30 minutes. Soft-boiled take three hours. Fresh eggs, fried, take three hours and 30 minutes. Fresh eggs, roasted, take two hours and 15 minutes.

FRED KAUFMAN: Look, it's just the totality of food in America at that point.

ARLENE SHANER: Whipped eggs take an hour and a half.

FRED KAUFMAN: He's trying everything.

ARLENE SHANER: Baked custard takes two hours and 45 minutes.

JAD: Oh my God. It goes on for pages!

ARLENE SHANER: It goes on and on.

FRED KAUFMAN: Alexis St. Martin is becoming increasingly irritable about this whole process.

JAD: I would imagine!

JAD: Because a lot of the times the things that Beaumont would stick into his stomach would make him sick. Give him ...

ARLENE SHANER: A fever, pain in his head, depressed pulse, dry skin, coated tongue and numerous ...

JAD: So in 1825, three years after this all started, St. Martin finally bolts. Goes back to Canada, gets married, even has a few kids. All the while, Beaumont is writing him letters, trying to lure him back.

MARY ROACH: And he was offering him, "Okay, I'll pay for your family. Okay, I'll give you $50 a year. Okay, I'll give you $75." And then, he was like, "I'll throw in the land."

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: Because, you know, he still wanted to know, like, "All right, fine. It takes ..."

ARLENE SHANER: Three hours and 15 minutes.

JAD: "... to digest a carrot."

JAD: Oyster soup, three and a half hours.

JAD: Or soup. Whatever. But how does it work? How does the stomach do it?

ROBERT: And eventually, because he needed the money, Alexis St. Martin does come back.

ARLENE SHANER: Beaumont starts his experiments again.

JAD: And one night, while Beaumont is peering into the boy's stomach, he gets his answer.

ARLENE SHANER: He applies a few crumbs of bread to the inner surface of the stomach. Immediately afterwards, small, sharp papillae became visible.

JAD: He saw little pimples form on the wall of the stomach, and out of the pimples ...

ARLENE SHANER: ... exuded a clear, transparent liquor.

ROBERT: Out squirts some juice!

ARLENE SHANER: Out squirts some juice.

JAD: And that was it.

FRED KAUFMAN: That's the magic juice.

ARLENE SHANER: Clear, almost transparent. Tasted a little salt-ish and acid when applied to the tongue.


MARY ROACH: Yeah. Tasting. A lot of tasting went on.

ARLENE SHANER: And then ...

MARY ROACH: ... he would collect the stomach acid, and see if you could digest outside the body. Because there was this theory that the body had this vital force, and that that was necessary for the bodily processes—including digestion. So if you took the stomach acid out, what would happen?

ARLENE SHANER: "December 14, 1829. At one o'clock p.m., I took one and a half ounces of gastric juice fresh from the stomach, put into it 12 drams recently salted beef, boiled."

MARY ROACH: The theory at the time was that it wouldn't work. You had to have the magical powers of the human body.

ARLENE SHANER: "But digestion commenced."

MARY ROACH: Beaumont, one of his big discoveries was no, you don't.

FRED KAUFMAN: That actually there are no secret forces of sympathy and excitement driving things. It's a chemical.

JAD: That's what it's all about.

ROBERT: Now Beaumont didn't know it, but that juice he was seeing?

JAD: Which he called ...

ARLENE SHANER: ... gastric juice.

JAD: Those are enzymes. And what enzymes are are like little chemical scissors. They break down food so that you can take something in from the outside, like this carrot [crunches carrot] and absorb it. It becomes literally a part of you.

FRED KAUFMAN: The key to the whole thing, the key to life are enzymes.

JAD: In a way, they are the magical force, just in chemical form.

FRED KAUFMAN: That's it. That's the truth. He was the first to understand it, the first to see it, the first to figure out the method of how to prove it, and he proved it.

JAD: So Beaumont writes a book about this.

ARLENE SHANER: And this book is published in 1833.

FRED KAUFMAN: And he becomes famous.

ARLENE SHANER: People were fascinated by Beaumont's experiments.

MARY ROACH: He would kind of go on these tours.

FRED KAUFMAN: He's called over to Yale University.

ROBERT: Gets invited to speak in Europe.

FRED KAUFMAN: With his—wherever he goes, he brings his gastric juice and he lectures there.

JAD: From the dude's stomach?

FRED KAUFMAN: Yeah. He travels around with it. [laughs]

JAD: And whenever he could, he would take St. Martin with him.

MARY ROACH: St. Martin was his PowerPoint. You know, he's like, "I need you, man. I need you on the stage so everyone else can come up on stage and stick their tongue in your stomach." [laughs]

ROBERT: For William Beaumont, this works out pretty great.

MARY ROACH: He's thought of as this tremendous contributor to the understanding of digestion.

JAD: As for Alexis St. Martin ...

FRED KAUFMAN: He was a curiosity. He was a medical curiosity.

JAD: For the rest of his life.

FRED KAUFMAN: Until the day he dies.

MARY ROACH: Even in death ...

JAD: ... his body is a hot commodity.

FRED KAUFMAN: And his family was very aware of this. They let his body rot in the sun for three days, and then buried him very deeply and put big rocks over him so he would not be exhumed.

JAD: Thanks to Arlene Shaner at the New York Academy of Medicine, and Fred Kaufman who wrote a book called A Short History of the American Stomach.

ROBERT: And a special thanks to Mary Roach. Her forthcoming book is called Gulp: A Trip Down the Elementary Canal.

JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today ...

ROBERT: Well, we're talking about the interior space that runs down from your mutt to your butt, and it is called ...

JAD: Your gut! Your mutt? What is that?

ROBERT: It's just an old person's word for mouth. [laughs]

JAD: Anyhow ...

ROBERT: Now as we just heard, for a very, very long time, people believed that the stomach was a place of magical transformation.

JAD: Yeah. But of course, as we know now, it's just a big muscle with acid and enzymes and stuff.

ROBERT: But if you travel a little deeper down, down below the stomach?

JAD: Yeah?

ROBERT: Then things get spooky again.

CARL ZIMMER: We just—you know, we have these sort of shadowy images of what's going on in there.

ROBERT: That's Carl Zimmer, a shadowy figure himself: a science writer.

CARL ZIMMER: Can I get some water?

ROBERT: And a frequently thirsty man.

CARL ZIMMER: My throat got a little scratchy.

ROBERT: Soren and I called him up, you know, while you were gone on paternity leave?

JAD: Yup.

ROBERT: And he told us, "You want a mystery?"

JAD: Yeah, I do.

ROBERT: Okay, then the stomach is just a warm up.

CARL ZIMMER: Oh, yeah.

ROBERT: The 25 feet of coiled, soiled, fetid tubing inside you?

JAD: You mean the intestines?

ROBERT: Yeah, yeah. That's where the real mystery lies. Because here's the riddle: the part of you that turns the world outside into you?

JAD: Yeah?

ROBERT: Isn't just you.

CARL ZIMMER: It's more like a collective.

JAD: What does he mean by that?

ROBERT: Well, if you zoom into our intestines, what you'll see is legions of tiny creatures.

CARL ZIMMER: Bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoans.

SOREN WHEELER: And those are all little single-cell kind of guys?

CARL ZIMMER: Yeah, we're talking about non-human things inside of me.

ROBERT: How many—how many have you got, would you say?



CARL ZIMMER: Probably in the order of maybe a couple thousand species. So there's E. coli, bacteroides fragilis, and another one, and another one, and another one.

ROBERT: It's a whole universe down there.


ROBERT: Micro bacteria, flavobacteria, versinia, diplococcus, achromobacter. Some of them you'll find in all of us.

CARL ZIMMER: And then there are just a whole bunch of other species that are rarer. Might be in one person and not in the other.

ROBERT: It's like a rainforest.

CARL ZIMMER: Oh yeah. There are ecologists now studying your gut, looking at these complicated networks of hundreds of thousands of species that are living inside of you and depending on each other or preying on each other. It's just this incredibly complicated pattern that scientists haven't figured out.

ROBERT: When you're in an embryonic—in a—what are they called? The sacs?

CARL ZIMMER: Your amniotic sac?

ROBERT: Your amniotic sac. How much bacteria do you have in and about you there?

CARL ZIMMER: You're sterile.

ROBERT: You have none?


ROBERT: At all?

CARL ZIMMER: You're clean.


CARL ZIMMER: But then as you are coming out, all of a sudden you're into this new environment: the birth canal. You're breathing, your mouth is open, stuff is coming into your mouth, it's coating your skin. There are lots of bacteria there—the vagina, the birth canal. It's a very complicated ecosystem there.

ROBERT: And right after you're born, says Carl, you meet a nurse, then some doctors. You go home, you'll play in your backyard, you'll suck on a shoe. You might eat some dirt and get licked by a dog. And by the time you're going to school, you've got ...

CARL ZIMMER: Probably about 100 trillion microorganisms.

SOREN: So 100 trillion other kinds of cells in you?

CARL ZIMMER: Yeah. So if you were to take, like, all the bacteria in your body and just made them into one lump, it would be about three pounds.

SOREN: [laughs]

ROBERT: Oh, really?

CARL ZIMMER: Think of it as an organ. I mean, your brain's about three pounds, your heart's a pound or two. So this is another organ.

JAD: Huh.

ROBERT: In this case, it's an organ that helps you digest food. But here's the thing: this place in you which is filled with foreign critters, somehow this organ gets into your head.

JAD: What does that even mean?

ROBERT: Wait. You just wait a second. Let me introduce you to someone.

JOHN CRYAN: Hello, can you hear me?

SOREN: Yes. Yes, we can hear you.


JOHN CRYAN: My name is Professor John Cryan. I'm the professor and chair of anatomy and neuroscience here at University College Cork in Ireland. And I'm a neuroscientist.

JAD: A brain guy?


JOHN CRYAN: If someone told me six years ago as a neuroscientist that I'd be here talking about microbes, I would have laughed it off.

ROBERT: But to make a long story short, John found that as he was getting into neuroscience, a lot of the neuroscientists at his university in Cork, in Ireland, they were getting into bugs for reasons that will become apparent in a moment. And eventually, he got the bug for bugs, and began to work with this one particular strain of bacteria.

JOHN CRYAN: This is the lactobacillus strain.

SOREN: What was it? Lacto-something?

JOHN CRYAN: Lactobacillus, sorry. Lactobacillus rhamnosus.

ROBERT: It looks like a pill, really. Kind of a oblong thing. And it's sometimes used to make yogurt.

JOHN CRYAN: We were interested in whether if you fed mice with this for a number of weeks, whether it would alter their behavioral state.

ROBERT: Meaning if you fed these mice a bunch of this bacteria, would they become very different mice?


JAD: Different mice? You mean different—fatter mice or something?

ROBERT: No, no, no, no, no. Would they change their personalities? This is like a profound change.

JAD: Because of a bacteria in their stomach?


JAD: Not in their brain?


JAD: Just in their tummies?

ROBERT: Just in their tummy.

JAD: That's insane. That's not gonna work.

ROBERT: Well, let me tell you what he did.

JAD: All right.

ROBERT: He had two groups of mice. One of them got the lactobacillus, the others they got just normal mouse food.

JOHN CRYAN: Yeah, we fed them a broth just as a control, so it didn't have any bacteria.

ROBERT: Then ...

JOHN CRYAN: We looked at how they responded to a mild water stress. And what we found was that ...

SOREN: Mild? What's a mild ...?

ROBERT: Yeah, what does that mean?

JOHN CRYAN: Sorry. Well, its water. It's water at room temperature. It's tepid water.

ROBERT: Basically, what he did is he took these two groups of mice: the bacteria mice and the no-bacteria mice, and then he would drop them into a bowl of water.

JOHN CRYAN: And all rodents are very good swimmers, but they just don't like water.



ROBERT: Now what he was looking for was any difference between the two groups in terms of how they dealt with this water situation.

JAD: Like, if one group squeaked more than the other or something? What does that mean?

ROBERT: Whatever. No, you just keep an open mind, and you wait and see what's gonna happen.

JAD: Fine.

ROBERT: So ...

JOHN CRYAN: There we go.

ROBERT: Starting with the first group—the normal ones—he dropped them in. And as you'd expect ...

JOHN CRYAN: They try and escape. They try and escape.

ROBERT: And he timed them to see how long they'd keep at it.

JAD: Okay.

ROBERT: And one minute passes.

JOHN CRYAN: They swim. They swim to the edge and all around looking for an escape.

ROBERT: Two minutes pass. Three minutes pass. But ...

JOHN CRYAN: ... about four minutes in ...

ROBERT: He says the mice start to get worn down, and then they decide at this point ...

JOHN CRYAN: There's no point, I'm giving up.

ROBERT: Which means what? The ordinary mice just go and do a dead mouse float?

JOHN CRYAN: Yeah, a dead mouse float. You know, they just gave up.

ROBERT: They don't drown?

JOHN CRYAN: No, no. They sit there.

ROBERT: They just sit there and think, "I will wait this out until it's over."

JOHN CRYAN: Exactly. It's been coined "behavioral despair."

[MOUSE: I can't do this anymore.]

ROBERT: That is how a normal mouse reacts to being tossed into water. It struggles for about four minutes, it gives up, and then sinks into despair. For the second group, and this is the group that ate the bacteria ...


ROBERT: You also dropped them in the water?

JOHN CRYAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Here you go.

ROBERT: At first, he says they were just like the first group, they were swimming around frantically for one minute, two minutes, three minutes. But then at the four-minute mark, when the first group of mice had given up, these mice? They kept going.

JOHN CRYAN: They kept looking for an out.

ROBERT: Past four minutes to five minutes, six minutes.

JAD: So they're not despairing.

JOHN CRYAN: Exactly.

ROBERT: And they might have kept going on and on and on, but he then plucked them out of the water after six minutes.

SOREN: The thing that's kind of strange is worrying and scurrying about and panicking, that all seems like what it is to be a mouse. And you're saying that a bacteria in the gut can change that?


JAD: Wait a second, Soren. Okay, fine. There seems to be a difference between these two groups, but how do you know? How does John know that the bacteria had anything to do with it?

ROBERT: Well, he didn't just stare at the mice, he looked at their mouse chemistry.

JOHN CRYAN: By looking at the stress hormones. And we measured the ...

ROBERT: And what he found is that in the first group, the mice that quit and despaired ...

JOHN CRYAN: We got about a hundred-fold increase in corticosterone levels.

ROBERT: That's the hormonal version of "Ahh!"

JOHN CRYAN: Exactly!

ROBERT: And in that first group, when he dropped them in the water, their blood flooded with this one. Which initially, it's not a bad thing because a mouse has to act, but all-out panic isn't great for a little mouse, and after a couple of minutes of hormone coursing through the veins, the mouse just burns out and shuts down. But in the second group of mice, now these are the mice that ate the bacteria ...

JOHN CRYAN: We found that in the mice fed the lactobacillus ...

ROBERT: They—well, first of all, they had half as much of that stress hormone.


ROBERT: And they had another chemical suddenly in the mix.

JOHN CRYAN: We found very, very distinct changes in the receptors for GABA in a variety of brain regions.



JAD: What's GABA?

ROBERT: Well, he says you can think of it as the opposite of a stress hormone.

JOHN CRYAN: It basically is there to shut down the brain, stop things, inhibit, make us more relaxed, chilled out.

ROBERT: And he thinks what's happening is that in these mice that ate the bacteria, they hit the water, the stress hormones come online, but before things get too intense, in comes GABA and GABA just goes, "Shh." And as a result, these mice ...

JOHN CRYAN: They're chilled out, they're relaxed. They're not afraid.

ROBERT: They never panic, they never burn out and they never fall into despair.

JOHN CRYAN: They behave like as if they were on Valium.

JAD: So somehow the mice—the gut bacteria of the mice are sending Valium to the brain. Is that what he's saying?

ROBERT: That's what he's saying, yeah.

JAD: But you haven't—he hasn't said anything about bacteria yet. I mean, it's a long distance. Gut down here, brain up here.

ROBERT: Well, let me—wait. Look, John told me that if you look inside a mouse's body, you will find a giant nerve.

JOHN CRYAN: The vagus nerve.

ROBERT: That runs ...

JOHN CRYAN: ... between the gut and the brain.

JAD: Oh, you mean like a phone line?

JOHN CRYAN: Exactly.

ROBERT: And he thought, "Well, maybe they chemically tickle one end of the line, send a "Shh" signal up to the brain, which then makes the GABA." Now in order to prove this, he thought, "Why don't I just cut the line?"

JOHN CRYAN: Basically sever the vagus nerve.

JAD: Oh, because then if the bacteria are the ones doing it, if he cuts the phone line, they won't be able to do it anymore, and then the mice should go back to normal.

JOHN CRYAN: Exactly. So in collaboration with my colleagues at McMaster in Ontario ...

ROBERT: He got some mice.

JOHN CRYAN: We fed them the bacteria again.

ROBERT: But this time before throwing them into the pool, he cut the nerve.

JAD: And?

JOHN CRYAN: We found that all of the changes that we had seen ...

ROBERT: The swimming forever, the not giving up ...

JOHN CRYAN: ... and the neurochemical changes in the brain ...

ROBERT: ... the GABA "Shh" making them so calm ...

JOHN CRYAN: ... were completely absent.

JAD: Oh!

ROBERT: You cut out the highway and then the communication, the brainy changes ...


ROBERT: Totally.

JOHN CRYAN: Totally.


JAD: When they cut the nerves the mice went back to being quitters?


JAD: Oh!

ROBERT: You have to be convinced now.

JAD: Okay, I'm convinced.

ROBERT: Right?

JAD: So here's my question, though.


JAD: This is a mouse we're talking about. This is just a mouse.

ROBERT: Mm-hmm.

JAD: Does this have anything to say about us? I mean, is there any connection to make?

ROBERT: Well, I asked Carl that question.

CARL ZIMMER: There was one study that—where was it? Oh, you know what?

JONAH LEHRER: So this was a clinical trial actually done in France last year.

ROBERT: That's Jonah Lehrer, who regularly reports about things neurological for us and others. And he knew about the study too.

JONAH LEHRER: Yeah, so they fed people just massive doses of probiotics.

JAD: Does "probiotic" mean the good ones versus the bad ones?

JONAH LEHRER: Yeah, probiotics are the good gut bacteria.

ROBERT: They're in yogurt and things like that. So these guys in France, they gave these people packets, like sugar-sized packets of powder. And inside the packets, there are two different kinds of bugs.

CARL ZIMMER: Lactobacillus helveticus and bifidobacterium longum.

SOREN: Mmm. Two of my favorites.

CARL ZIMMER: Oh yeah. Well, you should like them, because they gave them to people.

JONAH LEHRER: And they showed a fairly dramatic reduction in their basal anxiety levels.

CARL ZIMMER: They became less stressful and had less anxiety.

ROBERT: Because when they took them to high diving boards and threw them off, instead of screaming, they—how do you test these things?

CARL ZIMMER: I see the Hopkins symptom checklist. I see the Hopkins ...

ROBERT: Basically, they did a little survey and asked questions.

JONAH LEHRER: "How distressed do you feel?" They took levels of stress hormone.

CARL ZIMMER: And a 24-hour urinary-free cortisol.

JONAH LEHRER: So they had some quantitative measures, and ...

ROBERT: People who took those probiotics said they felt less angry, less anxious and less depressed.

JAD: Wow! So the gut bugs have us on a chain too.


ROBERT: Hmm. Huh.

CARL ZIMMER: Because we—one thing to remember is our mood, a lot of the way our mood is set is through serotonin.

SOREN: That's like when they do antidepressant drugs, it's the serotonin reuptake something.

CARL ZIMMER: Right. Yeah, so you're controlling the amount of serotonin that's going in and out of your neurons. Right. You have very little serotonin in your brain, but it makes a huge difference. You have a huge supply of serotonin in your gut.

JONAH LEHRER: 80 percent of all the serotonin in your body is in your gut.

JAD: Really?

CARL ZIMMER: Yeah, and the bacteria can be feeding on that stuff. And it could be that they ...

ROBERT: You have an oil well of happiness in your gut, and if you get the right pump, you could feel happy more of the times.

CARL ZIMMER: One possibility.

ROBERT: So Jad, when you and I are sitting around feeling all stressed and anxious, or if we're just happy and gay in the old sense of the word.

JONAH LEHRER: Now we know this mood is shadowed, influenced and shaped by the bacteria you have in your intestine.

CARL ZIMMER: The kinds of studies that show this effect, they've all happened in the past couple years. And that's it. Period. But there's this judged review, it was in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was just kind of commenting on a couple of these studies and saying, "Hmm. Let's think about which bacteria we should focus on for psychological treatments. Let's think about how we can treat people's psychological disorders with bacteria this way. Let's just think about it."

SOREN: This is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. They're talking about treating psychological disorders with yogurt.

CARL ZIMMER: Yeah. Medicinal yogurt in the future.

SOREN: But medicinal as in Prozac.


SOREN: Medicinal as in whatever they give to people with schizophrenia.

CARL ZIMMER: Well, I don't know. I mean, who knows what will work and what won't work, but it's something that people are saying, "We need to look into this."

JONAH LEHRER: There's something for me a little poetic about the fact that a lot of our moods come from the same organ that produces [bleep]. I mean, I haven't put my finger on what's poetic about that, but it does make a little bit more sense when you step back and think about this from the perspective of evolution, that our biggest decisions way back when were what to eat. "Is this gonna kill me and make me sick? Is this food spoiled?" So it makes sense that the part of the body which can detect that is also intimately connected with decision-making systems that have to do with "Is this gonna make me happy?" or this is "I should fear this and not eat this."

JAD: Hmm.

JONAH LEHRER: So as outlandish as it seems that the self is connected with the part of the body that produces [bleep], it also has a little bit of engineering logic to it.

ROBERT: Special thanks to Carl Zimmer. His latest book is called Science Ink. It's a description of tattoos that people get on scientific themes, and you can see them on their arms, their legs, thighs, and embarrassing places.

JAD: Okay, ready? Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And this whole hour we have been talking about—go ahead.


JAD: Guts.

ROBERT: In the last section, we talked about bacteria, and the armies of them that are in your gut.

JAD: Yeah. The problem is that they're a little hard to picture. They're kind of abstract.

ROBERT: Why don't we finish with a story that makes the whole issue real and much more concrete? This is the tale of a troubled relationship between a man ...

JAD: And his on-again, off-again gut.


JAD: Hello.

ROBERT: Hello.


JAD: The man's name is Jon Reiner. He's a writer. Lives here in New York.


ROBERT: So one day you are eating your way through your life as you usually do, and then things take an odd turn.

JAD: Yeah, how did it begin?

JON REINER: It began with a surprise. I was at home, and I was about to go make myself a tuna fish sandwich.

JAD: Jon thought, "You know what? Let me go to the bathroom first. Get that out of the way." So he sits down on the pot to do his business ...

JON REINER: And I felt a funny twinge in my gut.

JAD: Now Jon has had gut pain before.

JON REINER: I suffer from something called Crohn's disease, which is a gastrointestinal condition. But I had gone through a period of about a year's remission. Excellent health.

JAD: And so when this pain came on, Jon figured, no big deal.

JON REINER: It seemed to come out of nowhere, and I thought it'll go away out of nowhere.

JAD: Like usual.

JON REINER: But it didn't. Within about a minute, what was a small twinge all of a sudden felt like a knife into my gut.

JAD: Before long ...

JON REINER: I'm on my living room floor flat on my back, and I can't move.

JAD: Jon calls an ambulance. They rush him to the hospital, and when they get there, the doctors take one look and tell him, "Your intestines were clogged, and now they've burst."

JON REINER: And it's now spreading bacteria throughout your system. Basically, you're on the verge of having sepsis.

JAD: Meaning you could die.

JON REINER: So you need emergency surgery, but ...

JAD: They also told him ...

JON REINER: ... that I should recover.

JAD: And when he came out of the OR, it looked like he would. But the doctor said, "Let's play it safe. Stay here for a week. We'll feed you through an IV and give your gut a break."

JON REINER: So I'm on an IV for a couple of days. And I've been on nothing by mouth in the hospital numerous times before, but always for four to five days.

JAD: And after four or five days, Jon says, what normally happens is that you'll start to feel hungry again.

JON REINER: And that's a great sign. That means that your gut is healing, and ...

JAD: It's ready for food. But this time, that didn't happen. In fact, he says, he got sicker.

JON REINER: Nausea, vomiting, chills, fever spike.

JAD: So the doctors take more pictures of Jon's insides, and they noticed something weird.

JON REINER: In the area where I had a tear in my intestine, there's now a fistula, which is a hole.

JAD: Now normally, this is something you could sew right back up. But the doctors tell him, "In your case ..."

JON REINER: "No. The tissue around the area of the tear is so compromised that you can't withstand another surgery right now. Plus you've got a high level of infection again. You're no candidate for surgery."

JAD: "Our only solution," they tell them, "is to let your gut heal on its own. But In order to do that, we've got to shut it down."


JAD: Basically, numb it with anesthesia.

JON REINER: So my gut was in an induced coma. Nothing would pass through it, there'd be no activity.

JAD: Which meant, the doctors told him, obviously no eating. Instead ...

JON REINER: "We're gonna put you on a food pump." And the food pump is a mechanical pump about the size and the weight of two bricks carried in a backpack.

JAD: And the pump in the backpack is attached to this big bag.

JON REINER: Big bladder. The big 3,000-milliliter bag of TPN is the medical name for the nutrients.

JAD: What does that stand for?

JON REINER: Total parenteral nutrition. And a stream runs out of the pump through the tube into my arm.

ROBERT: You were going to be given essentially an outdoor stomach.

JON REINER: That's right.

JAD: And this is where our story really begins. So Jon goes home with his new exo-stomach. He can't eat, but every day around mealtime, he says, he would turn on the food pump. And this is actually what it sounds like.

[whirring noise]

JON REINER: So I'd start my feeding at four o'clock. The pump would start, I'd sit on the loveseat for a while. My kids would come home from school. My wife would come home from teaching, and then the real food would come into the apartment.

JAD: Sometimes neighbors brought food over. Sometimes Jon's wife would cook. But regardless ...

JON REINER: I was always sitting on the loveseat in our living room with the food pump whirring.

JAD: Like a dishwasher.


JAD: While just a few feet away, his family would sit at the table.

JON REINER: Eating fabulous food.

JAD: Night after night this happens.

JON REINER: And it's making me absolutely crazy.

JAD: And he says after about a week of this, and then two weeks, and then three weeks of just sitting there night after night watching his family eat dinner without him, he says he would start to drift off and get lost in these really vivid daydreams of meals that he'd eaten in the past.

JON REINER: One of the first memories I have is going to Katz's for the first time.

JAD: Katz's is a famous Jewish deli in Manhattan.

JON REINER: And standing there at the counter where the counterman cuts the pastrami and he puts it on a plate. And he gets it out of the hot cooker and it's on a fork, and he hands it to you and you take a taste.

JAD: And he says in that particular instance when he took a bite, that first bite of the pastrami sandwich, it was like pow! He said it was the first time in his life where suddenly he was like, "Oh my God, I'm Jewish! I am Jewish!"

JON REINER: These are my people.

JAD: And that was the first time you felt that?

JON REINER: It was. It was.

JAD: And after about a month of no food at all and these vivid daydreams about food something weird happened: Jon got hungry. Like, actually hungry. Which really doesn't make much sense because hunger signals normally travel from the gut up to the brain, and his gut was numb. But he says he really started to feel hungry.

JON REINER: It was, you know, I think of it, it was an existential hunger.

JAD: And it got really bad. For example ...

JON REINER: My wife's a terrific cook, and one night she made a little treat for the kids: mini burgers, and French fries, and our small apartment smelled like the kitchen of a White Castle. So my wife brought out this big plate of sliders in a pyramid and the kids were knocking down the pyramid and throwing them back. And I couldn't take it anymore, so I snuck out of the living room while they were preoccupied. I went into our kitchen, and there were some fries on the stove top. And I put my hand on the fries and I brought them up to my mouth, and I was expecting salt and oil.

JAD: Fatty goodness.

JON REINER: Fatty goodness and the texture of crunchiness and all that.

JAD: Mmm. I'm tasting it now.

JON REINER: And I put it on my tongue and I've got nothing.

JAD: Nothing?

ROBERT: Really?

JON REINER: And I'm rolling it around.

ROBERT: You can't even feel it on your tongue?

JAD: Not even the salt?

JON REINER: I mean, my tongue feels—it's like when you go to the dentist and you've got Novocaine. And my tongue is numb, and so I start ...

JAD: What was going on? Was it your tongue was just out of practice?

JON REINER: I couldn't figure out what was going on. And then I brought up a knife.

JAD: And Jon claims that when he looked at the reflection of his tongue in this metal knife ...

JON REINER: I see that my tongue is as flat and smooth as this Formica tabletop I've got my hand on in your studio.

JAD: Oh, so you don't have the little bristly, funny things?

JON REINER: No bristles. Right. And I realize I haven't used it in so long that my taste buds have evaporated. They're gone. And at the moment that that happens my oldest son, Teddy, who was nine at the time, comes in and he says, "Dad, you're not supposed to eat." I said to him, "I wasn't eating. I wasn't eating!"

JAD: It's like you switched places, almost.

JON REINER: And he looked at me with the most scornful, disgusted, just ashamed expression. And I was completely humiliated. I had not only failed as an eater ...

ROBERT: Like a shame flood.

JON REINER: Right. I'd failed as a father as well.

JAD: As the weeks dragged on and Jon didn't get any better, he actually started to take that thought seriously. Like, maybe he really was failing at being a dad.

JON REINER: I'm a stay-at-home dad. And as a result, I'm the shopper and the cooker and the food planner and the provider for us. And I was out of commission. Three years out of work.

JAD: With no gut. Meanwhile ...

JON REINER: I can't stop thinking about food. I'm remembering food that I ate 20 years ago like I had it that afternoon. And I'm online looking up menus from restaurants that I've gone to.

ROBERT: Really?

JON REINER: Yeah. And looking up recipes for dishes that I've made.

JAD: And this obsession grew and grew until one night, he says, his neighbor Marsha ...

JON REINER: Decided to cook for us one night when I wasn't eating, and she brought down a chocolate bundt cake for my wife and kids to eat.

JAD: Walks it right past Jon on the way to the kitchen.

JON REINER: And I could smell this thing. I could smell the rum. I could smell the eggs. I could smell the flour. I could smell everything.

JAD: So again, he sneaks into the kitchen.

JON REINER: And I lower my nose down to this bundt cake, and I'm smelling it and I'm sniffing it and I'm inhaling this thing like an anteater. And that's not enough in my state, so I plunged my hands into the chocolate cake.

JAD: You what? [laughs]

JON REINER: I plunged my hands into the chocolate cake.

ROBERT: In order to get one with the goo or what?

JON REINER: In order to get some sensation of connection with food.

ROBERT: Did you think, "What's happening to me?" Or did you think, "Oh, the joy!"

JON REINER: At the moment my fingers were in this cake, I felt I'm in heaven. I've reconnected with the living. I have food, if not in me, at least on me. And at the moment while I'm experiencing most pleasure, my wife comes into the kitchen.

SUSAN REINER: When I went in to get the kids some more food, I found him.

JAD: This, of course, is Jon's wife, Susan.

SUSAN REINER: With his hands in the cake, just trying to touch the crumbs. And he looked so guilty. I was like, "What are you doing?"

JON REINER: "What are you doing?"

SUSAN REINER: Like somebody's going through an underwear drawer. It was very wrong.

JON REINER: And I have no explanation. I mean, I can say, "I need to do this. You have no idea how wonderful this is. Please give me some time alone with my bundt cake."

ROBERT: [laughs]

SUSAN REINER: It was this bizarrely funny but deeply sad, perverse moment.

JAD: Yeah.

SUSAN REINER: I suppose it was the first crack in my bubbled attempt to pretend things were normal. You know, I realized how bad things had gotten.

JAD: And after that, she says, things only got worse.

SUSAN REINER: It just became there was never anything to be happy about. He wasn't able to eat. He wasn't sure what the prognosis was. He wasn't sure if he was going to need a second surgery. It was just all bad.

JAD: She says Jon became really depressed.

SUSAN REINER: And he became very difficult to even—not even to cheer up, but just to say, "Well, let's just not talk about it for now." You know, he was constantly expressing his unhappiness.

ROBERT: Was that the thing? It was dark all the time?

SUSAN REINER: Very dark. It just became very hard to face.

JAD: So she left.

SUSAN REINER: Well, I had spring break, and my kids had spring break.

JAD: So Susan took the kids to her parents' place in Indiana for a week.

SUSAN REINER: I needed—I needed to take a break.

JAD: Not for good. Maybe the kind of break that means, "I'm not really sure what our future looks like."

SUSAN REINER: I don't know how we're gonna do this.

JAD: "And I can't really figure that out while I'm with you."

JON REINER: So I was alone.

JAD: Not entirely.

JON REINER: Well, I was on the food pump, and not doing well.

JAD: But after a few days of moping around the house, Jon gets an idea.

JON REINER: What I need to get myself out of this is I need to return to a place of sanctuary for me. There was a restaurant not far from your studio here called Chanterelle. It's a French restaurant, and it was one of these very expensive capital-letter restaurants that my wife and I had always planned to go to if we had a special occasion. For years, I walked past this restaurant, and I would look in the window before getting onto the subway, and I would see the plates of scallops coming out, and the wine steward pouring red wine, and the handwritten menus on the tables and things like that. So I thought, "If I can get to Chanterelle, and if I can look through the window, then I can heal myself. I'll have a reason to hope."

JON REINER: So I got on the subway, and it was past four o'clock and I was supposed to be home starting up the pump and feeding. And I got off the subway, and I walked over to Chanterelle, and I was kind of a little dizzy and delirious. And I get to the window, and the dining room is empty. There's dust on the floor, the wall panels have been stripped, the tables are bare. It's empty. It's a cave. Sometime in the intervening months or the preceding months rather, Chanterelle has closed. And I didn't know that.

JAD: Oh, you're killing me with this story.

JON REINER: And I think to myself: "You've reached the end of the line. This is it. There's nowhere else to go." And I walked towards the river, and I know that people throw themselves in and they do this. And it never made sense to me before, you know? I wasn't ever ready to end things.

JAD: Were you having suicidal thoughts?

JON REINER: I was having really depressed thoughts, and I don't know that I would have thrown myself in, but it was the first time I was standing at the edge thinking about it. Thinking about this is how these things happen. So I got to the river and I blacked out, collapsed on the sidewalk. And I woke up and it was dark. I had scraped my chin and my elbows were bruised, and I'd taken a hard fall. And I got up and I started to walk around. I was on this buckled old sidewalk, and I looked around and there are these Federal-era houses. And there was a grill, a gas grill in one of the backyards that was going. Somebody was cooking dinner, and I could smell it. I could smell the smoke coming off the grill. And I could smell it was pork chops. And I was so delirious and so happy to be smelling food that I took it upon myself to finish cooking this guy's meal.

JAD: Wait, what? That's so eerie.

JON REINER: So I lifted up the lid. I lifted up the lid, and it looked like to me one side of the pork chops were cooked and they were ready to be flipped. So I flipped them.

JAD: [laughs]

JON REINER: And I was so far gone that I thought, "Okay. Well, four more minutes and these babies are gonna be ready to go." And I didn't have a watch, so I started counting down four minutes in my head because I was gonna get this stuff perfect. And all of a sudden, the back door of this townhouse opens up and a guy walks out with an apron on and a cocktail in one hand and a season shaker in the other. And he looks at me. And I look very borderline. I mean, I'm rail thin, I'm cut up from having fallen on the sidewalk, I've got a crazy expression in my eyes, I haven't shaved in a week. I look really very unsavory. So he sees me, and I have no way of explaining myself other than to say, "They're just about done." And I hand him the tools, and I turn around and I walk away before he has the chance to call the police or anything like that.

ROBERT: How many years ago was this?

JON REINER: This was now three years ago.

JAD: And what do you take away from that? Was that some turning point where you walk away from the grill and you're ready to fight the good fight or what?

JON REINER: That only happens in the movies and in fairy tales. What actually happened was I got sick again. I had another infection, more bacteria, and I had to go back to the hospital. And when I went back to the hospital this time they said, "Okay, we can't even do the food pump anymore because you keep getting these infections. And if the bacteria spreads to your bloodstream through the food pump, then you'll be gone. And we can't operate on you because you won't survive the surgery. So all we have left is to try eating. The only thing that's left is to go back to food. Because you can't ingest it intravenously, we're afraid of infection, and we can't repair your gut surgically, so the only way you can keep yourself alive is to try to use your gut again."

ROBERT: So they start you on a round of—I don't know—baby food? Gerber?

JON REINER: I did start on the traditional applesauce and Jell-o and pudding. Soft and easily digested foods.

JAD: And Jon says it worked. His body was able to take the food.

JON REINER: But I couldn't taste anything. And it continued that way for another couple of months.

JAD: And did the food ever taste like food again?

JON REINER: Well, I was at the radiologist.

ROBERT: This is not the scene I was expecting.

JON REINER: Well, you know, I have a little ritual with this particular radiologist. He's on the East Side, and whenever I get tests there, when I'm done with the tests, I'm able to eat again. And again, this is when you do test prep, you're going about 24 hours without eating. So, you know, the thought of food becomes a celebration that you're gonna have, right? So there's a diner on Third Avenue and 84th Street, 85th Street that I always go to, and I get the same meal every time. I sit at the counter and I get fried egg and bacon sandwich on whole-wheat toast.

JON REINER: So I went there and I got the last seat at the counter, and I ordered my usual. And I chew into it and I realize that I've got sort of embryonic flavors going on. I've got the start of the sensation of tasting and the start of flavors in my mouth. And I could feel that great combination of the fried egg congealing with the crunchy bacon and the crunchy toast. And I do the same mirror—I've got a knife, a butter knife, and I do the same mirror-knife examination at the counter. And I can see that where before it was shiny and smooth as a porpoise, I've got little bristles. I've got little bumps on my tongue, and I can taste this fantastic three-dollar sandwich.

ROBERT: Do you kiss the lady sitting next to you?

JON REINER: Well, I turn to the guy sitting next to me and I tell him, "This is the best damn thing I've ever eaten." And In classic New York diner fashion, he looks at me, he looks up from his Kindle, he looks at me and he says, "You should try the meatloaf."

JAD: [laughs]

ROBERT: [laughs]

JON REINER: And I think, "This is it. I'm back, baby. I'm back!"

[LISTENER: 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, Akedi Foster-Keys, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Andrew Viñales. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

[LISTENER: Hi, this is Tamara from Pasadena, California. Leadership support for Radiolab's science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]


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