Jan 9, 2018

How to Be a Hero

What are people thinking when they risk their lives for someone else? Are they making complicated calculations of risk or diving in without a second thought? Is heroism an act of sympathy or empathy?  

A few years ago, we spoke with Walter F. Rutkowski about how the Carnegie Hero Fund selects its heroes, an honor the fund bestows upon ordinary people who have done extraordinary acts.

When some of these heroes were asked what they were thinking when they leapt into action, they replied: they didn’t think about it, they just went in.

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky says there is a certain kind of empathy that leads to action. But feeling the pain of another person deeply is not necessarily what makes a hero.  

Our original episode was reported and produced by Lynn Levy and Tim Howard. This update was produced by Amanda Aronczyk.

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, this is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: Our topic today is ...

 

ROBERT: Goodness.

 

JAD: Goodness, selflessness.

 

ROBERT: So we've done the math. The math ...

 

JAD: Okay, so are you ready for this?

 

ROBERT: I am ready.

 

JAD: All right. So awhile back we did this story that, for us at least really stuck in our heads. It was a story that was asking this really deep question and the answer that we got to ...

 

ROBERT: The answer didn't quite click.

 

JAD: Right.

 

ROBERT: At least I remember it that way.

 

JAD: Yeah. And just to sort of set the table, the question was why do people do good in the world? So we asked that question. Looked at it from the perspective of genetics, computer science, all kinds of things. We ended up profiling these three extraordinarily heroically-good people.

 

ROBERT: Yeah, they were heroes. They did remarkable things, each one.

 

JAD: And we told their stories with that question in mind. Why do certain people do good in the world and others don't?

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

JAD: And so we're gonna revisit that question today and the story that we told, because I think we have something better and smarter to say about it, finally.

 

ROBERT: Something very peculiar to say about it, as it turns out.

 

JAD: Yeah. So we're gonna play you the original first, and then we're gonna come back and hopefully shed some new light on it.

 

ROBERT: Yeah.

 

JAD: So ...

 

ROBERT: Here we go.

 

[PHONE RING]

 

JAD: Again, this story just began with a simple question. That question led us ...

 

[PHONE RING]

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Walter Rutkowski.

 

JAD: ... to a guy named Walter Rutkowski.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: I'm the Executive Director and Secretary of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

 

JAD: Cool, well thanks for doing this.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Okay.

 

JAD: Can you just give us a little background on the Hero Fund? What is the Carnegie Hero Fund?

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: The Carnegie Hero Fund is a private operating foundation that was established by Andrew Carnegie in 1904. And what we do is recognize civilian heroism throughout the United States and Canada by giving an award called the Carnegie Medal and accompanying the Carnegie Medal is a financial grant.

 

JAD: How much?

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Currently the amount is $5,000.

 

JAD: Wow. And how do you guys choose your heroes?

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: We judge the heroic acts against a list of requirements.

 

ROBERT: So then you have to have some kind of definition of hero, which includes some and excludes others.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Yes.

 

JAD: Perfect.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: The basic definition, which is a civilian ...

 

JAD: One.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Meaning no military. Who voluntarily ...

 

JAD: Two.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Leaves a point of safety ...

 

JAD: Three.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: To risk his own life, or her own life ...

 

JAD: Four.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: To an extraordinary degree ...

 

JAD: Five.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: To save or to attempt to save the life of another human.

 

JAD: Six. And how about seven? Why?

 

ROBERT: Can you -- can you read that one more time?

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Okay, I wasn't reading. That just came from memory, so ...

 

ROBERT: Oh, okay.

 

JAD: Like, what is it that happens in a person's mind at that pivotal moment, when they decide to voluntarily ...

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Voluntarily ...

 

JAD: Leave a point of safety ...

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Leave a point of safety ...

 

JAD: And risk their life to extraordinary degree ...

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: To save the life of another human.

 

JAD: That's what we wanted to know.

 

JAD: Should we just jump in?

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Okay.

 

JAD: So the first one we have on our list is Lora Shrake.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Okay. That's file number 73546 and the award number is 8005.

 

LORA SHRAKE: I am Lora Shrake. I am from Mattoon, Illinois, and I currently live in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

 

TIM HOWARD: Oh, wow.

 

JAD: Laura spoke with our producer Tim Howard.

 

TIM: Okay, so we're going back a little bit here.

 

LORA SHRAKE: Yeah, 15 years.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Back in the mid-'90s ...

 

LORA SHRAKE: 1995.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: She was a 21-year-old college student.

 

LORA SHRAKE: And I was driving through the country, and I saw a woman getting mauled by a bull in a pasture.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: So she stopped to see what was going on.

 

LORA SHRAKE: Jumped out and started yelling at her to see what I could do. The woman was on the ground and the bull was ...

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: 950-pound Jersey bull.

 

LORA SHRAKE: Tossing her in the air and back on the ground.

 

TIM: Wow!

 

LORA SHRAKE: She was clearly struggling.

 

TIM: And where were you?

 

LORA SHRAKE: I was right on the other side of the fence, but the fence was electric.

 

JAD: So here is the moment that we find fascinating. At this point Lora can either go forward through thousands of volts of electricity towards an angry bull that will likely maul her too, or she can stay safe.

 

LORA SHRAKE: I went ahead and just climbed through the fence. And I don't remember ever feeling the electricity.

 

JAD: She says by the time she got through ...

 

LORA SHRAKE: Crazily enough ...

 

JAD: A neighbor had shown up and threw her a piece of pipe.

 

LORA SHRAKE: Maybe about two feet long.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: So she approached the woman.

 

LORA SHRAKE: Who was still conscious. The whole time she's yelling at me, "Hit the bull in the face as hard as you can and don't stop."

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: So Ms. Shrake went up to the bull and beat it repeatedly with this two-foot length of tubing.

 

LORA SHRAKE: I think it distracted the bull enough where she was able to get out from under him. And as soon as we were outside the fence looking back into the pasture, the bull was literally right there at the fence.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Kicked the ground a few times and snorted.

 

LORA SHRAKE: He was not -- he was not happy.

 

JAD: To our question ...

 

TIM: When you were there at that fence, and you had the choice to either stay put or to go through it, what was going through your mind? Was there a calculation there?

 

LORA SHRAKE: No, I can't really say that. I mean ...

 

TIM: Weighing your options or anything like that?

 

LORA SHRAKE: I did not. No. It was just, here's the problem, here's what I need to do, and something needed to happen.

 

TIM: Huh. So there was no 'choice' moment?

 

LORA SHRAKE: Not that I recall, no. If nobody came to this woman's rescue she would die.

 

JAD: Unfortunately, this is the usual explanation, says Walter. No explanation.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: "I couldn't stand there and not do anything. I was compelled to act."

 

LORA SHRAKE: I didn't really take the time to think about what else could happen.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: I can't say I ever really thought about my own life at that time. I mean ...

 

JAD: Okay, we just jumped ahead because we thought we'd try again. That's the voice of the next Carnegie hero that Walter told us about.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Yeah, William David Pennel.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: My name is William Pennel.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Who was the 8,362 person to receive the Carnegie Medal.

 

JAD: Our producer Lynn Levy tracked him down.

 

LYNN LEVY: Bill, can you hear me?

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: Yeah, I can hear you.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: William David Pennel was 37 years old at the time of his heroic act.

 

LYNN: Was it 1999?

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: Yes. It was early in the morning. It was like ...

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: 3:19 a.m. in a small town near Pittsburgh.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Monongahela, Pennsylvania.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: We was in bed sleeping and ...

 

[CRASH SOUND]

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: My wife heard a loud crash. I actually didn’t hear it, but the dog -- my one dog was carrying on, so right away I run down there.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Mr. Pennel went outside his house. There was a very bad automobile accident. A car crashed head-on into a utility pole.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: Flames was, like, rippling up the windshield out from under the hood.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: And he responded to the scene wearing only sweatpants.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: No shoes or shirt or nothing on.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Bare-chested and barefoot.

 

JAD: So here we are. Bill's standing in front of this ball of fire. There are three teenagers inside that car, though he doesn't know it. He can either A) do nothing; or B) go in.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Through the driver's door.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: And this big fella slumped out the door. So I reached in and grabbed a hold of him.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Around the chest, pulled him from the driver's seat, out to the ground.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: Meantime the car was just, like, blazing. And my neighbor was there, she was hollering, "There's more of them in there!" So I run back to the vehicle ...

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Found that the front-seat passenger was trapped in the wreckage.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: I finally got him loose and pulled him out.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Apparently Mr. Pennel was aware that a third person was in the car, a third young man. Mr. Pennel entered the car a third time. By then ...

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: There was tires blowing up.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: The flames had grown to about three feet above the car's roof.

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: The interior, like the headliner of the car and stuff was dripping, like, plastic down on my back. I mean I'm in there screaming, you know, somebody give me a hand in here. But nobody would help. And I reached in and grabbed ahold of the kid that was in the back by the scruff of the neck and pulled him out.

 

LYNN: Alright, so when you were coming out of your house and you're looking at that car, what was going through your head?

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: Just trying to -- try to help. I mean, I did what any normal person would do. I mean, you know, I just kept saying this is somebody's kids, you know what I mean? At the time, my daughter was, like, 16. And I'm saying to myself, you know, if something God forbid would ever happen to her, that I would hope someone would be there to help.

 

LYNN: Did you ever talk to your neighbors and ask them why they didn't come in there?

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: You know what? That's funny you brought that up, because no, I've never brought it up. Never brought it up.

 

LYNN: How come?

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: I don't know. I guess maybe I probably wouldn't like their answer. I don't know. I don't know why I've never asked them that.

 

LYNN: What do you think is the difference between you and those other people who just sort of stood by?

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: I couldn't answer that. I couldn't answer that.

 

JAD: So our bull girl, she didn't know. This guy didn't really know either. Somebody must be able to tell us something about what they were thinking at that moment that allowed them, that gave them the courage to do what they did.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: I can't give you a definite answer as to what propels people to do this, no.

 

JAD: But we took one more shot with Walter. And after we take a quick break, we're gonna hear one more hero story from him. That's when we come back.

 

[SAM: This is Sam calling from Denver, Colorado. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

 

JAD: Jad.

 

ROBERT: Robert.

 

JAD: Radiolab.

 

ROBERT: We’re back now with Walter Rutkowski who's going to tell us the third and final of his hero stories.

 

JAD: And he told us that of all the cases he's heard, this is the one that puzzles him the most.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: It's the case of Wesley James Autrey, a construction worker from New York, 50-year-old man, who did jump into the track-bed in a subway station to remove a fellow young man who had fallen onto the track. The gentleman was six foot, 180 pounds. He was inert. And yet Mr. Autrey persisted despite the fact that the train was coming. There would come a point, at least in my estimation, where you would have to say, "I have to get out of here because I'm going to be killed. I'm not suicidal." But Mr. Autrey didn't think that way. He and I part in this manner. What he did was he lay atop the victim between the rails while the train passed over them. In the farthest reaches of my imagination, I can see myself jumping onto a subway track to attempt to rescue. What I can't see myself doing is lying atop the victim while the train passes over me.

 

[TRAIN SOUND]

 

JAD: Making this story even more nuts? When we finally met up with Wesley Autrey on the platform where this incident happened under 35th and Broadway, he explained to us that his daughters had been with him.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: Everything was okay.

 

ROBERT: How old were your daughters?

 

WESLEY AUTREY: At that time, my daughters was four and six. And this is them there.

 

JAD: Showed us a picture.

 

ROBERT: Oh my God!

 

JAD: Super cute.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: The one behind me is Suki and this is the baby Sashi.

 

JAD: So when they're standing there and this guy starts convulsing and then eventually falls off the platform onto the tracks right as the train is coming, his choice is pretty stark. In order to save this complete stranger, he's got to leave his daughters behind, potentially without a dad.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: Because I'm looking at him shaking and going into another seizure. For some strange reason a voice out of nowhere says, "Don't worry about your own, don't worry about your daughters. You can do this."

 

JAD: So he jumps. Runs to the guy.

 

ROBERT: Is he conscious?

 

WESLEY AUTREY: No. No.

 

JAD: Tries to grab the guy's hand.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: And each time I grabbed his hand we slip apart, you know? We slip, I look up, the train is getting closer. I grab his hand again, we slip apart. The train is closer.

 

JAD: 50 feet, 20 feet, 10 feet. And then it's right there. And all he can do is grab the guy, get him in a bear hug, and flatten his body against the guy as much as he can.

 

[TRAIN SOUND]

 

WESLEY AUTREY: The first train car just grazed my calves.

 

ROBERT: Oh my God!

 

JAD: Train car went right over them.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: And when the train came to a stop, four to five cars passed over us. I looked him in the eye and said, "Excuse me. You seemed to have a seizure or something. I don't know you, you don't know me." So I just kept talking to him until he came through. And he was like, "Well, where are we?" And I'm like, "We are underneath a train." And he said, "Well, who are you?" And I said, "I came down to save your life." So he kept asking me, "Are we dead? Are we in heaven?" I gave him a slight pinch on his arm, he said, "Ouch." And I said, "See? you are very much alive."

 

ROBERT: Have you -- did you ever ask yourself at this point, like, "What am I doing here?" I mean, he asked you, "What am I doing here," but what about you?

 

WESLEY AUTREY: Well I could hear the two ladies who had my daughters standing there with them in between their legs. I can hear my daughters screaming. So when that train come to a stop, I yelled up from underneath the train, "Excuse me, I'm their father. We are okay. I just want to let my daughters know that I'm okay, because I know that they are worried about me." Everybody started clapping.

 

JAD: Can I ask you a question? So the point at which you said you heard a voice ...

 

WESLEY AUTREY: Yes.

 

JAD: ... That said, "I can do this."

 

WESLEY AUTREY: I can do this.

 

JAD: What -- what is amazing to me is that you left your daughters right here and dived after a guy you don't know.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: He was a stranger, total stranger. But you know what? The mission wasn't completed. I was chose for that.

 

JAD: You felt chose -- like you were ...

 

WESLEY AUTREY: I felt chosen. I felt like I was the chosen one.

 

JAD: Wow.

 

ROBERT: But for a religious person though, I would wonder, "Why me?"

 

WESLEY AUTREY: Well, you know what? Maybe 20 years ago, I was supposed to be at a certain point ...

 

JAD: And then he explained to us exactly why he had jumped. He was the one guy who could. He said right before his feet left the platform, this one specific moment from his life flashed to mind.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: This thing that happened, you know, I had a gun pulled to my temple, but you know, it was a misfire, so, you know?

 

ROBERT: A gun was put to your head and mis -- so you were almost dead for a second or two.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: I was almost dead, you know?

 

ROBERT: Oh, so you think you might have been spared for a purpose.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: I was spared for a reason.

 

JAD: After that moment he says when the gun went click and he didn't die, he always wondered why had God spared him that moment? Until he was on the platform and he saw the guy fall off. He says then he knew this is why.

 

WESLEY AUTREY: I can do this.

 

JAD: It was just, "I can do this?"

 

WESLEY AUTREY: I can do this. That voice, when that voice said that you're going to be okay, I knew everything was gonna work out.

 

ROBERT: You know what I think at the end of the day?

 

JAD: What's that?

 

ROBERT: I don't think that there's an answer to the question we asked. I don't think ...

 

JAD: The hero question?

 

ROBERT: Why were you a hero? I don't think that any three of these heroes... I mean the last one had the longest explanation. He had been selected for some purpose, but does he know why he was chosen? Not a clue.

 

JAD: See I -- guy number three gives me something.

 

ROBERT: What does he give you?

 

JAD: Okay, so the first two, right, they have no idea.

 

ROBERT: None.

 

JAD: So there's just something in them that made them act. But guy number three is talking about circumstances. Like, the world prepared him for that moment. Serendipity. So it makes me think, well, what if circumstances are just right, maybe any of us could do that?

 

WILLIAM PENNEL: I got -- I got a mailman and he used to say to me all the time, he says, "How did you manage to do that up there? How did you manage to pull them kids out? I don't know if I could have done that." I said, "Well, you know what? Don't say you wouldn't do this or you wouldn't do that 'til you're put in that situation."

 

JAD: In fact, when we asked Walter ...

 

JAD: How many nominations do you get a year? Are they hard to find?

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: No, they are not hard at all to find. We are fortunate to be living in a society, regardless of what you hear elsewhere, we are fortunate to be living in a society where people do look out for others, even strangers.

 

JAD: He told us they've even had to up their guidelines to make it harder to win.

 

WALTER RUTKOWSKI: Simply because of the vast number for heroic deeds that happen in day-to-day life.

 

JAD: I gotta say that we went with this feel-good thought about -- about all the people who are doing good because I honestly don't think we knew what to say to end that story.

 

ROBERT: Well, it's nice to know that there are a lot more good people than we thought.

 

JAD: But we went -- when we were trying to figure out why people who do that do that, and why we're different -- or they're different than us, and we didn't really get there.

 

ROBERT: But then this guy walks in.

 

ROBERT: You should say just for these purposes who you are once again.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I'm, Robert Sapolsky, I'm a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University.

 

ROBERT: Robert has been on our program many, many times talking about any number of things. And he has just come out with a book called Behave, trying to explain why we do everything we do. It goes into the brain, into history, into culture, everything. And we figured well, maybe he would have something to say about our -- our little puzzle.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yup.

 

ROBERT: All right, well let me just -- let's just ask you. You've heard all three of these things. What do these three tales make you think?

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I think what we see with all three is how high-falutin' moral reasoning plays, like, zero role in what went on there. Moral reasoning doesn't do anything, and you see ...

 

JAD: And, you know, the first thing that Robert Sapolsky told us, which maybe wasn't that surprising, is that when we were asking people what were they thinking? That was sort of the wrong question.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Everybody as you saw always gives the same answer, which is, "I wasn't thinking. I was feeling about what if this was my 16-year-old daughter." Or "I’m hearing a voice." Or with the bull woman saying, "I wasn’t thinking. Like, before I knew it I had jumped in."

 

JAD: The evidence suggests, Sapolsky says, that in situations like this, people just don't reason their way to a decision. That's not how it works.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Correct. People don't think their way to a moral decision. And in fact, if you give people enough time to really think their way in a circumstance like that, most people think their way to concluding this isn't my problem, or somebody else will take care of it, or here's why it's their fault.

 

ROBERT: So then we asked him okay, if it's not thinking or moral reasoning, then maybe what these heroes are doing is they're -- they're feeling, they're empathizing more than the rest of us and that's why they do what they do.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Ironically, probably not.

 

ROBERT: Probably not?

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. Okay, so empathy you’re -- you’re feeling somebody else’s pain. Pain, whether it’s pain your toe's on fire, or pain you’re feeling the pain of somebody else, pain is painful. And if it’s painful enough and acute and burning enough, what that translates into is, "I can’t take it. This is too upsetting, and you need to run away." At some point if you’re mostly focused on, "My God, what would this feel like if this were happening to me," that's the predictor of people who don't necessarily, don't very readily make that leap from feeling empathy to actually acting compassionately.

 

JAD: Oh, that's not what I expected you to say. I thought you were gonna take it the other way.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: No, that’s ...

 

JAD: You’re saying when it's hot, when it's me, me, me, me, me, your pain is my pain, those people are less likely to step forward?

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah. They’re less likely to actually go and do the compassionate thing.

 

JAD: Sapolsky told us that there have actually been studies that have found this. That when someone actually empathizes, physically feels another person's pain, they're more likely to turn away from it, rather than step forward and try and alleviate that person's suffering.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: You put somebody in a circumstance and, for example, how many shocks are they willing to get to intervene to help somebody in some simulation game, for example. And you look at, is this the person whose heart rate soars when they see somebody else in this tough situation, or is this the kind where it remains fairly steady. The latter is more likely to act compassionately.

 

JAD: That’s so interesting!

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay, so what we’re barreling towards here is, it’s not so much about moral reasoning, it’s not so much about vast empathy, but it's about a type of empathy that allows you to remain detached enough to actually act.

 

ROBERT: Huh. So emotional distance will create the humane or charitable act.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Exactly. You need a certain amount of detachment. That’s surprisingly where it comes in, and that runs counter to so many of our instincts about what empathy should be about. And what I think we see here is probably the most reliable realm of people going and doing the heroic thing, which is when it’s implicit, when it’s automatic, when it’s not you sitting there reasoning through, “Well, how many copies of my genes am I gonna pass on if I do this or my close relatives?” And where it’s not empathy, “Oh, am I feeling for this person or as this person or with this person or above this?" And instead, “Before I knew it, I had jumped in the river to save this child.” And I think that’s where you see some of the most interesting, reliably sort of heroic stuff, when it’s implicit, when it’s automatic.

 

ROBERT: And do you know how a person can get that kind of compassion made implicit? Is it something you’re born with, or something cultural that your parents put in you? Or do you have any idea?

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: The thing is, we don't know a ton about the neurobiology of how a moral good goes from being a frontal task to an implicit task, but we know a ton about how that works in a much more mundane area, which is like, you learn how to do something. Like, you’re a pianist and you're learning some new tough piece of music, and there's this really tough trill. And every time you're playing it, as you approach the trill you're thinking, "Here it comes. Remember, tuck your elbow in and lead with your thumb and do this." It is what would be called a declarative task. Declarative explicit knowledge. And that's completely about this part of the brain, the hippocampus talking to the frontal cortex. And it's sitting there saying, "Here it comes, and remember how you do it, and remember how you do it wrong, and what happened last time, and how great it felt when you tucked your elbow in. So remember to do that." And then suddenly there's the day where you're playing the piece and you realize you're four measures past the trill and you played it just fine. That's the first day you played it without having to think about it. And jargon in the learning field is it has stopped being an explicit declarative task and it's become an implicit procedural task.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: That's the first time your hands know it better than your head does. I mean, take somebody who's, like, beating the pants off of you at tennis, and they've just done, like, some amazing backhand and crushed you. And what you need to do strategically now is force them to take that procedural knowledge and make it declarative again. Stop at that point and give them this, like, obsequious smile and say, "Oh my God, you're an amazing tennis player! That was an amazing shot. How did you do that?"

 

JAD: [laughs]

 

ROBERT: [laughs]

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: "Do you put your hand over on this side of the racket or that side? And what about your butt? Are you scrunching your butt on the left side or the right?" And you force them -- it’s like you make somebody, like, think very explicitly and procedurally how you go down flights of stairs and you’re gonna fall down the stairs, because none of us have done stairs procedurally since we were about two-and-a-half years old.

 

ROBERT: So if a bunch of professors had swarmed over our threesome, or at least the first two of our threesome, they might have been ruined for the next experience. But if you let them do their natural thing, then they would rescue again maybe if they could just keep it implicit.

 

JAD: Do you think that ...

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: If it’s implicit.

 

JAD: Do you think that -- that there's -- it's a clean analogy? I mean, do you think that the people for whom it is automatic, it's automatic because they've practiced it in some way? In the way that, like, they practice ...

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: In some way, yeah. For example, lots of studies were done as to which people in either Germany or Nazi-occupied Europe shielded Jews, gave them shelter, put their own lives at risk. And it wasn't predicted by level of education, there goes all that moral reasoning stuff. And it wasn't even predicted by things like religiosity. It was people who had simply been raised, you do the right thing. It was automatic. It was implicit for them. They didn’t have to sit there and think about or feel about, it was automatic.

 

ROBERT: Is that, "Thank you, mommy and daddy?" Is that what that is? "Thank you mommy, daddy, rabbi, priest." What is that?

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I think it’s mostly that. But of course it's messier than playing a trill on a piano or doing a tennis backhand.

 

JAD: Right.

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: I mean, people first learned about it, and you literally can see the transition from which part of the brain's handling the task. So the initial view was okay, that's how you do trills on the piano, but then you see something even more amazing, which is more complex stuff happens. My -- my father in his last years had a pretty severe dementia. He was a professor, he was an architectural historian. And he reached a point where he could not identify the names of all of his kids consistently, didn't know where he was, what decade et cetera. But prompt him, and he could give you this totally lucid, opinionated, cranky, entertaining ten-minute lecture on the history of flying buttresses.

 

JAD: Wow!

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And then come back two minutes later and prompt him again and he'd give you the exact same one again. For him, that was as implicit as, you know, the tennis player doing the backhand or playing the trills on the piano. And I fully expect when I’m demented, someday I'll give this exact lecture that I just gave, and I can do it over and over and over until the students complain. So all sorts of stuff more complex than a tennis backhand becomes implicit. I think what we're seeing with the woman with the bull there and the electric fence is some incredibly high-level abstract stuff becomes implicit as well. You don't, like, fling your elbow way out to the right when you do the trill, and you don't stand by and watch somebody being, like, done in. You just, before you know it, you don't reason, you don't feel, you just do it. Before I knew it, I had run in there.

 

JAD: Now is this one of your lectures? Do you talk about this very thing a lot?

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Um ...

 

ROBERT: In other words when we come and visit you in thirteen years, will you be greeting us with this very lecture?

 

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Precisely. Empathy. Empathy is an interesting topic. Sit down, this will be on the final.

 

ROBERT: Big, big thanks to Robert Sapolsky whose new book is called Behave.

 

JAD: This piece was produced by Amanda Aronczyk. And if you liked this story and it's kind of got you thinking, go and listen to our Good Show, which is at Radiolab.org. There's a lot of stuff in The Good Show. Good stuff.

 

ROBERT: A lot of stuff. There's a lot of good in The Good Show.

 

JAD: Good stuff in The Good Show.

 

ROBERT: Yes.

 

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

JAD: Thanks for listening.

 

[GRAHAM ELWOOD: This is Graham Elwood from Memphis. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keefe is our Director of Sound Design. Maria Matasar-Padilla is our Managing Director. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Malissa O'Donnell, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Amanda Aronczyk, Shima Oliaee, David Fox, Nigar Fatali, Phoebe Wang and Katie Ferguson. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.]



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