And while the health care law remains in limbo, the just-passed Jobs Act awaits the president’s signature. The bill allows the public to invest in startup companies and small businesses. That’s created a lot of excitement in Silicon Valley and also a lot of concerns.
As NPR’s Steve Henn reports, some in the business community are worried there may be a new wave of financial fraud.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Clint Gordon-Carroll and his buddy Alen Peacock had an idea. They figured they could build a quicker way for computer users to back up all their files and store them in the Cloud. They built a prototype and came up with a name for their company, Space Monkey. The one thing they didn’t have was the cash to transform this idea into reality. And in Utah, where they live…
ALEN PEACOCK: Investors just aren’t used to the nature of high-tech startups and how those work.
HENN: Alen Peacock says there were some folks who were interested, but generally they were used to investing money in things like real estate or restaurants.
PEACOCK: They want you to have revenue and they want you to have profits. And they want you to show, you know, market traction. And with a technology startup, there’s often have this huge upfront development costs that you need to invest in before you can get to that point.
HENN: Peacock had a few friends who were willing to put money in with them. But right now, federal rules require that anyone who invests in a startup – before it goes public and files detailed financial statements – has to be a so-called accredited investor. Basically what that means is they have to be rich.
PEACOCK: Yeah, for sure, that’s – the current system is set up so you have to have a certain amount of money before in order to invest in startups.
HENN: A million dollars, excluding your house.
PEACOCK: So, for people who don’t meet those minimum requirements, they’re just out of the game.
HENN: Peacock says they had to turn most their buddies away. And that left Space Monkey temporarily grounded.
NAVAL RAVIKANT: There are great entrepreneurs with great technologies and great product who are in Atlanta, Georgia or who might be in, you know, Wichita, Kansas.
HENN: Naval Ravikant is the CEO and co-founder of AngelList.
RAVIKANT: And we see some great companies coming to AngelList actually from remote locations.
HENN: AngelList is a social network for investors and entrepreneurs. Naval Ravikant says right now most technology investments are made in Silicon Valley or Boston, Austin or Seattle. Outside of these isolated technology hotspots, it can be hard to get a good idea off the ground.
So, one of the purposes of his site was to introduce people with good ideas to investors with money and some startup experience. The guys from Space Monkey joined AngelList late last year.
CLINT GORDON-CARROLL: I don’t think we would be in existence if it wasn’t for AngelList.
HENN: Clint Gordon-Carroll says through AngelList, they met a network of interested investors and raised almost a million dollars in seed money in less than two months.
GORDON-CARROLL: End of the day, you know, a central place where we could talk about what we’re doing with potential investors made all the difference.
HENN: The Jobs Act that just passed by Congress could make it much easier for startups like Space Monkey to raise money and for new sites like to AngelList to get off the ground. The bill clears the way for companies to advertise that they’re looking for investors. And it allows anyone to begin investing in these new privately held businesses. It also opens the door to new online crowd-funding sites, where lots of startups can strut their stuff and jockey for small investors’ attention. Dozens of entrepreneurs like Sara Hanks see a big opportunity in this space.
SARA HANKS: So, I think we can expect to see the African princes inventing cold fusion any second now.
HENN: But Hanks is a securities lawyer.
HANKS: Well, wherever there’s money there’s going to be fraud. I think we have to stipulate that upfront.
HENN: As the former general counsel for the congressional oversight panel charged with keeping an eye on the U.S. bank bailout, Sara Hanks knows a thing or two about financial shenanigans, but this isn’t stopping her from launching her own crowd-funding portal online.
Unlike most of her potential future competitors, though, Hanks plans to hire securities lawyers to sift through the startups who want to raise money on her website, and try to weed out the crooks. Still, none of these companies will be sure thing.
HANKS: Let’s be clear about this. Most startups just don’t get anywhere.
HENN: Which raises the question…
HANKS: I mean, why would you invest in something that’s probably going to fail?
HENN: Hanks says, it can be fun. As long you’re investing money that you can actually afford to lose, then helping people take a crack at making their dreams come true can feel pretty good.
Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT. Today, we’re exploring the power of a promise, the limits of a vow. Do people mean what they say? Should they? For our next story, we’re cashing in all of our frequent flyer miles in order to head off to London. SNAP favorite, Johnathan Grubert, has the story.
JOHNATHAN GRUBERT, BYLINE: Stuart Sharp and his wife Jo ran a pub in the English countryside where he lived with his mom and daughter. On the eve of the birth of his first son, Stuart and his wife already had a name for the baby picked out – Ben. But things went badly during Ben’s delivery.
STUART SHARP: And when we got to the hospital, she was in labor and the doctor was there. It was – in those days, it was a very cold, frugal room. And she was lying on a slab like a lamb to the slaughter. It was a very strange environment. And the doctor was there, and suddenly, he rushed past me out of the room, called the ambulance for the big center in Leicester. Eventually, we managed to get her to the hospital in Leicester. And we didn’t know at that point that Ben was already dead. Jo…
GRUBERT: Inside of her?
SHARP: Yeah. She’d had a uterus rupture. When they did deliver Ben, they actually caused so much damage to her she nearly died as well. So my wife was nearly dead, Ben was dead. It was devastating.
GRUBERT: Wow. What’d you do?
SHARP: I didn’t know what to do.
GRUBERT: Stuart buried Ben in a shoebox-sized grave. The night of the funeral, he went to bed and had a dream, a dream that would change his life.
SHARP: And I was back at the gravesite with Ben in the dream. I saw Ben rise from the coffin and sort of travel up towards the skies. And suddenly, I started hearing this wonderful angelic music. And then I heard these angels came down and spoke to me. And one of the angels said to me, Ben is safe now. And in these circumstances, we always leave somebody a gift, and the gift for you is you will remember everything. And I could hear every single note of this piece of music. I heard everything.
GRUBERT: Now, can I just quickly stop you here and ask you? Are you religious, Stuart?
GRUBERT: Do you believe in God?
SHARP: No, no, no, no, no.
GRUBERT: What did you think was going on?
SHARP: I just thought there was some great, spiritual power that was going to guide me to do what I was meant to do from Ben’s death.
GRUBERT: The music in Stuart’s mind was so persistent, so urgent, that he decided to do something dramatic. He decided he had to devote the rest of his life to getting this music written and recorded, no matter what the cost. That meant leaving his wife and daughter and moving to London, despite having no formal musical training or musical talent. He waited a year to break the news to his wife and mother. It did not go well.
SHARP: She said, look, you need therapy after what you’ve gone through. I understand. You need to go and talk to someone. And I said, I’ll give you six months’ notice, and in six months to the day, I am going to leave for London. Of course, they both thought, sure, and they just shrugged it off. Yes, six months. Every month, I would say five months to go, four months to go, a month to go. They still thought it was a joke. And I said, listen, I’m serious. And when it came to the day of going and I got my little, old Ford car and my squash bag, and I said I’m going. And my wife was like, what? I was absolutely…
GRUBERT: Because there’s a lot of people listening to this right now who are saying to themselves, you just abandoned your family, man.
SHARP: Absolutely, I know that. I know that. I said to her, through this dream, I will make you extremely happy. We will travel the world together. The girls will go to places and see things and get an education they couldn’t have dreamed of. That actually made it worse.
GRUBERT: Yeah, because it sounds like the things you have to say to yourself to do something like leave your family.
SHARP: Yeah.
GRUBERT: It sounds like an excuse.
SHARP: Yeah, oh, absolutely. And I left for London on that day.
GRUBERT: What did it feel like when you got into that car and started driving towards London?
SHARP: I felt that I was going to do what I was destined to do. I expected that the voices – the angels would tell me exactly what to do. So I had never been to London before. It was very miserable weather. I drove along this road. I just kept going round in circles. The traffic was very heavy. I pulled off the road and found a car park. And I just stopped in the car park, said, well, I’ll stay here. And it was a huge car park with garbage bins in the corner. So I popped in between the garbage bins and stayed there waiting for my next instruction.
SHARP: I didn’t get one.
GRUBERT: Stuart lived in his car, and Jo gave up waiting for him after six months. She divorced him. He stayed in London waiting for the voices to tell him what to do. He sold his car, he moved onto the streets, but the voices said nothing. Stuart fell into despair, and moved into a hostel for the homeless. He’d lost everything, everything except the angelic music in his head. And then he walked by the window of a secondhand shop and saw a guitar.
SHARP: And I’d only got a few pounds, whatever it was in my pocket, and I said, this is all I’ve got. Is it possible you could drop the price? The very nice lady said, not really. What do you want it for anyway? I said, well, look, I’m going to compose a symphony, and I need it to get the notes out so I can give it to someone else. And she eventually said, OK, you can have it.
GRUBERT: What’d you do with it?
SHARP: I took it back to the hostel. I used to sit in this little – tiny, little room, which was full of cockroaches next to the kitchen. Cockroaches crawl over me every night just trying to figure out this guitar. So while I’m fiddling around with these notes, I start being able to pick out some of the melody line on the guitar. I thought, yeah, yeah, I can do this, I can do this. Yeah, I couldn’t write the notes down, but what I did – I went back to the Towsnsend’s (ph) shop and I bought from them, for a very few pence, a very old tape recorder. And I took it back and started playing all the melodies and stuff into this tape recorder until I’d filled two hours of this tape – everything I could hear. And so I thought, well, now I’ve got something I can work with.
GRUBERT: One day, Stuart took his guitar and recorder and sat himself in front of the BBC Studios close to the homeless shelter to try his luck at getting noticed.
SHARP: And while I was sitting there, quite a few people walked by and thought I was begging, but I wasn’t. And one gentleman came by and he just looked at me and didn’t say anything. He walked on. And he stopped 50 meters later and turned around and came back, and said, what are you doing? The guitar? Are you a buscar? I said, no, no, I’m writing a symphony. Oh, you’re a composer? I said, well, sort of. He said, well, have you got school? I said, no, I can’t write music. And he went, how are you going to write a symphony then? I said because I’ve got it on tape and I can play little bits of it. He said, where are you living?
And I said, well, I’m living rough, actually. And I’m living in a hostel for the homeless and just bumming around, really. I’m looking for the next stage in my development of this great story. He said, I’m a jazz musician. Look, why don’t you come and stay with me for a couple of hours? I’ll take you back to my house. I’ve got a piano. Let me hear your melodies and I’ll see what I can do on the piano, see if I can extemporize it for you. So I said, well, that’s really kind of you. And he took me back to his house. His wife was absolutely furious. She said to him, are you going completely crazy? This guy could be a murderer. We’ve got a child – got a baby, and you’re bringing him – well, he was not to stay long, just for a few hours. Just kindly make him a bit of soup or something. And I stayed there for six weeks. The first night, I started playing the melody, and he started feeling it on the piano. And in a couple of hours, what he’d done on this piano – and I’m telling you, Johnathan – was phenomenal.
GRUBERT: The jazz musician was Anthony Wade. And yes, this is actually audio from those original recordings in his house back in 1982.
GRUBERT: By the end of those six weeks, Stuart and Anthony had pretty well scored the entire symphony. Anthony said it was so good, it could make Stuart rich and famous and should be played by the London Philharmonia Orchestra. That was the good news.
SHARP: My only advice to you is go out and make a fortune ’cause you’ll have to pay for it all yourself.
GRUBERT: And how much?
SHARP: Well, I mean, we’re talking about over a million pounds.
GRUBERT: A million pounds?
SHARP: Because it’s not just going to the Philharmonia Orchestra – as explained to me. You’re going to need orchestrators, you’re going to need arrangers, you’re going to need the best studios in the world. You will need a rehearsal orchestra. You’ll need this, you’ll need that, you’ll need the other. And before you do all that, we would have to work on it together to make an electronic version of it. And for that, you will need to hire a studio, you will need to hire computers, and me – will be very expensive. So on and so forth.
GRUBERT: So here you were at the cusp of realizing your dream. Oh, and by the way, mister homeless man, you’re going to have to pay a million pounds to do it. What’d you think when he said that to you?
SHARP: I was excited. You ask me to make a million pounds, and I’ll go and make a million pounds.
GRUBERT: He started off by getting a job at the homeless center. Then he got various sales jobs working exclusively on commission, something for which he showed an uncanny ability. He spent years flipping houses for the local council and then, he started doing it for himself. Many houses and 15 years later, he had saved one million pounds.
SHARP: Then I tracked Anthony Wade down, and I said to him, are you ready to go? He said, go where? The project. He couldn’t quite work out what was going on. So I took my bank statement with me. I said, right, you gave me the answer of what to do, here is the money. Let’s go.
GRUBERT: And how long did it take to complete?
SHARP: It took five years working every single day to do an electronic version of the whole symphony. Once I got all that done, then I presented it to the conductor of the Philharmonia, with the tape, with a score, please listen to this.
SHARP: He was not too impressed because how could a homeless person with no musical ability write a score that will be good enough for the London Philharmonia Orchestra? And he said to me, it’s not a question of money, Stuart. It’s a question of credibility. The London Philharmonia Orchestra are not going to record basically rubbish.
GRUBERT: He hadn’t even listened to it.
SHARP: He hadn’t listened to it, no. And then a few weeks later, I got a call from him at midnight and he was crying on the phone. He said, Stuart, I have just listened to your tape. I have been blubbering for the last five minutes. It is wonderful. I cannot believe it. I’m so sorry I didn’t listen to it before. The reason I didn’t listen to it before was because I thought, how can I break the bad news to you after all you’ve gone through? But now I can see with the London Philharmonia recording it, this will be one of the most magnificent things we’ve ever done.
GRUBERT: Stuart needed to find even more money. It needed to be scored again. The orchestra had to be booked years in advance. And then, one day, the conductor of one of the greatest orchestras in the world turned to Stuart and said…
SHARP: Now it is right for the London Philharmonia Orchestra.
GRUBERT: OK, so the day comes of the recording. Describe the room to me.
SHARP: It was a very big room to enclose 80 musicians. It was a big recording studio in London – massive. Oh my God, is this really going to happen?
GRUBERT: It’s the sound. They were all tuning their instruments?
SHARP: They were all tuning their instruments and the hairs on the back of my neck began standing up ’cause I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know if it’s going to be what I heard in my head or something else.
GRUBERT: When the moment came when the conductor stood before them…
SHARP: When the wand came down and as they started playing, it was exactly what I heard in my head – the trumpet call for the angels, the voices, the choir ’cause it had to be a choir as well. A massive choir, it wasn’t just an orchestra. It was a big choir joining in it. It was exactly going in sync, and I’m thinking, wait a minute, is that the orchestra doing it or is that what’s in my head? It was so strange. And when they’d finished, suddenly, I heard this noise. It was like applause. And the conductor said, Stuart, come over here. This ovation is for you. For me?
GRUBERT: It’s hard to know if the musicians of the London Philharmonia were applauding for the music or Stuart’s journey or both. Nevertheless, they gave him a standing ovation. Allan Wilson, the conductor of the London Philharmonia is quoted as saying, I had to admit, I was stunned. I’ve never seen any orchestra anywhere in the world give any composer an ovation like that before. Stuart’s symphony has never been performed. It’s never been distributed by a major record label, but he had achieved his goal. Stuart had gotten the music out of his head and recorded by one of the greatest orchestras in the world. What’s the first thought that went through your head?
SHARP: The first thought went through my head – I can’t wait to send this to my ex-wife. I can’t wait to send it to her ’cause it’s so beautiful. I’m sure it won’t hurt her because – and she knew the journey I’d had. And I sent the CD to her, and I got a call from her the next day. I didn’t know what she was going to say. And she said, Stuart – uh oh – I played your “Angeli Symphony,” and I’ve had the windows open and I’ve played it full blast. I have to tell you, it is magnificent. And I cried.
GRUBERT: Let me ask you, you created a lovely family. You had a terrible tragedy, but your family was still intact. Then you had this dream that came to you – that frankly, could have been psychosis for all we know. If you had to do this all over again, would you do it the same way?
SHARP: I didn’t have any choice. You have been given a gift, go and use it. So there’s no choice for me.
GRUBERT: Was it worth it?
SHARP: I don’t know.
WASHINGTON: Thanks for sharing your story, Stuart. That piece was produced by Johnathan Grubert. He’s the host of the amazing podcast “The State We’re In,” distributed by WBEZ. I highly recommend it. That piece was edited by Anna Sussman with sound design by Pat Mesiti-Miller. Now, there are some promises you never want to make – never ever. Find out what they are when SNAP JUDGMENT “The Pact” episode continues. Stay tuned.
Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
You don’t have to be obsessed with pop culture to know that something is going on with Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. Recently divorced from the reality show star and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian, just yesterday, he was banned from performing at the upcoming Grammy Awards. Before that, he was suspended from Instagram for a day after making racist comments directed at “The Daily Show” host and upcoming Grammys host Trevor Noah after Noah raised concerns about Ye’s conduct. That conduct includes relentlessly trolling his former wife and her current beau, the comedian Pete Davidson, and releasing a disturbing music video that shows a Claymation figure with a remarkable resemblance to Ye kidnapping and gruesomely dismembering a Claymation figure that bears a remarkable resemblance to Davidson. All of this Ye has claimed in an effort to win back his former wife and reunite their family.
You might say, why talk about this? They’re celebrities. It’s all part of the show. What does it have to do with anybody else? Well, one reason is that all three have a remarkably large cultural footprint. Kardashian has an astonishing 290 million followers on Instagram, who have watched her through her reality show days and now support her booming makeup and clothing businesses. Ye has worked with and influenced a generation of artists in music, architecture, video and fashion, not to mention his 30 million Twitter followers. But Ye also has a history of erratic behavior, which he and family members have openly attributed to mental illness. And Davidson, a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” has gained a following of his own because of his comedy and also because of his openness about his own mental health challenges and his efforts to address them.
So what does this mean? This is all playing out in the open, on social media, in artistic works and, apparently, in real life. We called Aisha Harris of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour to ask her to help us consider how to think about this. Aisha, hi. Thanks so much for taking this on.
AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
MARTIN: So I get the feeling that this is something that critics, people who write about and talk about culture for a living, have been struggling with. Would that be accurate? And I’m not talking here about people who capture people’s worst moments for, you know, just because that’s what they do. I mean people who write seriously about music and art, who normally write about whatever an artist of this stature does. So is my feeling about this correct, that people are struggling with this? And why is that?
HARRIS: Oh, yeah. I mean, where do you even begin? (Laughter) It’s like, as you already said, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are two of the most influential people of the last 20 years. Kanye, obviously, he is an artist who has been acclaimed for most of his career, has gotten all the accolades, won Grammys. People love him. He’s been declared a genius by any number of prominent critics. And then when you have this sort of decline, both in his public persona and also in, some would argue, his music, there’s this weird conundrum that they’re facing in terms of like, how do we separate the art from the artist? It’s like that age-old question, right?
And then with Kim, it’s like she is someone who has been criticized. She’s not really someone who we consider to have a sort of talent of any sort, unless, like, being a businessperson or a salesperson is considered a talent. And so she hasn’t always had a lot of public goodwill in terms of the way she’s appropriated other cultures, the fact that she’s had a very, some would say, negative impact on beauty standards over the last 15, 20 years. And so it’s hard to feel bad for her, or some would say it would be hard to feel bad for her when this is all happening. And so those are the sort of problems and issues that are arising when we talk about both of these people.
MARTIN: That is something that Trevor Noah spoke to. Let me just play a little bit of what he said. This was a nearly 10-minute monologue the other night on his show. I’ll just play a little bit.
TREVOR NOAH: Two things can be true. Kim likes publicity. Kim is also being harassed. What she’s going through is terrifying to watch, and it shines a spotlight on what so many women go through when they choose to leave. One of the most powerful, one of the richest women in the world – unable to get her ex to stop texting her, to stop chasing after her.
MARTIN: So two points that he made here – one, in any other context other than Hollywood, people would see this as harassment. And he also made the point that people can look at this and take clues about what is considered acceptable. What do you think?
HARRIS: Well, I definitely think that it’s true that we can see this pattern of what’s happening to Kim Kardashian happens to women all the time. And I hope that we can sort of take the lesson that this is not just an isolated case. This is something that happens to women every day. And, yes, it’s important to pay attention to this happening to Kim Kardashian, but it’s also something that needs to trickle down into reality and into the real world for the rest of the women who don’t have those resources and don’t have that power.
MARTIN: So the argument – just looking at this from another vantage point, the argument that Ye’s supporters have made – like, you saw this in comments posted to that disturbing video we mentioned earlier for that single, “Eazy” – is that this is art. And therefore, it’s all performance art, and therefore, it’s off-limits to critique on other-than-artistic terms. Now, this is something that – here’s Trevor Noah again from that monologue. He spoke about this.
NOAH: I do understand that art can be therapy, but I also understand that therapy can be therapy. And what’s weird about the situation is Kanye West has told us that he struggles with his mental health. So I get it. You want to have art as therapy. But here’s what’s weird that Kanye doesn’t understand is, like, what we’re seeing, it makes you uncomfortable. With Kanye, we don’t know how to feel. We don’t know how to worry. And I think Kanye doesn’t seem to understand that he goes, leave me to create my art. Yeah, but, Kanye, you told us you have problems. Now when we worry about that, you say we shouldn’t worry because it’s not problems. Or it is problems. Which is it?
MARTIN: You know, he said a lot there – so engaging both the question of Kanye has disclosed and others close to him have disclosed that he does have mental health issues, but other people have mental health issues and don’t harass people, right? So – gosh, I – really, I just have to throw it back to you and say, what do you think? – because I’m really – I’m kind of wondering, does the audience have some role in this? And if so, what is it?
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, the thing about it is that Kanye, from the beginning of his career, has made himself part of the art. He’s not Banksy. He’s not like a performance artist who you only know who he is based on his voice; you don’t know his personality. Like, that’s not him. And if you listen to the lyrics in “Eazy,” a lot of those lyrics are actually reflecting things that he’s said on social media and in interviews. He mentions, you know, no more counseling. I don’t negotiate with therapists. He’s been open about not taking the medications that he’s been prescribed. And so when that’s happening and it’s all coming together in the art, you can’t just say you have to separate the art from the artist because it’s playing out right in front of us.
MARTIN: Aisha Harris is a host on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, and she’s currently at work on a book of essays titled “Wannabe: Figuring Out A Life Through Pop Culture.” Aisha Harris, thank you so much for talking with us about this.
HARRIS: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
And I’m Paddy Hirsch. When it comes to the markets, the war in Ukraine has played out in some predictable ways. Stock and commodities markets have been thrown into turmoil, and investors have rushed to put their money into safe havens.
WOODS: U.S. government bonds, the U.S. dollar and gold – these things have all surged in value over the last couple of weeks, so, so far, so normal. But they’ve been joined by a new asset that doesn’t usually come with the label safe haven – cryptocurrency.
MARCUS WASHINGTON: …Morning. There’s been a recent rise in investments when it comes to cryptocurrency.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bitcoin is really on the global stage right now. Exchanges are seeing a surge in demand out of Russia and Ukraine as local…
MORGAN BRENNAN: Can anything slow down the surge we have seen in bitcoin? Well, Kate Rooney…
WOODS: After Russia invaded Ukraine, digital currencies jumped in value. This rise was led by bitcoin, followed by other cryptocurrencies like ethereum and solana.
HIRSCH: And you might be asking yourself, what on earth is going on here? Why is cryptocurrency – an extremely volatile asset and is detached from the financial system and is essentially entirely speculative – how is it regarded as a safe haven, and why is it suddenly surging in value? Well, it turns out that many of those downsides to cryptocurrency have suddenly become upsides. We’ll have more after the break.
HIRSCH: The most obvious reason that cryptocurrencies are rising in value is because there’s been a surge in demand for them from Russians and Ukrainians. And this has all to do with the collapse of those countries’ currencies.
WOODS: When Russia’s currency, the ruble, collapsed last week, people formed these long lines at ATMs, hoping to withdraw as much cash as they possibly could. They wanted to spend that money as quickly as possible before the ruble devalued further. They wanted hard goods that could retain their value and stable currencies like the dollar and the euro and the yen.
HIRSCH: But now that the U.S. and its partners have closed the Russian government’s access to its overseas bank accounts, those currencies are increasingly in short supply. Simone Maini is the CEO of Elliptic, a crypto analytics company. She says this is where cryptocurrencies come in.
SIMONE MAINI: What we’re looking at are private citizens who are – you know, if they are leaving it in Russian banks, you know, obviously those are subject to sanctions at the moment. Moving it into crypto – it’s decentralized, it’s peer-to-peer – means that they have got an opportunity to really be in control of their own funds.
WOODS: Not every Russian is shopping for bitcoin right now, though. Like, even though Russia is quite familiar with cryptocurrency, only a tiny fraction of the population is actually using it. But that’s been more than enough to give cryptocurrencies a boost.
HIRSCH: And a similar thing has been happening in Ukraine. As Russian troops have closed on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and people have decided to leave their homes, Maini says many of them have converted as much money as they can into cryptocurrency because of its portability.
MAINI: Crypto is commonly referred to as a form of digital cash, and it allows those individuals to be able to convert their personal wealth into, you know, highly portable, digital forms of cash. And so, you know, individuals who are leaving their homes, who want access to their funds, who want to be able to keep them safe, really, that’s the use case that we’re talking about.
HIRSCH: The next factor that’s driving crypto upwards is all the media attention that’s followed a request by the Ukrainian government for donations in cryptocurrency. More than $50 million worth of crypto assets has been donated so far, funding military and medical supplies. That activity has highlighted the fact that all of the things that people thought were downsides to cryptocurrency are actually upsides at a time like this.
WOODS: Yeah, cryptocurrency exists outside of the global financial system, which can make it difficult to deal with.
HIRSCH: Especially if you don’t have a computer, right?
WOODS: Yeah. And also, crypto does not have the backing of a government, and you can’t access it from banks. Those features could be seen as drawbacks for people who live in places like the U.S. or the eurozone, which are legally and financially stable. But Maini says if you’re a citizen of an authoritarian state like Russia or a country at war, they are big selling points.
MAINI: People are engaging and realizing that, unlike the traditional financial system in times of war, there is no one that can stop transactions from taking place.
HIRSCH: OK. But cryptocurrency’s hardly a safe place to store your money. I mean, sure, the ruble dropped nearly 30% last week. But bitcoin lost fully half of its value between December and February.
Ed Moya is a senior analyst at OANDA, where he follows cryptocurrencies. He says, yes, cryptocurrency can be super risky, and yes, it can be hard to turn it into cash or other goods and services. Still, buyers may consider it to be safer than the alternative.
ED MOYA: A lot of people feel that this is probably one of the safer places given the extremely volatile environment that you’re seeing. And I think for many people that are scared of the price swings, if you take a look at history and some of these massive currency devaluations, that’s probably even more frightful than what you could see with crypto and bitcoin.
HIRSCH: State-backed currencies like the dollar or the ruble are supposed to be the safest types of financial asset, secured by the full faith and credit of the government that issues them. But the events of the last two weeks have shown how fragile that concept can be. That’s highlighted another potential advantage of cryptocurrencies – they don’t have the backing of governments, but they can’t be tied down by them, either.
WOODS: There’s been some talk that Russia itself might try to take advantage of the decentralized nature of cryptocurrency to evade sanctions, just as North Korea and Iran have done in the past. But both Moya and Maini say that this is unlikely. For one thing, Russia is just too big to get the amount of business that it needs to get done in a marginal currency like bitcoin. For another, Russia’s central bank seems pretty skeptical of cryptocurrencies. It recently called for banning them completely as part of its efforts to promote its own digital ruble.
HIRSCH: Yeah. I mean, right now, Russia’s really only focused on rescuing its own physical currency. Supporting cryptocurrency would undermine those efforts. Simone Maini says in the unlikely event Russia did decide to use a cryptocurrency like bitcoin, it wouldn’t find it particularly easy.
MAINI: Sanctions regulators around the world are very well-versed in how crypto could be used to evade sanctions. They have previously put bitcoin addresses, for example, on the sanctions list. So the means exist, the technology exists, the precedent exists when it comes to the regulatory regimes.
WOODS: Regulatory regimes – those are two words you don’t often hear in the same breath as the word cryptocurrency. And this is the downside of all the exposure that cryptocurrency has gotten during this war in Ukraine.
HIRSCH: Yeah, the problem with getting lots of attention is that sometimes it’s the wrong kind of attention. I mean, governments were already watching the crypto world pretty closely. Now they’re scrutinizing it to see where and how it can be regulated, policed and controlled. I mean, the whole point of cryptocurrency was that it was free from government interference. Now, thanks to the spotlight thrown by the war in Ukraine, governments are likely to be meddling in crypto a whole lot more. Simone Maini says that’s kind of inevitable.
MAINI: This dialogue, this tension perhaps has existed for some time, and it’s really about finding the right balance so that it’s taking place in an environment that acknowledges and respects the differences that crypto offers from the traditional financial system and allows those differences to be used in positive ways while ensuring…
HIRSCH: You know, Darian, I heard an analogy that – I ran it past Simone. She didn’t think much of it, but I kind of liked it myself, you know? It’s that…
WOODS: All right.
HIRSCH: …Cryptocurrencies are somewhat reminiscent of the way Swiss banks used to be – right? – you know, like…
WOODS: Yeah.
HIRSCH: …All secure and insulated from government scrutiny. Yeah, they’re not really like that anymore, are they?
WOODS: And that’s a whole nother story. Sounds like another episode idea.
HIRSCH: It’s there for another time, yes.
WOODS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable with help from Isaac Rodrigues. Corey Bridges fact-checked the show. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
This is NPR’s LIFE KIT. I’m Meghan Keane, the show’s managing producer.
AUTOMATED VOICE: To begin, tell me which of these you’d like.
KEANE: Every time I’m about to call a customer service line, I feel like I’ve already lost. I’m in this state of dread because I know as soon as a customer service representative says, no, Meghan, your request for a refund just isn’t possible, I’m going to fold instantly. I mean instantly. After all, I’m just one person whereas a company has poured so much money and time into creating policies that help them keep their money. How am I ever supposed to get through?
AUTOMATED VOICE: Please hold while your call is being transferred.
CRAIG DOS SANTOS: Behind every rule, there’s a person who has to apply that rule, and that person often has some leeway, and they’re only going to change things if you can reach them.
KEANE: That’s Craig Dos Santos. He’s a consultant who specializes in negotiation, which makes him pretty incredible at dealing with customer service. He’s done seemingly impossible tasks, like successfully returning three new iPads after the return period was over and negotiating a $16,000 medical bill to $0. But he didn’t do any of this by yelling or demanding to speak to the manager.
DOS SANTOS: It’s tempting to think of these as transactions, but there’s a real human there. And if you’ve ever worked in anything where you have, you know, customer service or anything like that, they’re having a human experience in that moment just the same as you are. And if you treat them as a transactional being, then they will also treat you that way.
KEANE: I know this can get tricky. Depending on your gender and/or race, people can make some pretty unfair and demeaning assumptions during a call. That is very real. But Craig says it’s possible for anyone to learn these tips of negotiation to make any customer service interaction work in your favor. This episode of LIFE KIT – dealing with customer service. We’re going to press zero and speak to an associate and get what we want.
KEANE: Like I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, I get customer service anxiety. So the first thing I asked Craig was, how can I psych myself up when I’m about to dial that toll-free number?
DOS SANTOS: Yeah, I would say there’s two elements to that. One is separate the person from the problem because most of the time that people say no to themselves, they’re saying no – meaning you go in and you’re like, I’m not going to ask or I’m not going to ask a second time. And that’s – in my version, that’s you saying no to yourself. And most of the time, people do that because they’re worried about offending somebody or they don’t want to feel bad themselves when they get turned down. And I think if you separate the problem that you’re addressing from the person, it’s way easier to deal with it. So, you know, if I call in to customer service, usually I’m upset about something or I want something changed.
KEANE: Sure.
DOS SANTOS: But I also don’t have to yell at the person. So what I’ll tell them is like, look, I know that you don’t have anything to do with this. I know you’re trying to help me, but I want to tell you what happened. And then I will go into my, you know, mild tirade about what happened. And I can express that I’m upset, but now they’re not feeling confronted. They can empathize with me. And that is the key is like I want them to empathize with my situation.
KEANE: Mmm hmm.
DOS SANTOS: So the second thing there is what I call caretaking statements. So at any given time in a conversation, if you ask for something, there’s a little bit of tension. And that tension can be uncomfortable for both sides. And I think that what oftentimes what people will do is they’ll back off the request and they’re like, oh, you know, it’s OK or they won’t ask because they don’t want that tension. And I think that having something where you’re caretaking for the other person is really important. So in the case of a customer service call, like, you don’t really know the person that well, so you can’t really speak to them, you know, in a personal way. But you can always appreciate them for the process that they’re going through. So you can say, look, you know, I appreciate you, like, being patient with me as we figure this thing out. If it’s, you know, somebody who’s emailed you back, you can say, look, I deal with a lot of people and you’ve been really, like, kind and, like, got back to me right away. I really appreciate that. You can always insert one of these little, what I call, caretaking statements to reduce the tension, but you’re not releasing the request.
KEANE: Yeah, totally. You’re keeping your eyes on the prize, but it’s almost like you’re preemptively, like, de-escalating.
KEANE: Being like, I’m safe. I’m not going to hurt you. We’re just going to focus on the problem together.
DOS SANTOS: That kind of underlies another point, which is that when you want something, it’s tempting to, like, just think about things from the perspective of like, OK, I want this thing, how can they give it to me? And I think, like, there’s an underlying point of like, oh, I’m going to ask for this. They’re actually going to say no, and then I’m going to say this, and there’s a kind of mental game that you might play in your head.
KEANE: Right.
DOS SANTOS: I think it’s more important to think about people make decisions emotionally. So instead, pay attention to where is the other person emotionally? And can I bring them to a spot where they want to help me?
KEANE: Totally. How much of getting good customer service is just about being nice?
DOS SANTOS: I think it’s definitely about being nice, but there are a lot of people who are nice but are not tactical in the way that they’re nice. Does that make sense?
KEANE: Say more.
DOS SANTOS: Like, so if you call in to your cable company, maybe they can knock off five bucks off your bill or take away that late charge, whatever. But maybe you want more than that. You feel like you were wronged because they charged you for something. And they have a limit. They were not authorized for X, Y or Z that you want. And so what I think is – I don’t mind what their limit is. I just want to make them my ally. Whatever train I have to go through to get to the end person who’s going to make the decision, I want them to not just be passed over, give me your manager. That’s a common thing to ask for. Can I speak to your manager?
KEANE: Right.
DOS SANTOS: I don’t want them. I want them to go to their manager with my story and say, hey, I have somebody, what can we do here? And so when they say no, I’ll ask them for advice. Like, what would you do in my situation?
KEANE: Oh, I like that.
DOS SANTOS: Or I’ll just state the situation. Like, you know, I woke up today and I was just not expecting to get a bill for $145. Like, I don’t know what to do. Silence. You know? Let them contemplate that situation, and then see what they say. And oftentimes they’ll be like, yeah, that would be crappy if I woke up in the morning and had a $145 bill. I would not be happy either. And then see if you can turn it around that way by, like, making them your ally.
KEANE: That’s a really good point you’re making about the one thing is like don’t say I need to speak to your manager. People seem to think that that’s like some gotcha move.
KEANE: But it just seems to really work against you (laughter). I love the idea of, like, having them collaborate with you and to – yeah, sometimes also just letting people fill silence is really effective, like you’re saying, and just have them really let this sink in and being like, ah, yeah, that would be awful. Yeah. So it’s almost like you’re trying to make them your ally, make this like a we problem almost instead of, like, I need this from you.
DOS SANTOS: Totally. I’ll use the analogy often when I’m trying to coach somebody else, which is that you can imagine a situation where there’s me and I have a laptop here, and then there’s a table that we’re sitting at, and you have your laptop, and we’re discussing a problem that we’re trying to – you know, I want this, you want this. I want the verbal equivalent of closing my laptop, walking around the table, putting my hand on your shoulder, and then we look at the problem together – right? – the verbal equivalent of that, which is, look, this situation sucks. Here’s the problem. But from a personal perspective, I like you. You like me. I’m not mad at you. Let’s figure out this problem.
KEANE: Totally. I think you might have been getting at this just a moment ago, but you talk about this technique in your videos called calibrated questions. Can you just define that and give some more examples?
DOS SANTOS: Yeah. So I think, you know, when you’re asking questions, you want the person to take a certain perspective, right? So for example, if I say, like, I woke up this morning and, like, I just was not expecting to get a $145 bill, I’m forcing them to take the perspective of me in that situation…
KEANE: Yeah.
DOS SANTOS: …Versus if I’m just saying like, hey, I want this, what can you do for me here, and giving them a lot of reasons why I deserve what I want – so when you ask somebody a question, you can frame it in a way that is making them take your perspective. Like, what would you do in my situation, or what should I do about this? I don’t know. And you’re – you know, I’m deferent. I’m not, like, aggressive. I’m, like, deferring to them. People love to be, you know, asked for advice.
KEANE: Totally. Yeah. Because it’s almost like it keeps the conversation going when you’re like, well, what would you do, or what do you think I should do next…
KEANE: …Instead of closing down a conversation of, like, well, why can’t you fix this? Because then it could be just, like, well, there’s a policy and it’s – that’s how it is, you know?
KEANE: What are some other tactics that you find effective? I saw you also did a video about tactical listening, for instance.
DOS SANTOS: Yeah the – having a place, whether it’s asking for discounts or, you know, for me, like, having this kind of playground where I play with different ideas, where I’m talking to people on the phone, like what is working, and there’s all these different personalities that show up, you know, taking a day where instead of talking about my ideas, I’m just going to see if I can ask questions so I can elicit the talk to conversation (ph) that I want. I can elicit the opinions that I want, as opposed to saying, I’m going to be the talker. Oftentimes, the person who’s in control of a conversation is the one asking questions, like you right now, as opposed to the one talking.
KEANE: Totally. Yeah, so tactical listening, really just – it’s like asking questions, asking follow-ups, maybe some of those calibrated questions and, like, even engendering a little bit of trust, it sounds like. It shows that you’re thoughtful and thinking this through instead of, you know, again, being reactive.
KEANE: So how would you get someone out of that script, you know? Like, sometimes when you call these places, they’re just so heavily scripted.
KEANE: And every now and then you get, like, a glimpse. That’s when it’s like, OK, yeah, like, if I can make someone laugh, feel like I’m in. But how do you do what you’re talking about, when you have such, like, a wall of a script coming at you?
DOS SANTOS: I think an easy way to do it is – let’s say you’re on the phone. I will literally open up the conversation, giving a commentary on whatever it is that I’m paying attention to.
DOS SANTOS: I’ll say something like, hey, hang on one second. Sorry. Like, my stove’s on, and I totally didn’t – like, I’m cooking food for my mom. She’s coming over later tonight. Give me a second. OK, cool. And I will just give them a small glimpse at the world that I’m seeing. And that may not be the best example, but it actually doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it shows me as a human. It’s important that you’re not showing off something.
KEANE: Right.
DOS SANTOS: You’re showing – in fact, what you want to do is show vulnerability. Like, oh, my God. Like, I’m going to burn stuff. I’m horrible at cooking. That’s actually a better way that people can relate. And that way, it gives them an opportunity to be out of their script and be like, oh, yeah, like, is it dinnertime where you are? And they’ll say something. And you can open up like a 15-second conversation on something that’s human, and that can actually let them bring out some humanness as well. Now it’s two humans talking as opposed to a customer service representative and a person they have to deal with.
KEANE: Totally. That’s a great little tip. You’re right. And all it takes is like that 10, 15 second little connection. And I feel like that’s when I get the best experiences.
KEANE: OK. But what happens if our charming selves don’t quite make the connection and we’re just met with, like, a ton of resistance from an agent? You know, it’s like, hey, Craig, sorry. These are just the rules. This is just our policy. I’m so sorry. Like, we can’t refund you on this. Or, you know, how do you break past, like, a dead end?
DOS SANTOS: So this speaks to what we said before, which is you deal with the person, you can feel like you win and they feel like they win, right? So it’s also important if you’re asking for a discount and they can’t give it to you, you need to let them feel OK about it. Which means I’ll say something like, you know, if I owned this place, I would make you boss and let you give as many discounts as you can.
KEANE: Right.
DOS SANTOS: Right. And it makes it light, right? OK. They didn’t give me the discount, but now they feel OK about it. And it’s important that you see things from their perspective. So if you meet a lot of resistance, like somebody shuts a door in your face and says, no is the answer. Door is shut. What I want to know is – and I’ll ask – is there any crack in the doorframe, you know?
KEANE: Oh, that’s nice.
DOS SANTOS: But before that, I am deferent in like, look, I understand that you have limits. I probably shouldn’t have even asked. I apologize. You know, have you ever seen any exceptions to that? And I’ll just kind of like lean back. OK. If you need to be the boss here, you can be the boss. No problem. I’m just a little peon who’s asking you for something, like, no problem, you know?
KEANE: (Laughter) Right.
DOS SANTOS: Separating the person and the problem means that I’m not trying to class personalities with them. Like, if they need to be this person, no problem. I’m looking for what’s effective here. And I want to deal with the person. And I can be resolute about what I want. But I don’t need to, like, meet, like, you know, aggression with aggression.
KEANE: Totally. That makes a lot of sense. Oh, also, yeah – the other thing I’m thinking of it too is like sometimes just using their name. They always say their name at the top of the call. So easy, so effective.
DOS SANTOS: Yeah. Totally. Getting the name, especially when you’re on a phone call with somebody. They’ll call and say, hi, my name is Brianna (ph). And they’ll keep going. And I’ll often – I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name. Is it Brianna? You know, and make sure that they – not only did I use their name, but I’m acknowledging, like, OK, like, I’m seeing you for a person here, not just a function.
KEANE: So what if you’re being transferred to department to department? I feel like that happens for the stuff that feels like, though seemingly should be the easiest question, but you just keep getting passed around. You have to explain your situation 50 times. What’s a good thing to keep in mind when you’re just like at your breaking point?
DOS SANTOS: So I think it’s always dangerous to try to act outside of who you are. You know, like kind of a concept I’ve mentioned before, which is if you separate the person and the problem, like, just tell them, look, I’m really frustrated. I just want to tell you what’s been my experience so far and separate that out. I think that is one way to, like, bring reality into the conversation without making it about them. The other thing is people, when they run out of strategy and they don’t have a way to approach it, they either get upset or they start lying. And both of those are – I look at them as a failing of strategy, a failing of an approach.
And so I think keeping some of these concepts in mind, you know, where you’re being deferent, you’re treating them as a human, you are separating the person the problem, you are trying to show empathy and get empathy in return. Like, all these concepts, if you go in and say like, look, this is not working. Like, let me just keep – and stick to the plan. You know, people want to be heard for the way that they look at themselves. And if you can speak to that, now you’re talking about something that actually impacts people emotionally. And when you need to move somebody emotionally, then you can move what their decisions are.
KEANE: Thanks again to Craig dos Santos. For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We’ve got one about how to have a productive argument and many more on everything from health to finance to parenting. You name it. You can find all of those at And if you love LIFE KIT and you want more, subscribe to our newsletter at newsletter. And now for a completely random tip from a listener.
NICOLE JACKSON: Hi, this is Nicole Jackson (ph). My life hack is if your dog won’t eat their kibble without something special on top, instead of topping with those – with treats or with those expensive kibble toppers, you can boil a piece of chicken and reserve the water in a shaker. Keep it in the fridge and warm it a little bit to pour over the kibble at Feeding time. Warming it up makes it smell really enticing. And you can cut the meat and use for training treats later on.
KEANE: If you’ve got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at This episode of LIFE KIT was produced by Janet Woojeong Lee. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our production team also includes Andee Tagle, Audrey Nguyen and Clare Marie Schneider. Our visuals and digital editor is Beck Harlan. I’m Meghan Keane. Thank you for listening.
Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Most scientists say that one of the key distinctions between humans and other animals is our ability to use language. Today, we have a story that blurs the boundary between human language and animal noises, and it comes to us from our friends at Radiolab.
JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That’s Jad Abumrad, from WNYC.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And this is me, Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is a show where we get curious, and we explore ideas.
ABUMRAD: Yeah, and sometimes we talk to animals.
ABUMRAD: Well, not really. But we do have a story about a kind of animal talk.
KRULWICH: We ran across it not in dolphins and not in chimps, but in the prairie dog
ABUMRAD: Prairie dogs.
KRULWICH: So here’s the thing: Prairie dogs are these little, rodent-like animals. They live under the ground, in burrows. And when their community is invaded, they – you know – pop out of the burrow…
KRULWICH: …and they go, uh-oh. Here comes the – whatever.
P: Sounds kind of like chee-chee-chee-chee.
ABUMRAD: So we spoke with this guy…
P: My name is Con Slobodchikoff, professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University.
ABUMRAD: …who’s spent a whole lot of time…
P: Sitting out in the colonies.
ABUMRAD: …recording prairie dog calls. And he now believes that these simple, little rodents are like nature’s wordsmiths.
P: Well, the thing is that, initially, I recorded…
ABUMRAD: For instance, he began by telling us that the prairie dogs have different kinds of chee’s.
KRULWICH: Different warning cries.
P: For different kinds of predators.
ABUMRAD: For example…
P: Humans, coyotes…
P: Right.
ABUMRAD: Is this the kind of thing that we would actually be able to hear the difference between the calls?
P: I’m guessing that you could hear the difference.
KRULWICH: You want to try it, Jad?
ABUMRAD: Soren, could you just play those samples?
SOREN: All right, so here’s one.
SOREN: This is another one.
KRULWICH: All right.
SOREN: Here you go. This is a third.
ABUMRAD: Those represent different predators?
P: Yup.
KRULWICH: I – I don’t – I can’t tell the difference.
ABUMRAD: Can you? I mean, do you know what they are?
P: Human, dog, coyote.
MONTAGNE: So guys, wait. How does he – I mean, what difference is he hearing?
KRULWICH: Well, he told us at first that, like us, he couldn’t tell the difference. But then he took the sounds back to his lab.
P: Where we had a machine that allowed us to measure a series of frequency and time elements in the call.
KRULWICH: And what this computer does is, it takes the sound that the prairie dogs make, and it essentially looks inside for the ingredients inside the sound.
MONTAGNE: And what does that mean?
ABUMRAD: Well, it’s kind of hard to hear with the chirp. But let me demonstrate with a different sound…
ABUMRAD: …which to us sounds like a solid piece of noise.
ABUMRAD: If you take away all of the high frequencies…
MONTAGNE: It just – it becomes like a low, bass buzz.
ABUMRAD: Yeah, exactly. But now, if you add those high frequencies back in really slowly…
ABUMRAD: You’ll start to hear these hidden overtones just pop out.
MONTAGNE: Uh-huh. So these sounds are kind of hidden in that original sound?
ABUMRAD: Exactly. So in other words, this sound…
ABUMRAD: …is filled with little ghost notes that we can’t hear. And certainly, the same is true of this sound.
ABUMRAD: Except in the case of the prairie dogs, it seems their ears are tuned to hear all the different sounds within the chirp. It probably sounds to them like this whole layer cake of tones.
KRULWICH: And Con’s computer noticed that the noise they made when a human walked through their village was different in tone from the noise they made when a coyote walked through their village. It was consistently different.
P: But there was a problem.
KRULWICH: When he zoomed in on the oh-oh-here-come-the-human calls…
KRULWICH: …these ones here.
ABUMRAD: He saw that from one human call to the next, there was a lot of subtle variation.
P: Much, much more than I would expect.
KRULWICH: And that’s when it hit him.
ABUMRAD: What if…
KRULWICH: What if…
ABUMRAD: What if…
P: What if they could be describing the individual humans?
P: Now, at that time, no one suspected that this might even be a possibility. But I thought well, let’s try it and see what happens.
ABUMRAD: So Con recruited four humans.
KRULWICH: And he had them dress exactly the same: same boots, same blue jeans, same sunglasses – everything the same, except the color of their shirts.
P: We had a person in a blue T-shirt; a person in a green T- shirt; person in a yellow shirt; person in a gray shirt.
ABUMRAD: Then he asked each of them to walk through the prairie dog village.
KRULWICH: One by one.
ABUMRAD: Prairie dogs made their chirps.
P: And when we analyzed the results, there were significant differences.
ABUMRAD: Like, what kind?
P: They essentially clustered around the colors.
KRULWICH: Does that mean you think you can hear them saying: Here comes the human in blue…
P: Right.
KRULWICH: …versus here comes the human in yellow?
P: Right.
ABUMRAD: Really?
P: Oh, I was astounded.
MONTAGNE: That’s pretty cool.
P: I was astounded.
KRULWICH: Then he was like well, wait a second. These humans, they’re not just different in their shirt colors. They’re different in all kinds of ways.
P: Some of the humans were taller. Some of the humans were shorter.
ABUMRAD: So he went back, re-analyzed the chirps, looked a little more closely.
P: And…
ABUMRAD: He realized…
P: We could tease out…
ABUMRAD: The prairie dogs were also commenting about…
P: The general size of the human. Essentially, they were saying, here comes the tall human in the blue; versus here comes the short human in the yellow.
KRULWICH: And then, almost to kind of top himself, he says, OK – if they can do colors and they can do shapes of animals, how about something totally abstract…
P: And it was just…
KRULWICH: …not from nature?
P: …off-the-wall idea at that time.
KRULWICH: He went back into the prairie dog field, and he built two large, wooden boxes.
P: Sitting on stilts.
ABUMRAD: A good distance from each other.
P: A hundred and fifty feet. And we strung wires between the two towers.
KRULWICH: His team then made cardboard cutouts of three different shapes.
P: A circle, a square and a triangle.
KRULWICH: And then they ran them out along the wire – kind of like laundry, fluttering above you in the breeze.
P: Each shape would emerge from one of the tower blinds…
P: …and fly something like about three feet over the prairie dog town. And what we found was that the prairie dogs could tell the triangle from the circle very easily. But they could not seem to tell the difference between a square and a circle.
ABUMRAD: Huh. Why not?
P: Well, my guess is that triangles kind of look like hawks.
P: Circles and squares kind of look like terrestrial predators.
ABUMRAD: Nonetheless, what you’ve got here is a little rodent with a remarkably big vocabulary, including – but probably not limited to – short, fat, skinny, tall, blue, green, yellow, gray, coyote, human hawk, triangle and/or square.
ABUMRAD: Not bad.
MONTAGNE: You guys, that is so cool.
MONTAGNE: I mean, prairie dogs.
KRULWICH: Yeah. And Con says this is the most sophisticated form of animal communication ever recorded.
ABUMRAD: And we should say, he also thinks maybe other animals can do this kind of thing. It’s just really hard to capture – record – and figure out what’s going on.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you both for sharing that one with us this morning.
ABUMRAD: Our pleasure. Thanks, Renee.
KRULWICH: You’re welcome.
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I’m Renee Montagne.
And I’m Steve Inskeep.
Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
If you’re doing something adventurous this summer – like, say, bungee jumping -it may make your heart race. And we have a story this morning about what happens in your head while your heart is racing. It comes to us from Radiolab.
(Soundbite of music)
JAD ABUMRAD: Morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Hi, Jad. That’s Jad Abumrad from WNYC.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And this is me, Robert Krulwich. And Radiolab is well, it’s a show where we get curious, we explore big ideas…
ABUMRAD: And sometimes, we get a little dangerous. In fact, like for this story, we fell off a house.
INSKEEP: Fell off a house? You didn’t.
KRULWICH: Not really.
KRULWICH: But a guy we know did. His name is David Eagleman. He’s a neuroscientist from Baylor College of Medicine. But back when he was a kid…
ABUMRAD: How old were you just to, sort of –
Mr. DAVID EAGLEMAN (Baylor College of Medicine): I was, I was 8 years old.
ABUMRAD: He had an experience which he says changed his life.
ABUMRAD: He was playing in his subdivision in Houston. And there was a house nearby…
Mr. EAGLEMAN: …that was under construction, and my father told me not to go climbing around on the house under construction, but I was a boy, so I did. And I was looking at the edge of the roof, and I stepped on it. But in fact, it was tar paper hanging over the edge, and I – and I fell.
KRULWICH: Oh, so you stepped onto the air, in effect. You just went shwoooh.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Exactly.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. EAGLEMAN: And what happened was the event seemed to take a very long time. I thought about whether I had time to grab for the edge of the roof, and I realized it was too late for that.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. EAGLEMAN: So then I was looking down at the ground as the red brick floor was coming towards me. And I was thinking about “Alice and Wonderland,” how this must be what it was like for her when she fell down the rabbit hole.
KRULWICH: Hmmm. How long, by the way, was it from the top of the roof to the ground below?
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Point eight six seconds.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Thats how long it takes to fall 12 feet; I calculated that later.
ABUMRAD: That would be one-one thousand – and this whole experience left David Eagleman with a question that he could not get out of his mind.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: What happens to people when theyre in a life-or- death situation, and they have these thoughts that seem to take a long time? So at some point, I realized I needed to study this.
ABUMRAD: How would you even study that?
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Well, the first thing I did, I took my entire laboratory to Astroworld.
(Soundbite of Astroworld theme music)
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Which is the amusement park here in Houston. And we went on all of the scariest rollercoasters, and we brought all of our equipment and our stopwatches and had a great time. But it turns out, nothing there was scary enough to actually induce this fear for your life that appears to be required for the slow-motion effect.
So I searched around, and I finally found something called SCAD diving.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Stands for suspended catch air device.
ABUMRAD: Where do you do that?
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Turns out its illegal in Houston, but I found one in Dallas.
(Soundbite of laughing)
Mr. EAGLEMAN: So we made a road trip up to Dallas.
Unidentified Man #1 (SCAD Instructor): All right, jump number one.
ABUMRAD: And we actually found a reporter in Dallas who agreed to give this a try.
Unidentified Man #1: …on, and then Ill put this on over the harness.
APRIL: No ones ever died on this thing, right?
Unidentified Man #1: Nope.
ABUMRAD: This is April.
APRIL: I feel like my hearts in my throat.
ABUMRAD: Shes very brave.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: You ride up to the top of this tower in this very rickety, little elevator-type of thing.
APRIL: Okay, were riding up in the elevator right now.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: A 150-foot-tall tower.
APRIL: Its not too fast.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Climbing up and up and up.
APRIL: It doesnt seem that far when youre down there. Up here, it seems really far.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Its like a 15-story building.
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, were halfway.
APRIL: Oh, man. Okay, this is just halfway; Im already freaking out.
APRIL: My hands are starting to shake.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: …at the very top, youre suspended.
APRIL: Like this?
Unidentified Man #1: Yup.
APRIL: Okay.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Youre hooked up to a carabineer.
APRIL: Oh, God. Okay.
Unidentified Man #1: Sit all the way back. Lean back.
KRULWICH: Okay, so I want you to imagine this: You’re up in the sky. You are facing the clouds, not the ground. You are attached to something which is about to be severed. And you will fall totally free into the void, unable to see whats about to happen to you, presuming a net, maybe.
APRIL: Oh, God. Okay. Dont let me die.
ABUMRAD: Three, two…
APRIL: Really nervous right now.
APRIL: Aaaah!
ABUMRAD: Okay – wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. One thing I forgot to mention. April actually wasnt part of Davids study. But if she had been, she would have been wearing, around her wrist, this little device.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: A new device, called the perceptual chronometer.
ABUMRAD: Its about the size of a watch, and it flashes numbers super fast.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah, yeah.
ABUMRAD: Way too fast to see normally. But the thought is, if April falls and everything starts to slow down, well, then these numbers should slow, too. So that if she looks at her wrist as she is falling, she should be able…
Mr. EAGLEMAN: To now read the watch – that would be impossible under normal circumstances.
ABUMRAD: Back to April.
APRIL: Really nervous right now.
ABUMRAD: Three, two…
APRIL: Aaaaah! Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God, that was the scariest moment of my life. Oh, my God.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: I should probably tell you guys the results of the study but…
ABUMRAD: Yeah, yeah, yeah – so do people report that time slowed down enough for them to read the number?
APRIL: Im alive.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Turns out when youre falling, you dont actually see in slow motion.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Yeah. Its not equivalent to the way a slow motion camera would work. Even though people feel like its going in slow motion, its something more interesting than that.
(Soundbite of chime)
ABUMRAD: ‘Cause heres the thing, right after people did the jump, he would ask them…
Mr. EAGLEMAN: How long they thought their fall took.
ABUMRAD: The right answer, if theyd had a stop watch…
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Just under three seconds.
ABUMRAD: But what people would say…
APRIL: How long, when you were falling, how long did it…
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)
APRIL: Ten seconds.
Unidentified Woman: It felt, it felt like – time was stopped.
ABUMRAD: So how do you explain that? Like times not slowing in the moment – but seems to be slowing after the moment?
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Well, I came to understand that its a trick of memory. Normally, our memories are like sieves. Were not writing down most of whats passing through our system.
ABUMRAD: But he thinks that when you go…
APRIL: Aaaah!
ABUMRAD: You know, life-or-death moment.
APRIL: Oh, my God!
ABUMRAD: In that instant, our memories go wide open.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: Because thats what memory is for. Its for when everything hits the fan. You want to write it down and remember it.
ABUMRAD: So all of it goes right to your hard drive – the clouds, the feeling of the air. Oh look, theres a guy in a blue shirt.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: So when you read that back out, the experience feels like it must have taken a very long time.
Mr. EAGLEMAN: It must have.
KRULWICH: Normally, the trivial stuff gets dumped but in this situation, it gets written.
ABUMRAD: And then you realize how much trivial stuff is in there.
INSKEEP: Which makes you wonder, Robert and Jad, how we’d feel if we remembered all that stuff all the time?
KRULWICH: You’d be totally consumed by memories. You’d…
ABUMRAD: Buried.
KRULWICH: Yeah. You’d look at an egg, and you’d see all the veins in the egg and you’d see the white, and you would see the borders – and you’d think…
ABUMRAD: You wouldn’t be able to forget it.
KRULWICH: Having an experience like this creates a surfeit of memory – too much to remember.
INSKEEP: Well, Robert and Jad, I don’t know what to make of this, but if feels like this story took about three times longer than normal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Thanks very much for sharing that one with us.
ABUMRAD: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That’s Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show Radiolab, a production of WNYC. And you can explore Radiolab at
Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
You know when you have a decision to make, the standard advice is to think everything through and weigh the pros and cons and reason your way to the right choice. But today we have a story about the limits of our rational minds to help us make decisions. It comes to us from our friends at Radio Lab.
JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: That’s Jad Abumrad of WNYC.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And this is me, Robert Krulwich.
INSKEEP: Oh, sorry, Robert, didn’t mean to leave you out. Robert Krulwich as well.
INSKEEP: Okay, now, before we get started, remind us what Radio Lab is.
ABUMRAD: KRULWICH And also the world all around us.
ABUMRAD: Right, and today we’re thinking about, as you said, how we make decisions. So Steve, let me just get things started by asking you – how many numbers do you think you can remember at once?
INSKEEP: I have no idea. Test me.
ABUMRAD: All right. Ready?
ABUMRAD: Four, six, one, seven, eight, two, three, 33…
KRULWICH: This always a trick question with him.
INSKEEP: Four, six, seven, one, eight, two, three, 33, nine, one, and then after that I don’t know what it is.
KRULWICH: That’s good, actually, because, you know, I can do four, seven.
ABUMRAD: Robert is a special case, but it turns out there’s a classic study in psychology that asks this very question. It happened in 1956, there was a psychologist named George Miller who asked people to memorize a bunch of different stuff – numbers, letters, musical notes – and what he found is that the average human being can hold about seven items in their short-term memory, seven.
INSKEEP: Like a phone number?
ABUMRAD: Exactly. Now the interesting thing is what happens to our decision- making powers when you try and get more than seven in your head.
KRULWICH: Unidentified Man #2: Yes…
ABUMRAD: Well, let me introduce you to someone.
BABA SHIV: I’m Baba Shiv, a professor here at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Marketing. A lot of my research has to do with the brain.
ABUMRAD: And tricking people.
SHIV: Oh yeah, absolutely.
KRULWICH: (Unintelligible) I want to you to tell about one particular experiment that he did.
SHIV: So the experiment it’s pretty straightforward.
ABUMRAD: It goes like this. He got a bunch of subjects together. He said, okay, I’m going to give you all a number.
SHIV: A number…
ABUMRAD: …on a little card, you’re going to read the number, and I want you to commit that number to memory.
SHIV: Take as much time as you want to memorize the number.
ABUMRAD: Then he says…
SHIV: You’re now going to walk to the next room and recall the number. And that’s what subjects think. The subjects think that they’re going to be doing in that study.
ABUMRAD: They know that they are going to be in one place getting a number, going to another place, reciting that number.
SHIV: That’s right.
ABUMRAD: That’s all they know.
SHIV: That’s all they know.
KRULWICH: What they don’t know is that not everybody is getting the same kind of number.
SHIV: Some people get a seven-digit number, some people get a two-digit number.
SHIV: That I can do by the way. I think I can do two digits.
ABUMRAD: No, I doubt it.
ABUMRAD: All the subjects have to do is they’ve got to memorize the number, walk out of room one down the hall, room two, then recite their number. Now, just imagine. You with me?
SHIV: Mm-hmm.
ABUMRAD: Person with a two digit number in the head is walking out of room one.
INSKEEP: One, two is my number. I can definitely remember this.
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Man #3: 1228932…
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Man #3: 289…
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Man #4: Oh.
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Man #3: Sure.
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Woman #2: You can choose between either A) a big fat slice of chocolate cake, or B) a nice bowl of fruit salad.
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Woman #2: …or some healthy fruit?
ABUMRAD: The people – the people, this is crazy – the people with two digits in their head…
INSKEEP: You know, I love cake but I think I’ll take the fruit.
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Woman #1: It’s healthy.
ABUMRAD: Whereas the people with seven digits in their head almost always choose the cake.
INSKEEP: You know, the cake. I want the cake.
ABUMRAD: And we’re talking by huge margins here.
SHIV: It was significant. I mean, this was like in some cases, 20, 25, 30 point difference.
KRULWICH: So what does…
ABUMRAD: Meaning if you have seven digits in your head you are twice as likely to choose cake than fruit, twice.
KRULWICH: So let’s give them…
KRULWICH: So the people with the seven digits get the cake. I get that part. I don’t know why.
ABUMRAD: That doesn’t interest you? As to why they would choose…
KRULWICH: Well, yeah, why?
ABUMRAD: Okay, good.
ABUMRAD: Now that I’ve got your interest, I’ll tell you the theory.
ABUMRAD: And this is where it gets interesting. It seems that the brain is anatomically organized into different systems.
JONAH LEHRER: Dual systems is what they’re called.
ABUMRAD: That’s Jonah Lehrer, science writer, who we often call when talking about brainy stuff. According to Jonah, you have a rational deliberative system which is sort of more to the front of the brain, and then deeper in the brain you have an emotional unconscious system. According to Jonah, these two systems are often at war.
LEHRER: There’s constant competition between the rational brain and the emotional brain. They’re always competing for attention and to guide and direct your behavior.
ABUMRAD: Especially when you have a tough choice like Baba Shiv’s cake versus fruit. There the competition is fierce.
SHIV: The emotional automatic system is just pushing them towards the cake.
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Man #4: Chocolate frosting.
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Man #4: Give me a chocolate now.
ABUMRAD: On the other hand…
SHIV: Unidentified Man #5: I’m thinking about this choice carefully.
SHIV: Unidentified Man #5: Calories, sugar, high fat content.
LEHRER: Unidentified Man #5: It’s going to make you chubby.
LEHRER: Unidentified Man #5: It is not good for your health. It is not good for your self esteem.
SHIV: And that acts as a check.
ABUMRAD: Unidentified man #5: 1228936, 12285, 122, one, a cholest – 122…
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Man #5: Or 2…
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Man #5: 2…
ABUMRAD: Unidentified Man #5: Oh.
SHIV: Which means greater likelihood that the emotions will drive their choices.
ABUMRAD: The astounding thing here, says Jonah, is not simply that, you know, sometimes emotion wins over reason. It’s how easily it wins. Seven numbers is all it takes to screw up reason.
LEHRER: Just think about how astonishingly limited that is.
KRULWICH: Mr. LEHRER And what we always rely on it, all the advice on decision making is stop and think, slow down, take your time, and yet when you actually look at the brain, that can lead you to rely on a feeble piece of machinery.
INSKEEP: Oh, okay, well, I’ll just set aside this cake and thank Robert and Jad for stopping in. Thank you, gentlemen.
ABUMRAD: Sure thing.
KRULWICH: We kind of knew you’d do the cake.
INSKEEP: That’s Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show Radio Lab, a production of WNYC in New York. You can explore Radio Lab at
Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Now for a little mystery story, but this one isn’t a whodunit – it’s more of a who are you and it comes to us from our friends at RADIO LAB.
(Soundbite of various sounds)
JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Hello, there.
That’s Jad Abumrad from WNYC. And Robert Krulwich, are you there?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Yes, I am here, too. And I should mention that RADIO LAB is a show where we get kind of curious, explore ideas, we argue sometimes.
ABUMRAD: And sometimes we like to tell stories that give us an unusual peek into the world around us.
MONTAGNE: Well, let’s turn then to this mystery story. What is the nature of the mystery?
KRULWICH: Well, the first thing I should tell you is it’s not just one today, it’s two.
ABUMRAD: Mm-hmm.
KRULWICH: Two stories.
MONTAGNE: Oh, okay.
ABUMRAD: Told by two different people.
Dr. V.S. RAMACHANDRAN (Neuroscientist, University of California, San Diego): I am V.S. Ramachandran at the University of California, San Diego.
Dr. CAROL BERMAN (Psychiatrist, NYU Medical Center): Okay, my name is Dr. Carol Berman. I’m at NYU Medical Center. I’m a psychiatrist.
ABUMRAD: And we start with Carol Berman.
Dr. BERMAN: My patient, who is this 37-year-old patient, comes back to her house and sits next to this man who’s wearing a red plaid shirt, trucking boots.
ABUMRAD: She looks at this guy and she’s just not sure what to make of him.
Dr. BERMAN: I think the jeans she recognized and the boots. And she takes a look at him and says: Who are you? And he says to her, well, who are you? Come over here and give me a kiss.
ABUMRAD: So she leans in, a little tentatively, gives him a kiss but it feels wrong. Everything about this situation feels wrong.
Dr. BERMAN: She was thinking, this is some strange man who’s sitting here in, you know, her husband’s clothing and she was wondering what he was doing in her apartment.
KRULWICH: Okay, so now we want you to hear a second story. This one comes from Dr. V.S. Ramachandran.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: I saw a patient not long ago, was in a coma two weeks – a student on our campus – came out of the coma, a little bit slowed down, but overall quite intact. But here’s the problem: When he looks at his mother, he says Doctor, this woman looks exactly like my mother but she’s an imposter.
KRULWICH: An imposter?
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: She is an imposter. She’s some other woman pretending to be my mother.
KRULWICH: Now, is this person his actual mother?
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: It is his mother and it…
KRULWICH: He doesn’t think that his mother is really his mother.
Dr. BERMAN: This person looked like her husband but there was something about him…
ABUMRAD: Like the feeling you have?
Dr. BERMAN: Right, the feeling or there’s a certain essence and the soul of the person isn’t in there.
ABUMRAD: So it turns out that these two people are suffering from the same delusion.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Capgras delusion.
Dr. BERMAN: Pronounced Capgras.
ABUMRAD: Now, these kinds of Capgras delusions appear, sometimes, with brain injuries, or sometimes just out of the blue. But the result is almost always that you feel like your loved ones have been replaced by imposters.
MONTAGNE: Jad. Robert.
MONTAGNE: That sounds really…
MONTAGNE: …creepy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: I mean it has to be a rare thing, or at least I’m hoping it is.
KRULWICH: Well, we don’t really know the exact numbers. It can go hand-in-hand with other disorders. So some doctors will look at it but then overlook it. It’s certainly unusual.
MONTAGNE: And do we know why people with Capgras feel this way, why their brains play this trick on them?
ABUMRAD: Actually, no one is really sure why it happens but there are a couple of different ways of explaining what’s going inside these peoples’ heads.
Dr. BERMAN: We explain it psychologically – there might be some negative aspects of the person that you don’t want to recognize. Like maybe my patient, you know, saw some negative things in her husband that she didn’t want to recognize. So when the negative aspects came in, he had to be a completely different person…
Dr. BERMAN: …for her to – ’cause she couldn’t – you know what I mean?
ABUMRAD: So on some level, you think it’s kind of denial.
Dr. BERMAN: Right.
ABUMRAD: So it would be like, Robert, if there was something about you that I just couldn’t handle…
KRULWICH: You couldn’t quite…
ABUMRAD: The only way I could deal with it, psychologically, was to make a break and to say, oh, well, that’s not the Robert I know.
KRULWICH: Therefore, it isn’t Robert at all. It’s some fraud.
ABUMRAD: Yeah, it’s a fake.
Okay, so that’s the psychiatrist’s explanation. Now here is how the neuroscientist explains it.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: I think what’s happening is something quite specific. You can explain this in terms of the known circuitry in the brain. The visual centers in the brain funnel in information to the fusiform gyrus, where you recognize your mother or a dog, or a table or, a chair. Then their message goes to the amygdala, which gauges the emotional relevance of what you’re looking at, for you.
KRULWICH: So, wait. So mom is a face I recognize as mom, and a set of feelings that I associate with mom.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Correct. Absolutely. Now what happens is, in this patient because of head injury, that wire is cut.
KRULWICH: So then no mommy feeling.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: No mommy feeling. So you say, my God, if this is mom. She looks like my mom but I have no feelings. There’s something really weird here. She must be an imposter.
Now that’s a very farfetched delusion. Why doesn’t she just say he doesn’t feel like mom but, of course, she’s my mom?
KRULWICH: Yeah, why doesn’t he do that?
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Because our thought processes are much more dependent on our gut level emotional feelings than we realize.
KRULWICH: So absent a familiar feeling of mom, some part of my brain says that’s your mother. And some part of it says no, it can’t be.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Yeah, and the equation that says it can’t be, is from your emotions, wins.
KRULWICH: But now here’s the twist.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Now, if she goes to the next room and speaks to him on the phone, he says, Mom, where are you? How are you? It’s wonderful to talk to you. Right?
KRULWICH: Why would that be?
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: The reason is there’s a separate wire going from the auditory regions in the brain to the amygdala, emotional centers. That wire was not cut.
KRULWICH: So what you hear can be very familiar. But if you see it then you got a problem.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Yeah. We are highly visual creatures. We pay much more attention to vision, give much more weight to vision, than to hearing and to voice.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: So you say she sounds a little bit like my mother, I don’t know why but she’s obviously an imposter. And, of course, this is very alarming to the parents.
ABUMRAD: Tell me if you don’t feel comfortable talking about this. But I understand that you have personal experience with Capgras delusions?
Dr. BERMAN: Yeah. Actually my husband, he started not recognizing other people first and then at some points he didn’t even think I was his wife. I’m very sad and upset and stressed out by the whole situation.
You know, when I get home and I kiss my husband and say hi, how are you today, and I hope he’s recognizing me. But you never know what you’re going to get when you get back home.
MONTAGNE: Well, that was unexpected. Jad…
MONTAGNE: …could you have thought any of that when you were speaking to her as a professional?
ABUMRAD: No, I mean that caught us off guard. Yeah.
KRULWICH: Can imagine what it would be like to be her? She has that at work and then she has that at home.
MONTAGNE: So is there anything that can be done to treat it?
ABUMRAD: You know, medication sometimes does help. But the truth is, for a lot of Capgras patients there’s no treatment. And no amount of talk or reasoning seems to help.
MONTAGNE: That is Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show RADIO LAB. It’s a production of WNYC. And you can explore RADIO LAB at
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Renee Montagne.
And I’m Mary Louise Kelly.
Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Most biologists who study baboons have spent an enormous amount of time in the field – sitting, watching, taking careful notes. Most of the time there’s not much to see. The baboons eat, groom, fight, sleep. Today we have a story about a bit of baboon behavior that is a little more unusual and it comes to us from our friends at RADIOLAB.
(Soundbite of sound effects)
JAD ABUMRAD: Hello, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Hello, Jad. And that’s Jad Abumrad from WNYC.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And this is me, Robert Krulwich.
MONTAGNE: And guys, before we get started, since we haven’t spoken in just a -in a little while, remind our listeners what RADIOLAB is.
KRULWICH: RADIOLAB is a place where we explore very big ideas that make us rethink ourselves
ABUMRAD: And the world around us.
KRULWICH: In this case, I was thinking about a rather odd moment of baboon behavior.
Professor BARBARA SMUT (University of Michigan): Hi, this is Barb.
ABUMRAD: Hi, Barb.
KRULWICH: Hi, Barb. Who is Barb, by the way?
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: Barb Smuts is an anthropologist and a psychologist at the University of Michigan.
Prof. SMUT: Where I teach courses on animal behavior.
KRULWICH: And she told me a story that I really want you to hear.
ABUMRAD: Hmm-hmm. Okay.
KRULWICH: It starts a bunch of years ago. She was doing some field research with some baboons in Kenya.
Prof. SMUT: Well, my job was to get them comfortable enough with me that I could follow them around all day and record what they were doing.
KRULWICH: And how long would you spend with them?
Prof. SMUT: About 10 or 11 hours.
KRULWICH: For how many days a week?
Prof. SMUT: Seven.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: For weeks at a time or a month at a time?
Prof. SMUT: Two years.
KRULWICH: Two years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SMUT: Yeah.
KRULWICH: And your job was to sort of hang around them?
Prof. SMUT: Yes. I would go wherever they went.
(Soundbite of music)
KRULWICH: As she told me about this time when something really, really mysterious happened.
Prof. SMUT: Yes. Mm-hmm.
KRULWICH: Okay, so set the scene for us. You were in kind of a valley?
Prof. SMUT: Yeah, we’re fairly open grasslands.
KRULWICH: And you are with how many baboons?
Prof. SMUT: About 30 animals, 35. And there’s a stream.
(Soundbite of running water)
ABUMRAD: Oh, there is a stream. I thought I would, you know, add one. This isn’t the stream, is it?
KRULWICH: No. It’s – I’m just enhancing your narrative just a little bit to give you a sense, you know?
KRULWICH: So imagine the baboons.
(Soundbite of running water)
Prof. SMUT: They’re heading back toward their sleeping place.
(Soundbite of baboon’s voice)
Prof. SMUT: Grunting at each other and greeting each other.
(Soundbite of baboon)
ABUMRAD: These are baboons we are hearing, like real baboons?
KRULWICH: Yeah. Well, they’re not Barb’s baboons, but they’re absolutely real baboons.
Prof. SMUT: And I followed them walking along the stream many, many times before and many times after, but this time it was different.
KRULWICH: Because this time�
(Soundbite of music)
KRULWICH: All of a sudden�
Prof. SMUT: They all stopped moving�
(Soundbite of baboon)
Prof. SMUT: �pretty much all at the same time.
(Soundbite of baboon’s voice)
Prof. SMUT: And they got very, very quiet.
(Soundbite of running water)
Prof. SMUT: Even the little kids stopped there. You know, the kids are always making noises, and even they got quiet.
KRULWICH: What were they all doing?
Prof. SMUT: Everybody sat down on a rock and most of them looked down into the stream. Like into a little pool that was right below them.
KRULWICH: And then what?
Prof. SMUT: They didn’t do anything. They just sat there in complete silence.
(Soundbite of running water)
KRULWICH: It sounds like they were almost doing a, you know, a Quaker kind of thing.
Prof. SMUT: It felt to me like a sacred moment.
KRULWICH: The quiet was�
Prof. SMUT: But�
KRULWICH: �that quiet?
Prof. SMUT: It was that quiet. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced with them before. The baboons are almost never completely quiet. Even when they’re sleeping�
(Soundbite of chuckle)
Prof. SMUT: �there is noise.
KRULWICH: And how long did it last?
Prof. SMUT: At least five minutes. And then they all got up.
(Soundbite of music)
Prof. SMUT: And resumed their march down to the sleeping place like they always did.
(Soundbite of baboons)
ABUMRAD: Has anyone else ever seen baboons do this?
KRULWICH: Barbara Smut says she is the only scientist ever to have seen and written down a behavior like this.
Prof. SMUT: Maybe it’s more common than I think it is. I don’t know, but I felt as if I got a glimpse into a part of baboon life that humans just don’t get to see.
(Soundbite of music)
ABUMRAD: So then what?
KRULWICH: That’s all I’m going to tell you.
ABUMRAD: What do you mean?
KRULWICH: That’s it.
ABUMRAD: That’s it?
ABUMRAD: I mean what were they doing? Don’t you want to know what they were really doing?
KRULWICH: Well, how can I know that? Can’t like – all I’m saying is that maybe there is something – I’m suggesting.
ABUMRAD: No, I know what you’re suggesting. I mean, you said it yourself, Quaker thing and here we are in the holidays and this is like a�
KRULWICH: A little�
ABUMRAD: I know what you are trying to do here. What with – maybe they were looking at a fish.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: The kids weren’t making any movements. They weren’t looking at a fish. She said they were not looking at anyone…
ABUMRAD: She says they were looking down at the pool.
KRULWICH: Yes, I left out the part where she says they’re not looking at anyone. I mean, they’re all looking together into a�
ABUMRAD: Into the water.
KRULWICH: Into empty space.
ABUMRAD: (Unintelligible) so how do you get from that to like Quaker?
KRULWICH: Well, the capacity�
ABUMRAD: Quaker baboons.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ABUMRAD: Come on.
KRULWICH: I’m suggesting that baboons have inner lives.
ABUMRAD: Yeah, sure, I’ll give you that, but�
KRULWICH: That’s a lot.
ABUMRAD: You gave me a lot just then.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: �let me throw in with Jad. What are you saying?
ABUMRAD: All I’m saying, really, is that we know that baboons have a sense of fairness, they have a sense of empathy, they lead complex social lives. So why wouldn’t they be capable perhaps of some kind of wonder or rapture or even thanks. To pay no attention to Jad. He’s a – one of those who hates Christmas, that’s what he is.
MONTAGNE: I’m not going to be a Scrooge. Okay, I am�
ABUMRAD: Scrooge. He’s a Scrooge.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Sorry, Jad, but I’m okay with the mystery.
ABUMRAD: I’m okay – for now.
MONTAGNE: All right. Well, thank you for now, Jad and Robert, for stopping in.
ABUMRAD: Thanks, Renee.
KRULWICH: You’re welcome. I think.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: And that is, I know, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show RADIOLAB. It’s a production of WNYC and you can explore RADIOLAB at
This is, by the way, MORNING EDITION. I’m Renee Montagne.
And I’m Linda Wertheimer.
Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
More than half of all amputees say they can still feel their missing limbs, and in most cases what they feel is pain. So how do you treat pain in a limb that isn’t there? That’s something that our friends at Radio Lab have been wondering about.
(Soundbite of music)
JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: Hey. That’s Jad Abumrad from WNYC.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And this is me, Robert Krulwich.
INSKEEP: And before we get started, we should explain what Radio Lab is for those people who don’t recall.
KRULWICH: Radio Lab is a place where we explore big ideas that make us really rethink ourselves…
ABUMRAD: And the whole world around us.
KRULWICH: And this time we are thinking about how to fix an arm that isn’t there.
Dr. V.S. RAMACHANDRAN (Neurologist, University of California San Diego): I am V.S. Ramachandran.
KRULWICH: He’s a well-known neurologist. He works in California.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: The University of California San Diego.
KRULWICH: And one day, he says a patient showed up in his office, and it seems that the guy had had this arm amputated – it was his left arm – and that ever since, this man had an uncanny feeling that he still had an arm where his real arm used to be.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Yes. Now, it’s important to emphasize this is not a delusion. He doesn’t think he has an arm. He knows he doesn’t. He’s not crazy. But he vividly feels its presence.
KRULWICH: And the rough part was that this arm, it hurt. This sometimes happens to people with phantom limbs. He would have days where his phantom arm would seize up in pain.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Doctor, it hurts.
KRULWICH: Really badly.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: He goes into this painful, clenching spasm. The nails dig into my palm.
ABUMRAD: So, he has a phantom hand at the end of his phantom limb.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Yes. And he’ll say things like it’s going to a cramp with the nails digging into the phantom palm, and it’s excruciatingly painful.
KRULWICH: But there are no nails, there is no palm.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: There’s no nail, there’s no palm.
KRULWICH: And weirdest of all, the patient couldn’t do anything about it. He’d tried to unclench his phantom nails from his phantom palm to make the pain stop, but he couldn’t.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: He said I cannot move the phantom.
KRULWICH: The phantom arm wouldn’t obey.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: I cannot volitionally move it. And I started thinking to myself, what does he mean when he says he cannot move his phantom limb? It’s like an oxymoron. There is no arm there.
(Soundbite of music)
KRULWICH: Dr. Ramachandran was confused. What’s going on? He checked with the patient and discovered that 11 years earlier, before the amputation, he’d had an injury to his spine. And after that, his real left arm was paralyzed. He could not move it. He tried. His brain would issue the commands.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: His brain was saying move the arm, but he was getting visual feedback, and indeed feedback from his muscles, saying no. Move the arm. No. Move. No.
KRULWICH: And this went on for months.
KRULWICH: So maybe, thought Dr. Ramachandran, maybe this patient got so frustrated trying to move his real arm, that at some point…
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: After a few months or a year, the paralysis got learned by the brain, stamped into the circuitry of the brain. And I call it learned…
KRULWICH: Learned…
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: …paralysis.
KRULWICH: …paralysis. So even when they cut the patient’s arm off a year after the accident, he still didn’t get any relief because the problem wasn’t in his arm. It was learned paralysis. It was in his head now.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: We’re learning with the people from Radio Lab. And let me make sure I understand this. The guy’s in pain because he can’t move a paralyzed arm which does not exist anymore.
KRULWICH: Or so Ramachandran thought. But then he thought, maybe we can help this guy by tricking his brain into thinking the arm isn’t paralyzed. But now the question is how do you trick a brain? How would you do that?
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: How would you do that, indeed?
KRULWICH: He thought for a bit.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Then I had this way of using a mirror propped inside a cardboard box.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: A mirror propped inside a cardboard box.
KRULWICH: A mirror parked inside a…you mean, like a box…
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Propped up.
KRULWICH: Oh. It was kind of a Home Depot solution, really. Ramachandran took a long and skinny mirror, the kind you’d hang on a closet door.
KRULWICH: And he propped it up using a cardboard box, and then turned it sideways – placed the side right in front of the patient, like right on his nose.
ABUMRAD: So he couldn’t see himself.
KRULWICH: No, couldn’t see anything in the mirror yet, unless he hooked his neck around, took a peak.
ABUMRAD: Oh, okay.
KRULWICH: Otherwise, he’s just looking at the side. Ramachandran says – and I want you to imagine this with me, Jad.
KRULWICH: He says I want you to take your good arm, your real arm, okay, and stick it out in front of the mirror. So, do that.
KRULWICH: Now, make it do what the phantom arm does. Take your good arm, make it stiff, curl your hand into a fist, dig your fingernails into your palm deeply, make it hurt. You doing that?
ABUMRAD: Yeah, it’s kind of hurting.
KRULWICH: Okay. Now when I tell you, crook your head so you can look into the mirror, and on your left, just where the phantom ought to be, let’s pretend that that’s your phantom arm. It’s cramped, it’s curled exactly as you’d imagine it. So now look in the mirror.
KRULWICH: And there’s your arm. You see it there in the mirror. Your phantom arm.
ABUMRAD: Got it.
KRULWICH: Now, very slowly, keeping your eye on the mirror now, I want you to uncurl your hand.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Patient says, okay. He opens his real hand. My God. And, of course, it looks like his phantom is opening. That’s not surprising. He’s got the mirror there. But he says, my God, doctor, you’re not going to believe this. The movements have all come back. All these movements in my fingers, in my elbow, in my wrist from 11 years ago come flooding into my mind.
KRULWICH: So his pretend nails are now ungripping from his pretend palm, and the whole problem of the pretend pain goes away.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Goes away. That’s what he said.
KRULWICH: For how long, by the way?
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Till the mirror was in place.
KRULWICH: But when Dr. Ramachandran took away the mirrors, the pain came back.
(Soundbite of music)
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: I said fine, c’est la vie, you know. And then I said, look, why don’t you practice with the mirror for a few weeks every day for an hour, then maybe if you do it repeatedly, you can unlearn the learned pain.
KRULWICH: So the guy goes home, gets out a mirror. You give him a mirror to take home?
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Correct. And…
KRULWICH: And he does it over and over.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: …(unintelligible) $2, take it with you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: So he takes it with him. He’s delighted. And then after about another week, he phones me and he sounds all agitated on the phone. And I said what’s going on? He said, doctor, you’re not going to believe this. It’s gone. I said, what’s gone? I thought maybe the mirror was gone. He said, no, no, not the mirror. The phantom is gone.
KRULWICH: Gone, gone?
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: That’s what I said: Gone, gone? What do you mean phantom is gone? He said, well, this phantom arm that I’ve been having for the last 11 years, it’s disappeared. Well, my initial reaction was alarm. I said, my God, does this bother you? And he said no. You know, this happened three days ago. And in the last three days, you remember the excruciating elbow pain and wrist pain I got several times a day? Well, I don’t have them anymore because I don’t have an arm. And…
KRULWICH: This is amputation by mirror.
Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Yeah. So, as I tell my medical colleagues jokingly, I say this is the first example in the history of medicine of a successful amputation of a phantom limb.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Reminds you that the most brilliant things are often the simplest.
KRULWICH: Yeah, absolutely.
INSKEEP: Robert, Jad, thanks for stopping by.
ABUMRAD: Hey, no problem.
KRULWICH: You’re welcome.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: Our visitors in the studios there were Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show Radio Lab, which is a production of our member station WNYC in New York City. You can explore more of Radio Lab online. Just go to
Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Okay, most of us would agree that it is wrong to hurt somebody else. But when and how do we learn that? To help us explore that question, we turn to our friends at Radio Lab.
(Soundbite of music)
JAD ABUMRAD: Hello there, Steve.
INSKEEP: These are the two guys behind Radio Lab: WNYC’s Jad Abumrad – he’s the young sounding guy – and NPR’s Robert Krulwich, the other guy.
KRULWICH: The older one.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Before we get started, gentlemen. Remind people what Radio Lab is.
KRULWICH: Radio Lab is a place where we explore big ideas that make us rethink ourselves…
ABUMRAD: And the whole world around us.
KRULWICH: And this time, we’re thinking about when kids develop a moral sense, meaning of right and wrong and caring…
ABUMRAD: Caring.
KRULWICH: Yeah. To investigate this question, who are we going to talk to, Jad?
ABUMRAD: Dr. Judi Smetana. She’s a psychology professor from the University of Rochester.
Dr. JUDI SMETANA (Psychologist, University of Rochester): Kids clearly know more than they can say. It’s clear from both observations and anecdotes that children really are beginning to develop a moral sense in the second year of life. Of course, that experience increases as they move into the threes, but they’re also are beginning to form a much more complex or developed understanding of moral rules which they can share with us a little bit in our interviews.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man (Interviewer): Now who makes the rules at your school?
Unidentified Child (Interviewee): My teacher.
ABUMRAD: When you do the interviews with kids directly, what kind of questions are you asking them?
Unidentified Man: Can they change the rules if they want to?
Unidentified Child: They’re the teachers. They can do whatever they want.
Dr. SMETANA: Well, we try to ask them, really, some very complex ideas in a simple form.
Unidentified Man: Is there a rule about hitting at your school?
Unidentified Child: Yes.
Dr. SMETANA: Such as would it be okay to hit if your teacher didn’t see you? Or would it be okay to hit if there was no rule about it in your school?
Unidentified Man: Suppose the teacher at school agree that they won’t have any rule about hitting at school. There was no rule anymore. Then would it be okay for a boy to hit another kid hard?
Unidentified Child: No.
Unidentified Man: No? How come?
Unidentified Child: Because that would make somebody feel bad.
Unidentified Man: It would. What’s wrong with hitting somebody, anyway?
Unidentified Child: Because it’s made out of the skin – the skin, because their skin can get cut or can get a bruise…
Dr. SMETANA: And what we found is that young children – beginning at about three, but really much more reliably by age four – will say that things like hitting or hurting or teasing would be wrong, even if the teacher didn’t see them or didn’t have a rule, whereas other things like, you know, sitting in the circle in circle time…
Unidentified Man: Is there a rule at your school about sitting down while you eat your lunch?
Unidentified Child: Yes.
Dr. SMETANA: …would be okay if there was no rule about it.
Unidentified Man: Is that a rule the teacher could change?
Unidentified Child: Yes. If she says, okay, you could stand up, you could do that. You have to listen to your teacher.
Dr. SMETANA: So it’s clear that the moral universe begins very early for young children.
KRULWICH: But, of course, this moral universe doesn’t just appear. It develops slowly over time. We visited a play group in Malvern, Long Island.
Unidentified Woman #1: Hello.
(Soundbite of child crying)
Unidentified Woman #1: Faye, who’s hosting today, got this idea to start a playgroup. And all of our kids are out in the living room playing together as they usually do, trying not to kill each other.
(Soundbite of child crying)
Unidentified Woman #1: I’m finding the threes a little bit easier on Dana(ph) than the twos, because my son has no fear. We call him the Red Tornado.
Hey there, what’s your name?
ALEX: Alex.
Unidentified Woman #2: Once he turned three…
How old are you?
ALEX: Three.
Unidentified Woman #2: I find that we’re able to explain things to him easier.
ABUMRAD: What kind of things? Like rules?
Unidentified Woman #2: Rules. Oh, yeah. Rules.
Unidentified Woman #1: Can you tell me what the rules are? You’re nodding yes.
Unidentified Woman #2: If you ask him the rules of house, he says no hitting, no pushing, no banging heads.
ALEX: No hitting, no pushing, no banging heads.
Unidentified Woman #2: Those are the rules,
Unidentified Woman #1: He knows no pushing, no hitting and what’s the other one?
ALEX: No banging heads.
Unidentified Woman #1: No banging heads?
Unidentified Woman #2: He doesn’t always follow them, though. Alex, do it gentle.
(Soundbite of child crying)
Dr. SMETANA: I mean, one of the things that we see is that young children can tell you that things are wrong, that it’s wrong to hit because it hurts. It’s wrong to take toys. At the same time, kids do take other kids’ toys. They do hit each other, and you have to wonder why is it if they know it’s wrong, why are they doing this?
ABUMRAD: Well, ’cause it feels good, right?
Dr. SMETANA: Yeah, it feels good because they got what they wanted.
(Soundbite of banging, music)
Dr. SMETANA: Some researchers have called that the happy victimizer effect.
(Soundbite of music)
ABUMRAD: So to hit another kid or to take another kid’s toys feels good, but to have your toys taken by another kid feels bad. Is that sort of the basic information that a child uses to start forming their moral universe?
Dr. SMETANA: Right. The task of a young child’s development is to be able to coordinate those two perspectives, that of the victim and that of the transgressor and kind of weight it toward the way that the victim feels.
ABUMRAD: So what we’re really talking about is like happy victimizer versus empathy?
Dr. SMETANA: Yeah, yeah.
INSKEEP: So gentlemen, it’s a kind of battle inside the kid between one side and the other?
KRULWICH: I think so. And as a parent, if you’re watching that struggle and you’re waiting for your kid to develop a sense of goodness, it’s going to be a long wait.
INSKEEP: Uh, yeah.
KRULWICH: (unintelligible)
Dr. SMETANA: I happen to be going to school early one day – I’m never early -and they have an observation closet where you can watch the classroom. And I’d not ever observed, you know, I’m never early, so I went into the closet. And at that moment, I saw Jack tackle his best friend, drop behind a bookcase, the rest of the classroom gather around, then I saw Jack stand up and just look down with this very startled, frightened look on his face. And then I saw his friend stand up with his lip bleeding. And I thought, I can’t believe I’m watching this happen. The only time I’ve ever watched my son through the window at school and I think he just gave someone a bloody lip. He was mortified by the whole thing. He was mortified, I think scared about his own actions.
JACK: Jack, and I’m four.
Dr. SMETANA: Jack had to see the consequences of his own actions on his own terms.
JACK: (Singing) Seeds in the dark, grow, grow, grow. Seeds in the dark, grow, grow, grow. Help me with my garden.
INSKEEP: Gentlemen, is this an appropriate moment to recall when I was a kid and my brother hit me in the nose, gave me a bloody nose and then told our mom, it was an accident?
KRULWICH: Did you then tell…
ABUMRAD: It probably made you who you are today.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Just repeating that incident over and over again. I mean, lots of people have wanted to hit me in the nose over the years.
KRULWICH: And you’ll likely go…
(Singing) (unintelligible)
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Gentlemen, thanks for coming by once again.
KRULWICH: You’re welcome.
ABUMRAD: Absolutely.
INSKEEP: That’s Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show Radio Lab, a production of WNYC – which you can explore at
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Steve Inskeep.
Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
It’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I’m Steve Inskeep.
And I’m Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: Renee, truth or dare.
INSKEEP: When was the last time that you’ve told a lie?
MONTAGNE: You mean, like, a little white lie?
INSKEEP: No, I mean, a lie, like, really deceiving somebody?
MONTAGNE: Well, Steve, I don’t know what you’re insinuating but I can’t say that I make a habit of it.
INSKEEP: Well, our next story is an investigation into the minds of people who do make a habit of lying, and it comes from NPR’s science correspondent Robert Krulwich, who’s been working in a space he calls Radio Lab.
Robert Krulwich, what is Radio Lab?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, Radio Lab is a place where we explore big ideas that make us rethink ourselves and the world around us.
MONTAGNE: And you’re not alone in your radio lab, Robert.
JAB ABUMRAD: Nope, he’s with me.
KRULWICH: This is Jab Abumrad. He’s the creator of the show, co-host. And together we have been looking at liars.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Not ordinary liars. Like, not the you and me kinda liars but…
KRULWICH: Right, right. There are people who lie and lie and lie. Yeah.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Exactly.
Ms. YALING YANG (Researcher, University of Southern California): They just can’t help it. They feel this impulse that they cannot control.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Yeah, the lie just tumbles out before they can stop.
KRULWICH: And this is who?
Mr. ABUMRAD: Oh, that’s Yaling Yang. She’s a researcher at the University of Southern California.
Ms. YANG: In the Department of Psychology Neuroscience
Mr. ABUMRAD: Now, Robert, here’s what Yaling did. She gathered together a group of subjects, put them through a series of interviews, series of tests, and was able to identify a subset that seemed to lie more often, more persistently than average. And so she wondered, is it just their personalities, their upbringing or might there be something in their heads, in their brains, that could explain this line?
Ms. YANG: Basically we put people in the EMI scanner and then we scanned their brains.
Mr. ABUMRAD: She scanned all her subjects – the liars and the non-liars – no one knew which group they were in. And she was looking at a particular part of their brain called…
Ms. YANG: The prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that processes information.
Mr. ABUMRAD: This is where the real thinking happens.
Ms. YANG: Making decisions and moral judgment, for example.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Now, if you zoom in to that place, just behind your forehead, what you’ll see are two kinds of brain tissue. You’ve got gray matter and then you’ve got white matter.
KRULWICH: I’ve heard of gray matter.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Yes. Well, we think of the brain as being gray. But actually it’s two things: it’s gray and white. The gray stuff, you can kind of think of it as, like, the computer processor part.
Mr. ABUMRAD: It’s these little clumps of neurons that process information. Like computer chips. That’s the gray. Whereas the white…
Ms. YANG: The white matter is, like, the connections between all these computers.
Mr. ABUMRAD: The white matter, in other words, is what moves the thoughts around.
KRULWICH: Gray is where the thinking happens and then white is when you move the thought from here to there.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Exactly.
Ms. YANG: Yes. They transfer information from one end to the other.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Okay. So you’ve got your gray, you’ve got your white. What Yaling thought she would see when she looked into the brains of people who lie a lot…
Ms. YANG: I thought we would see a reduction.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Just some piece of it not there.
Ms. YANG: Yeah, they’re missing something.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Physically she thought she would find less gray stuff, less of the thinking stuff.
KRULWICH: Why would… Why?
Mr. ABUMRAD: ‘Cause that’s what she’s seen in other mental disorders that are kind of like this. And if you think about it in a really simplistic level, the gray is where you think your thoughts and it’s also, among other things, where you crunch your moral calculation. And liars, she figured, have trouble in this department so maybe they have less gray. That was her notion.
Mr. ABUMRAD: But when she got the pictures back, what she saw was…
Ms. YANG: Such a great increase. It’s…
Mr. ABUMRAD: More, and not the gray.
Ms. YANG: More white matter.
Mr. ABUMRAD: More white stuff, a lot more.
Ms. YANG: Twenty-five percent. Like, a quarter.
Mr. ABUMRAD: So they have 25 percent more connections in their heads than non-liars?
Ms. YANG: Yes.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Before we get to what that means, what were you thinking when you saw this?
Ms. YANG: I thought this was something.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Something.
Ms. YANG: Something.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Something. Here’s her idea so far. Ready?
Mr. ABUMRAD: She thinks that these extra connections play a crucial role in a kind of in the moment storytelling. That’s essentially what lying is, coming up with a story on the fly. Let me give you an example, okay?
Mr. ABUMRAD: You’re leaving work, you’re walking down the hall and you go into the elevator and an annoying, but nice, coworker corners you…
Mr. ABUMRAD: Corners you in the elevator.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Asks you out.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Um, you know, I’ve been meaning to ask: you maybe wanna go out with me on Friday?
Mr. ABUMRAD: So there you are. Questions dangling in the air. For most of us right at that moment inside our head and our brains, we’re thinking, oh shoot. Say you’re busy, say you’re busy, say you’re busy.
Mr. ABUMRAD: What are you busy with? Think of something. Think, think. Reaching out into the void trying to form a connection with some idea that can help you come up with some excuse.
Mr. ABUMRAD: You know, I could say…
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Excuse me, I have a, shoot…I can’t think of anything.
Mr. ABUMRAD: And really what you need to do at this moment is just take a bunch of disparate thoughts on different sides of your brain, like, me, tonight, teeth, dentist, and connect them all together.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I’m having some late-night dental work.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Like that.
Mr. ABUMRAD: We can all do it, given enough time. But for these people who lie a lot, she thinks that because they have so many more of these connections to begin with, they get there faster.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: My mom is visiting that night; I’m meeting a friend for sushi; I am performing in a circus; Friday night book club; I have hockey practice; yoga; I have to polish the silver; I’ve got chemo…
Ms. YANG: The more connections…
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: …sorry, bee keeping…
Ms. YANG: The faster the speed of the processing. You can jump from one idea to another and you can come up with more random stories.
Mr. ABUMRAD: She thinks that in the brains of most of us we have trouble making those connections. We have…
KRULWICH: Would you have trouble if I said to you, like, come on, let’s hang out on Friday night. Would you not be able to come up with a wowzer?
Mr. ABUMRAD: I would say, well, yeah, that…
KRULWICH: I have to count straws. See, Thursday night is straw counting, we always… We have about 316 straws so far and I’m only doing ones with the little red circles on them. So that’s Thursday night, sorry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KRULWICH: I don’t know where it came from. It just happened.
Mr. ABUMRAD: There you go, see? You’ve got extra white matter, perhaps.
KRULWICH: So she’s saying this is a cause of lying or an effect of lying. Like…
Mr. ABUMRAD: Well, she’s not sure, and this is a big debate. What she can say is that children, as they grow…
Ms. YANG: Yeah, from age two to age ten, there is a big jump in their white matter. And that’s actually the same age that they develop the skill to lie.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Yaling has a good reason to be thinking about how brains develop, because she’s a new mom. Is this your first kid?
Ms. YANG: Yes, it’s my first one.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Boy or girl?
Ms. YANG: A girl.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Doesn’t make you wonder a little bit about what’s going on inside her head?
Ms. YANG: Oh yes. I wonder about that all the time. It’s still too early to scan her brain. But eventually I will do it.
Mr. ABUMRAD: Are you serious?
Ms. YANG: Yes.
KRULWICH: This is a moral to this. Never, if you’re a little baby, have a social psychiatrist as a mother who would (unintelligible) very dangerous thing. Anyway, if she does this then maybe we’ll know a little bit more about the nature and nurture of liars.
MONTAGNE: That’s Robert Krulwich.
KRULWICH: She’s not lying.
MONTAGNE: And Jab Abumrad.
Mr. ABUMRAD: And that’s the truth.
INSKEEP: And they are part of Radio Lab, a production of WNYC.
MONTAGNE: For nothing but the truth on lying and the world of Radio Lab, go to
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Renee Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I’m Steve Inskeep.
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