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Season 10 | Episode 8

When Brains Attack!

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Brains on a shelf (neil conway/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

In this episode, strange stories of brains that lead their owners astray, knock them off balance, and, sometimes, propel them to do amazing things.

We hear from a kid whose voice was disguised from himself, relive a surreal day in the life of a young researcher hijacked by her own brain, and try to keep up with an ultra-athlete who, after suffering terrible seizures, gained extraordinary abilities by removing a chunk of her brain.


Basal ganglia gone wild

The basal ganglia is a core part of the brain, deep inside your skull, that helps control movement. Unless something upsets the chain of command.

Enter Liza Shoenfeld. After graduating from college in 2009,  Liza got a job as a research associate in a lab at the University ...

Comments [11]

Brain on my parade

Kohn Ashmore’s voice is arresting. It stopped his friend Andy Mills in his tracks the first time they met. When Andy first laid eyes on Kohn, he saw a college freshman in a wheelchair who moved slow and talked slow. But it only took one conversation for Andy to ...

Comments [26]

Head over heels

Diane Van Deren is one of the best ultra-runners in the world, and it all started with a seizure. 

For Diane, a charming mother of three, daily life is a struggle. But as soon as she steps outdoors, she's capable of amazing feats. She can run for days on end ...

Comments [16]

Comments [33]

James Carmody from Carmel, NY

Coan never heard himself speaking slow because he thinks more than he hears.

His roommate said his mind works just as active as anyone else’s. Ask yourself how often you actually listen to yourself when you speak? Are you hearing every tone you inflect and pause you take, or do you think about tone inflections and speech pauses?

Reflect on that, and you’ll realize most of your speech is not something you actually hear. You hear the thought you try to convey more than the pauses which package it.

That is why Coan never realized he spoke slow.

Dec. 02 2017 03:50 PM
Nina from Maplewood, NJ

This was truly fascinating and I finally found out what had happened to me (multiple times) when my children were small, I was working full time and we were moving from NY to NJ: labyrinthitis!! I remember sitting with a group of people lined up at 2AM to try to get our children into a first-come-first-served after school program and telling someone that I was having repeated bouts of feeling that things were moving (I think I actually mentioned Hitchcock's signature dolly-zoom move) even though I was sitting still. No one seemed alarmed and I think we all laughed about it, writing it off as busy parent craziness ( I hoped!!). Thank you for helping me diagnose myself 14 years later!! I am genuinely relieved.

Dec. 02 2017 01:05 PM
Craig Dunn

Glasgow 3. 5years of daily tutors, over two thousand pages daily notes,now editing on two dozen topics. Returned and passed 6 post secondary courses, won provincial medals in two sports multiple times. Many other highlights, improved on every repercussions or learned to minimize their affect. Http://

Aug. 16 2015 09:01 PM
jim from Newton Ma

Fascinating as usual, but please, if you must have repeats, in a story use some restraint. This program had too many, too long. We are actually listening you know.

Aug. 16 2015 01:11 PM
Laura Pope from Portland, Oregon

Thank you for your story about the effects of the temporal lobe. I have near total Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum and Ventriculomegaly. I have always known this diagnosis has led to spacial awareness difficulties, and laughed when the woman in the story described looking at a map in the same way I once did. This story also gave me further understanding towards my (lack of) awareness of time passing. When I do not have something to help me keep track of time, I lose myself in it. While I have always known just how phenomenal the human brain is at finding a way through a neurological anomaly, I am just starting to piece together how my perspective in viewing the world is enhanced by its distinct make up. So thank you, Radiolab, for this new insight.

Aug. 15 2015 06:32 PM
Stacey Tessier from Calgary-Panther Sports Medicine

I caught some of this podcast on my way to work this afternoon (as a orthopaedic and vestibular physiotherapist) and felt I had to clarify some facts in the essay by the woman who suffered from labyrinthitis. This condition is in fact not so mysterious and it affects a great number of people everyday. The "itis" or inflammation of the labyrinth is usually caused by a viral infection and it may resolve as our body wards off this viral infection just as you would recover from a cold. The inner ear is responsible for your visual stability so when it is not able to communicate with the brain as quickly as it should due to the inflammation, you loose your vestibular ocular reflex and if feels as if you are looking at the world through an unstable video camera. Vertigo on the other hand is the sensation of spinning and it occurs when you have what is called nystagmus which can be caused by many things. While some people with labarythitis have vertigo initially it is not a symptom of the disease after the acute phase. If the symptoms to not resolve it is due to scarring as a result of the inflammation. This is where vestibular rehabilitation comes in. A visit to your vestibular therapist would provide a diagnosis and provide you with exercises to improve your recovery.

Aug. 14 2015 04:34 PM
Donna from long island

Caught this program in the middle, but was intrigued about the man who was speaking about his wife Sara and her seizures, and how he is her sole support; all the testing they did and how she finally had an episode at the hospital and they were able to track it.

Can someone guide me to this piece?

Jul. 16 2015 01:03 PM
Amy from Austin, Texas

My father died from progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) after an agonizing decline which we could only watch in horror as he went from a physically fit 67 year old to a wasted immobile shell at 73. While listening to the basal ganglia piece, I realized fairly quickly that the narrator's experience was my father's - only happening to her over a few hours and from which she'd recover to describe. I'm thankful for her description and it confirms my belief that if I were to develop PSP, I'd deliberately check out in the first rounds rather than waiting for the KO.

Oct. 12 2013 04:18 PM
JulsB from Atlanta, GA

As always..great show. Because of Radio Lab and This American Life--Sunday is my favorite day of the week :-) Thanks NPR--

Oct. 06 2013 09:31 PM
Will_Shirley from Wilton, NY

In 2000 my son was tossed thru the windshield of his VW van at about 30 MPH. He broke his legs, his left arm was dislocated and he suffered a severe TBI. He was in a coma for several months and then was placed in a nursing home in Arizona, the worst possible place to be. We rescued him after 6 months and he was in terrible shape. They have him labeled "persistent vegetative state" which means they have stopped all efforts to "awaken him". We believe he is "merely" minimally conscious. I often wonder if he hears me, if he thinks he answers me, if he thinks he is moving when he is not.... we have no way of knowing. The story of the "slow talker" and his singing voice reminded me that my son Jon was an avid drummer in drum circles around the country. He loved to go to concerts and have circles during full moons. His drum is in his room and sometimes I try to move his hands to hit the drum but he pulls his hands away and grimaces. The doctors insist this is a reaction to my touching his arm, not signs that he understands and objects to my efforts. I was deeply moved by the story of Colin and his singing. I wish my son could sing, even badly.

Oct. 06 2013 07:02 AM
Asa from Ocanside, CA

inofinity - It is a myth that we don't use most of our brain. Modern technology has shown that we use every bit of it.

ALSO - Concerning the slow talker: I wish they had asked what he heard when he tried to sing along with a recording of a song. Wouldn't he have been able to tell he was singing much more slowly? And, at least from my experience in middle school, I can't believe some jerk didn't mock his disability by imitating his speech.

Loved the show!

Oct. 06 2013 02:33 AM
Susan Mackreth from Wisconsin

The story about the woman with labyrinthitis was oddly familiar. I had read a similar account years ago in "The Medical Detectives," by Berton Roueche. I pulled the book off the shelf and was shocked to find, it was not just similar, but the same - even the title, "Impression: Essentially Normal." Perhaps I missed a reference to the source of the episode, but what truly puzzles me is the apparent freshness with which this story was told, as if this had just happened to the woman recounting the tale. Odd considering this story was originally published in "The New Yorker," in 1958. Were any of the Radiolab staff even born in 1958?

Oct. 05 2013 11:00 PM
Tony from nyc

Interesting show. However, I was pretty out off by the inability of one of the hosts to contain his laughter during the first piece. The woman is describing some horrific event and colors with the eyebrow imagery and, 'imagine if your daughter called you saying she can't control her face,' and the dude is laughing like a schoolboy throwing spitballs at a sub. Poor taste. Reminded me of the Yellow Rain episode.

Oct. 05 2013 08:49 PM
Aaron M from Phoenix, AZ

As soon as Liza started describing the "turning" of her head, I knew exactly what was happening.

About a decade ago, I was given a typical antipsychotic for acute anxiety/mania in the ER. The next day, I woke up and drowsily went to grab some breakfast. I was carrying my food to the table when I suddenly started turning my head; I stumbled a bit, but was able to sit down. Then I uncontrollably started twisting my shoulders, arms, then whole torso. It was as if someone was wringing out my entire body like a wet washcloth.

Three shots of Benadryl and two shots of benztropine (Cogentin), I finally fell into exhausted sleep. Diagnosis: full on torticollis/generalized dystonic reaction. To this day, when people ask if I have any drug allergies I tell them no, but I do have a severe adverse reaction to phenothiazines and related drugs. I don't ever want to chance going through that again.

Oct. 05 2013 08:19 PM
Stephanie from Denver, CO

Could you please share the name of the essay read at the end of the program?

Oct. 05 2013 06:05 PM
Dave West from Wakefield, MA

Before I was diagnosed (with Wegener's Granulomatosis - an auto immune disease of the circulatory system) I had a really bad case of the "spins". I went to the ER, and was told I had labyrinthitis. It was then I learned that a doctor's job is to take a patient's symptoms, and repeat them back to them in Latin.

Oct. 05 2013 03:44 PM
G from Fort Collins, Colorado

Compazine...I had the same reaction over 20 years ago! It definitely happens, and benadryl helped me, too. There is another anti nausea drug called Droperidol, and I had the same reaction. Scary.

Oct. 05 2013 02:42 PM
Rhonda from Forest, Va.

I was completely blown away by all three stories today but the one with the young man singing brought me to tears. Thank you so much for the thought provoking and beautiful stories.

Oct. 05 2013 02:17 PM
oreoroll from Louisiana

I love the music on the second story!

Oct. 04 2013 12:39 PM

I've suffered with migraines for several years. One particular day I awoke with an especially sharp pain behind my eyes and a new level of disorientation. I could tell this was unusual, so I asked a friend for help getting to the ER. I arrived, explained my issue and noted from several past experiences that I had a particular routine that typically proved effective. The physician, perhaps lacking faith in my routine, suggested something else; the "headache cocktail" Toradol, compazine and Benadryl. As a neuroscientist, I was well aware of compazine and even grew a fear for it after a friend of mine suffered a dystonic reaction. Without hesitation, I declined. I remained untreated before he returned, again pressing for the cocktail. This time I accepted. The nurse delivered the dosage intravenously, I slowly felt the drug climbing my arm. Hotter and hotter as it crept up over my shoulder. I felt it in my opposite hand and finally an intense heat over my heart with a sudden burst through my entire body. "Are you reacting?" The nurse said. I stared through bright light in my glowing mind trying to think of answer. Instead, I ripped the IV out and ran to the bathroom. I stood before the toilet attempting to assess how i could possibly get out of the hospital. I was in panic mode. However, this was a physical panic, like my whole world had just changed. And it had. That was 3 years ago. Today, as I type this, I still feel it. In my bones, deep through my muscles, this absolutely undeniable move. I would come to learn I now suffer from akathisia. This can be most commonly understood as restless leg syndrome...of the whole body. And not just at night. Sometimes I feel like I just want to jump out of my body. I'm sharing this information in hopes to shed light on compazine.

Oct. 04 2013 02:21 AM

not too sure what to make of this one guys, pretty sounds though

Oct. 03 2013 08:07 PM

We use 100% of our brains, and neural connections that aren't being used are removed for the sake of efficiency. The idea that we only use a certain percent of our brain is false.

Oct. 02 2013 04:01 PM
Brent from Denali Park, AK

We only use up to 20ish % on average because the other neuron portions have specific other tasks/memories & using all at one time I speculate would be like a seizure.

Sep. 11 2013 01:56 AM

My 13 yr old son has an idea/request that you design a show about the 90% of our brains that we don't use. We have loved listening to your show for the last year and it always gives us alot to think and talk about. Thank you!

Aug. 07 2013 04:36 PM

@Robin You can still stream the podcast. Using Windows Media Player (Or your preferred application) go to File > Open URL. Right click on the download link to the podcast or short you'd like to listed to and copy the URL. Paste it in your media player and presto! you're streaming.

Jun. 25 2013 12:10 PM

I am disappointed that the podcasts can only be downloaded now. With my internet connection, they are taking up to half an hour, or more. Why did this change?

Jan. 04 2013 10:51 PM
Joe Friendly from Manhattan

I've a friend whose once brilliant wife now, at 53, spends her waking hours sitting on the edge of her bed arguing aloud with a mirror. I was hoping to hear a magical cure like the amnesiac who was triggered by an old song! sigh

Nov. 08 2012 09:23 PM
Lee Henderson Jr from Waverly,Ky.

Your program is excellent;the one(my first) I heard about "When You and Your Brain ....." , sorry,.I failed to get it all.
But any way,it made me think about my wife's behaviour.
For instance,she once told me that she does things and she doesn't know why she does them.
To be honest,it is quite frustrating.
A couple years ago she had me arrested on false pretenses.
Even this year,on 02/18/2012,she left without telling me why, or where, she's gone.
I'm lost.
Thanks for listening.

Jul. 03 2012 04:54 PM
Alex from Michigan

I have a proposal for a new show: "What is you?", a question hinted at by this episode as well as the GUTS! episode. In that episode you describe the stomach as the place where "the outside world becomes you" and in this show you talk about brains "attacking" "you". The first brings up a great point: the collection of molecules in our body changes with every breath, let alone every meal and hormone change. Also, I have heard that no studies have shown any sort of synthesizing command center in our brain, the neurological equivalent of a "self". Hopefully you guys can find some interesting stuff on that topic. Thanks for the consistently great shows!!!!

Jun. 29 2012 04:06 PM
Miranda Ward from Tulsa, OK

I am a fairly new Radio Lab listener, but I have quickly become a fan! I loved the first story, Liza's story. It was fascinating and had me really laughing while also feeling for this young woman. What a great combination of qualities. The way the story was presented and Liza's own recounting of things was engaging and amusing. Thanks!

Jun. 29 2012 11:32 AM
Enuf from Arizona

Liza Shoenfeld's story rang a very loud bell, one that I intend to follow up on.

Who out there has heard of Non-Epileptic Seizures? They drive neurologists and psychiatrists (and patients) to exasperation. No medical practitioner understands them. So far all want to say it is another specialists problem - not their's.

I have a younger brother, some 30 years a survivor of a CVA (type of stroke). In recent years he has experienced increasing incidents of non-epileptic seizures. Some very dramatic. He also has epileptic seizures, a result of the stroke. Those are controlled with anti-seizure meds.

These new and severe non-epileptic (no EEG link to them, though the baseline EEG is abnormal) are almost entirely non-responsive to attempts to medicate. Hospitals have tried numerous Ativan does, among other drugs.

Psychiatrists find nothing wrong beyond neurological.

Neurologists see no EEG link, so want him to see a shrink.

Liza Shoenfeld's description of symptoms are extremely similar. The facial movements, "Charley Horse" painful twisting of the face around the mouth, uncontrollable motions, loss of speech, all of it.

So I am wondering if Dopamine levels, or something similar along that line, would reveal anything? Or if a treatment similar to Schoenfeld's would be helpful?

Jun. 24 2012 06:27 PM
cliff edoo from Philly.

Excellent programme. Very well done. So very interesting.

Jun. 24 2012 02:05 PM
MakeThisLookAwesome from Westminster, CO

When Brains attack? I was a bit disappointed in the last story... I was hoping it would be more my story. When I heard the phrase, "You wanna talk about pain? I've known real pain," it got my hopes up. But let me tell you... I know about real pain. When my brain attacked? It turned into a 4.5 year migraine that I had to join an experimental study (yes an official FDA one) and go through two surgeries to get them to stop!

I was also the only person in the study to use it at the maximum the bionic device would go...

I know real pain ;)

Jun. 22 2012 09:55 PM

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