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Who Am I?

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The "mind" and "self" were formerly the domain of philosophers and priests. But in this hour of Radiolab, neurologists lead the charge on profound questions like "How does the brain make me?"

We stare into the mirror with Dr. Julian Keenan, reflect on the illusion of selfhood with British neurologist Paul Broks, and contemplate the evolution of consciousness with Dr. V. S. Ramachandran. Also: the story of woman who one day woke up as a completely different person.


Paul Broks, Dr. Julian Keenan, Hannah Palin, Dr. V.S. Ramachandran and Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Where is that part that is "me"?

Looking into a mirror as a young child, Steven Johnson wondered, "How is that me?" We try to find that part of the brain that recognizes ones self with Montclair State University Professor Julian Keenan. Turns out: only half of your brain really knows who you are. Also, Independent radio producer Hannah Palin tells about her mother, who, after suffering an aneurism, woke up with a completely different personality. She looks the same, and has the same memories, but where did her old mother go? One possible answer: Vietnam. Later, Paul Broks continues the discussion on the fragility of the self.

Comments [10]

The Story of Me

We visit U.C. San Diego Neurologist, V.S.Ramachandran who tells us about the evolution of human consciousness…or the difference between the way we think of some abstraction, like love and the way a baboon thinks of a rear end. Something in the way our brain operates tells us about our ability to imagine and perceive ourselves. Paul Broks, author of Into the Silent Land, invites us into his childhood dreams, inhabited by tiny little men whom he had no control over. Robert Louis Stevenson, famed spinner of dark tales, had his own little men in his head, that he exploited for fame and profit.

Comments [12]

I haven't been myself lately

Robert Sapolsky, a Neuroscience Professor at Stanford University, relates how porous the boundary can be between two distinct selves, and how maybe this is a perfectly healthy phenomenon.

Read more:

Robert Sapolsky's The Trouble with Testosterone: And Other Essays On The Biology Of The Human Predicament

Comments [4]

Comments [70]

Ted Edwards from Kansas City. Listened driving back from Dallas.

I make my living with audio. I have been the Program Director of radio stations in NYC, San Diego, Houston, New Orleans, Kansas City and I am approaching retirement. I have listened to hundreds of thousands of hours of radio from every continent on this planet and I had to write and tell you that "Who Am I" was one of the best single hours of radio I have ever heard. My jaw dropped several times during the hour and I believe the word I spoke most often during the time was "wow". To illustrate how good I believe it was I would call it Radio Labs "Blonde On Blonde". Thank you for entertaining and educating me. All your mom's should be very proud and frankly there's no better compliment that I could pay you all. For those of you that don't like your mom? Listening to this episode should at least get her to stop talking for a few minutes and that is likely to be the best compliment you could ask from of her. Exceptional work. Congratulations.

Feb. 19 2018 03:16 PM

The good old times. You should rename yourself to RadioStories. The Lab is long gone :(

Feb. 19 2018 04:59 AM
Sarah from MN

You link the mind's ability to visualize (and manipulate that visualization) with a fundamental part of self/being human. Have you ever encountered the phenomenon of aphantasia? (basically, a blind mind's eye) I did not realize that "mental pictures" were more than a metaphor until I stumbled across this article on social media
I'd love to hear a show touching on this subject some day.

Feb. 18 2018 05:05 PM
I.C.Nito from Arlington

Following up on Martin Z’s reference to ‘non-duality,’ you may want to read about the Indian philosophy ‘advaita’. They have been pursuing this ‘inner self’ for a long, long time! A good recent practitioner is Ramana Maharshi, and the book by David Godman, ‘Be as you are: The teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi’ (Penguin, 1985) is a good introduction.

Feb. 17 2018 04:08 PM
Zubaib Ali

I like your podcasts series. However I was skeptical of the claim that at lower doses one can anesthetize a single hemisphere of the brain. What is this concept? I couldnt google it.

Sep. 23 2016 09:45 PM
Jake Gonzales from Perth, Australia

@Niko (Mar 20th, 2016)

Is it possible that you suffer from misophonia?

May. 12 2016 02:49 AM

Hi, I'm new to Radiolab, which was recommended for me.. Are all the episodes full of weird background sounds? Is there versions available without the sounds? They are so irritating I can't concentrate on the discussion :/

Mar. 20 2016 05:42 AM
DE Teodoru from NY

Eventually-- WHEN IT SERVES AN OPERANT PURPOSE-- all animals, including pigeons learn to associate image in mirror with themselves, using it as guide to goal directed behavior. I spent a lifetime looking at how animals recover operating in an environment with somatosensory input from their bodies completely removed. Note that to cut nerves (rhizotomy) bilaterally, greatly destabilizes the vertebral column and many attached muscles. Yet, recovery is amazing, especially in fine movements such as digital ones. Now increase this gruesome horror and enucleate these monkeys, making them totally blind and eve add lesion to their balance system; nevertheless, they recover, meaning they function to eat, climb, find their personal perch in a colony cage and even fight other monkeys that are totally intact or as disabled as themselves. All this takes time. But in the end they learn successful purposeful behaviors with little other input than a constructed mental image of the outside world and motor programs by which they project their limbs in exploratory and in repeat purposeful acquisition of food, a home corner in the group cage and interacting with other monkeys. We tried incapacitating monkeys to this level in the mother's womb. In comparison to animals operated in midlife, weeks post-natum, these animals seem almost normal in how they interact socially and especially in their relationship with their birth-mom!

No tricks or mirrors. But what we never appreciate about the brain is how little it "thinks" of the self in relationship to the outside world and how much, through trial and error it adjust internally wired motor programs, settling on those that produce the desired end. Totally senseless limbs are used in trial and error programs to achieve successful goal oriented programmed behaviors that bring it satisfaction and survival. For this the self is a critical component (length, strength, joint angles, complex joint interactions and postural adjustments, etc. All this paints an image of the world outside BASED ON THE IMAGE OF THE WORLD INSIDE AND ITS EXPLORATORY PROGRAMS for extracting satisfaction from the world around them. 30 years of careful observation, reading, and struggling to maintain the limbs and the health of these monkeys in excellent shape drive me to my conclusion. Whatever clever mirror trick is used to define a chimp's sense of self in his reaction to a red dot on his forehead, in reality, it is neither foresence from telereceptors (eg, eyes)nor hindsense from proprioceptors that make possible purposeful activity. It is trial and error and the results that lead a search strategy to evolution stereotypical behavior that allows repeat of success that allows these monkeys to survive a decade in this sensorily diminished state in a social setting. For too long were "etherists" like V.S. Ramachandran and Julian Keenan to make a distinction based on a mentally constructed difference as without a sense of SELF, so radically "deafferente

Oct. 12 2015 11:25 PM
Jessie Henshaw from Uptown

Always entertaining, but "missing things too, like how often you speak from a "God's eye view", equate your concepts with the natural world. It seems you may not realize it...

Oct. 12 2015 08:17 PM
Laurie from Wyoming

"Who Am I?": excellent show. Completely linked for me to recent guided meditations from my Buddhist teacher prompting us to accept that there is no self: there is no thing there which is a self. Your show's conclusions that the self is a story we tell ourselves fits perfectly into that notion. In that sense, the Buddha's comment (paraphrased) that there is neither a self nor not a self makes perfect sense.

I find this notion of self-lessness freeing: it means we can access the underlying beliefs and perceptions of experiences we see as painful, and change our perceptions of them and, in the process, our "self." The path is deep, and requires great curiosity, which I am in the process of developing as I heal from a severe concussion experienced a year ago and which is still not healed. The experience, during which I could have died easily, has proven to be an immense gift to my personal and spiritual experience, as it has given me time to simply meditate literally for hours and months (since I was forbidden to read or be on the computer more than a few minutes a day), and experience deeply these issues of history, beliefs (damaging and generative), and potential of the life process of the now leading into the future. BTW, your show augments a book on quantum biology ("Life on the Edge" by McFadden and Al-Khalili) which I am reading slowly (because of brain healing time constraints), thus extending my knowledge while following doctor's orders. Thanks!

One thing to add: at least one elephant has also "passed" the mark-on-the-forehead-in-the-mirror test, so either we must consider many animals besides the great apes as having "smart" brains (as measured against humans). Some day, I would like to see animals valued for their own roles and brains in the complex world: yes, few other animals than humans can calculate or imagine, but frankly no person I know would make a very good dolphin or elephant.

Love your show. Lots to meditate on!

Oct. 11 2015 08:53 PM
Marc from San Francisco

Your program episode today titled "Who Am I?" was just terrific. I enjoyed it very much. Of course, I normally enjoy your program broadcasts. ;-)

Oct. 11 2015 01:22 AM
Eric Nagy from Charlottesville, VA

LOVE YOUR SHOW! But - In the "Story of Me" segment a lot is made of what non-human animals can't do - i.e. can't imagine new things, can't weave a narrative, etc. In fact this is the basis of the entire segment. I am a biologist and am sitting here wondering "how in the world does this guest scientist KNOW what non-human animals can do in their brains?" Answer is - we have NO IDEA that any of these claims are true. Sounds like good old-fashioned human arrogance to me. Did you ask him how he know all this? Behavioral scientists and psychologists are just barely scratching the surface of what animals "think." Disappointed you let this go. We are just animals, more similar to our cousins than we have historically assumed.

Oct. 10 2015 05:09 PM

The thought that "the notion of the self coming from many neurons firing is paradoxical", I think, is paradoxical on its own self.

I mean why you (or indeed anyone at all) find it a paradox since the concept of emergence is something that you came in contact from a very young age already? You don't say "the trees", for example, you say "the forest". And no those are not synonyms, a forest has additional properties than those provided from one tree or a few trees, it's a different "creature" altogether.

Same story with cities and towns. There's a reason why we have a different name for "amassed dwellings". It's not a quirk of language (actually it exists in all the languages I'm aware of), it's because those two (a city and a town) *are* different things.

So yeah it's possible from something "simple" (i.e. a neuron) when it is in abundance and interconnected in specific ways out to come something complex (i.e. the sense of self). It's not paradoxical, it's simply how the world works.

So "I'm not my neurons", instead "I'm the product of the neurons when they work in unison" and it's possible that I'll cease to be if most of them are gone away (i.e. due to some trauma). Like a city reverts into a town and suddenly it's a different "thing", so would my own sense of self. It may revert to the hazy state that it was when I was a toddler, or to sth even less than that. A "person" can die or even be "less alive" even if their body keeps on living.

Jun. 11 2015 05:14 AM
Theresa LeGrps from Tucson, AZ

Loved the show, but I was disturbed by one portion describing chimps and self-recognition. As a biological anthropologist, two things struck me.

First, the show repeatedly summarized the chimp self-recognition studies by grouping the chimps as monkeys. Phylogenetically, chimps are members of the great ape group of which humans are also a part. In contrast, our common understanding of monkeys is as a more distantly related group (e.g., baboons). While an academic argument could be made to group chimps and humans as monkeys, for the sake of general public understanding, it is more responsible to accurately represent chimps as our closely related cousins by using the ape designation.

As a reference, calling chimps monkeys is something like calling dolphins fish.

Why is that important when it comes to public understanding of the species? In terms of whales, we promote an accurate understanding because humans identify more with a mammal as a close relative with great intellectual capacity that cares for young, is more social, etc. And humans tend to act on behalf of those with whom we relate.

For chimps,the same holds. Chimp and bonobo genetics and behavior share tremendous overlap with humans, as well as a fairly recent common ancestor. I sometimes look to the common chimp or the bonob as my own mirror for understanding human behavior, while of course also understanding them as unique species with unique traits and behaviors.

In respecting this relationship, and in understanding ourselves as one among many species, that brings me to the second point that I found distasteful. After the chimp mirror recognition report, the folks in the show mentioned that some people EVEN advocate for chimps to have legal rights, and they chuckled and said something dismissive to the effect of, "those are the really compassionate people..."

The implication seemed to be that those of us who advocate for humans to consider ourselves as part of the ecosystem rather than as owners of all species are somehow on a social fringe, a subset of radical animal lovers.

On the contrary, understanding that we are one among many species deserving rights is a widely-held ideology. The sense of human entitlement among many of our species is, more and more, becoming an anachronism. I would recommend taking a look at Steven Wise's book, Rattling the Cage, and Sue Ravage-Rumbaugh's publications to learn more about bonobos, chimps and other species in terms of both consciousness and legal rights.

To illustrate: Does it make sense that a brain dead person or an infant has legal rights under personhood laws but a bonobo with greater self-awareness does not? I would never advocate for removing the legal rights for those humans, but I would certainly extend them to the non-humans with greater self-awareness. Indeed, human slaves were once non-people under personhood laws, and today that seems barbaric.

I hope we as a species can continue to evolve in this direction.

Jul. 30 2014 10:20 AM
stanley b klein from ucsb

On "reflection" (oops!) I realize I did not do an adequate job describing the controls (even a subset) that address the question of mirror self-recognition. Rather than try here (particularly since I cannot see how to edit posts and I am a typo machine!), look at J. G. Snodgrass & R. L. Thompson, (Eds.), The self across psychology: Self-awareness, self-recognition, and the self-concept (Vol. 818). Annals of the New
York Academy of Sciences for several papers on the issue.

Jul. 29 2014 08:54 PM
stanley b klein from ucsb

Sorry. Bad typist. The line "The real question is what aspect or aspects of self do these varied findings have license conclusions with respect to?"
should read
"The real question is what aspect or aspects of self do these varied findings license conclusions with respect to? "

Jul. 29 2014 06:31 PM
stanley b klein from ucsb

Another thing. Less than 1/2 the chimps in the mirror recognition task pass the test. Fewer than 10% of gorillas.

Humans prior to the age of 4 pass the test but fail if they are shown a video of themselves with a post it in their hair (place there without their knowledge)taken 3 minutes earlier. By age 4 75% of the children use the video to remove the unwanted piece of paper. So, what is mirror self-recognition (or camera self-recognition)? Knowledge of self at a moment (now) but not of self as a temporal continuant (i.e., 3 minutes ago in the exact same location) until age 4?

Lots of interpretive issues. Not about the fact of self-recognition (that is well-established by more methodological controls than I care to recount).
The real question is what aspect or aspects of self do these varied findings have license conclusions with respect to? And that is something no cognitive or neuroscientist can shed light on (and few have made a serious, conceptually coherent attempt at doing.

Jul. 29 2014 06:27 PM
stanley b klein from ucsb

From John S "But what if the chimp is simply thinking 'there's another chimp over there with a red dot on his head, I wonder if I have one there too? Let me check...". That would not be self recognition let alone awareness, but apparently this is settled science. Perhaps I am missing something"

I think you are. And it is part of the extreme difficulty of being coherent (see my email below that someone disliked) on this topic. One cannot argue that "perhaps I have one" and simultaneously adopt the position that mirror self-recognition is not indicative of self-recognition. Your answer overlooks the actual research -- which shows repeatedly that with chimps raised in isolation (and human children prior to age 18-24 months), looking in a mirror is not used to guide behavior. In fact, a chimp exposed to a mirror (when raised in isolation) will not use the mirror in any way to direct his or her self-exploration. The animal reacts to the image either with indifference, fear or aggression. It does not use the image as a representation of its own body nor has it seen another chimp to compare with itself.

There are many other controls. The folk doing the research are not simpletons and a large number of experimental controls are built into these tests.

In short, fair question. Familiarize yourself with the research (I have no idea how this segment was presented as I did not hear it) and you will see it is easily accommodated by the methods.

Jul. 29 2014 06:05 PM
stanley b klein from ucsb

No. You are thinking of Marc Hauser. Completely different set of studies and very different people.

Hauser (accused fraud) is from Harvard. Mirror self-recognition is tired and true, and has been applied by many (the original studies were done @ 1970 by Gordon Gallup -- not of the polling Gallups)to primates (humans included) elephants, dolphins, avians...).

It works fine. The issue is what does it tell us about the self? No one is sure. The late Robert Hernstein (behaviorist) taught pigeons to self-recognize in virtue of making this point. But fraud is not part of the problem with mirror self-recognition.

Jul. 29 2014 05:56 PM
Michael Hoober from Lancaster, PA

Wasn't the monkey recognition in mirror experiment determined to be fraud?

Jul. 29 2014 04:21 PM
John S from Central PA

This show is always interesting. I have an issue with the conclusion from one of the experiments from today's show. They do what I guess is call the 'mirror test', put a red dot on a chimp's forehead and if he touches it after seeing it on himself in the mirror it shows he is self-recognition and likely even self-awareness. But what if the chimp is simply thinking 'there's another chimp over there with a red dot on his head, I wonder if I have one there too? Let me check...". That would not be self recognition let alone awareness, but apparently this is settled science. Perhaps I am missing something, maybe the chimp submitted a notarized statement, but short of that I'm not clear how they can be so certain the chimp knows its himself. And in this radiolab show that's how it was presented, as a given fact.

Jul. 29 2014 03:18 PM
gg from North Carolina

You need to get some philosophers of mind in on this. The scientists are limited. A good start is Thomas Nagel.
I had a brain "injury"-I might say self-inflicted since it was my own immune system in a situation called paraneoplastic syndrome when I had lymphoma. At any rate, my left brain was attacked by my own immune system and I have never been the same since.
I think that "brain injury" does not change what a person is, but ends up revealing heretofore unseen aspects of a person. Like the breaking open of a rock and revealing more of the insides. This also messes up however many years of outer polishing socialization has accomplished.
Also-when I was operating under the influence of my right brain during my brain illness, I understood things in a new way that has mostly remained with me. I am certain of this: we know nothing of the experience of animals, even one so simple as an earthworm.

Jul. 29 2014 12:10 AM
DWELLENS from Imperial Beach, CA

The problem with this episode is that it is based on a faulty premise, that the mind is in the brain. In truth, the brain, the body, and the entire universe is in the mind, being projected outward like a 3D movie, which is why none of the segments were able to fully answer WHO AM I.

Brains do no thinking, only the mind. The brain is a complex processor that does only what the mind directs. Our state of mind dictates the state of our experience, which is what explains the ‘placebo effect’. What we believe (think) becomes our reality.

WHO AM I is more accurately stated as WHAT AM I? We are so bonded to the concept of limited physical form defining ‘me’, the idea of our reality being something like formless mind is too disconcerting to grasp, but that is our WHAT.

One need only delve into the phenomena of near-death experiences (NDEs) and past/in-between life progressions to realize we are NOT our body. WHO we seem to be has been an artificially ‘separated’ mind, traversing time, and projecting out a myriad of separate Prodigal Parable misadventures.

Cause & Effect, and the Law of Projection are the two most fundamental principles in understanding WHAT we are. What the mind believes, creates our experience (Cause & Effect). How it does this is through projection. Every dream we have when we sleep demonstrates this principle. Through projection, we actually create and destroy universes all the time in our dreams, but, because their ‘reality’ is illusory in origin, they have no lasting effects.

Think of things in terms of our story vs our REALITY. Our story (what we choose to believe about our ‘self’: race, gender, body type, culture, language, etc.) is projected out ‘into’ an illusory universe that is as transitory and ever-changing as our experience in it. Compare that with what everyone realizes on some level, that LOVE (without form, like mind), is the most important thing ‘in’ the universe, and we have a good indication of an ETERNAL REALITY that supersedes the form of our story.

Now we are able to start honing in on the question you were attempting to answer. Formless LOVE, which is an ‘idea’ in the mind, is WHAT we are, regardless of whatever story we seem to come up with. The only reason why brain-worshippers can seem to hone in on areas of the brain that can be seen as LOVE-receptors, is that they are witnessing an EFFECT of the thought of LOVE in the mind. The brain generates nothing.

All is mind, and there is nothing else. The entire concept of ‘separate’ minds is the basis of all illusion. This becomes evident in every experience we have when we CONNECT with another in LOVE and realize ONENESS, not separation.

ONENESS in LOVE is our REALITY, all else is illusion. The WHAT we are is LOVE, the WHO we are is simply our story.

Jul. 28 2014 10:04 AM
Charlie D'oh from Durham, NC

The Homunculus Revealed

The surgeon probes: What’s this? Nurse! Look at this!
Nurse: My God, doctor. Quick. Catch him, before he digs into that tissue.
Surgeon: Got him
The surgeon Holds up tiny little man by the scruff of his collar with tweezers
Tiny Little Voice: Hey, put me down you son of a bitch. Put me down. If you don’t put me back in there (pointing at patient’s brain) I’m gonna tell God.
Surgeon: OK, OK. Take it easy.First I’m gonna put you in the palm of my hand so I don’t choke you.
He turns to the nurse: Nurse, squeeze some of that jelly on my hand so he can’t run away.
He puts the little man on his gloved hand and the little man tries to run but slips and slides and falls into the gelatinous goo on top of the latex surface.
Surgeon: Hah hah hah.
Tiny Little Voice: Look here, you over-paid, self-important, manually dexterous fat head: you do not know who you are dealing with. I can put in a call to my cousin… up there. The little man points to the surgeon’s head.
Surgeon: (incredulous) No, You can’t?
Tiny Little Man: Yes I can. So if you don’t put me back, I’ll get Larry up there to make you grope your nurse friend, right here in this operating theater, in front of all these technicians. You will never work in this hospital again, I can tell you that.
The Nurse looks at the doctor, fear and desire dancing across her face.
The surgeon notices the nurse’s expression and in a flash he too succumbs to a rush of mixed feelings. But his rational thought rallies inexplicably, as if driven by some unseen force. Well, OK. But let me just do one little experiment.
Tiny Little Man: You mean on him?…the patient there, etherized upon the table. What you gonna do? Recite some poetry to see how he processes it without me in there?
Surgeon: No, not poetry, not on him. That’s a good idea, though.
Tiny Little Man: Wait, let me guess: You want to know if I have a homunculus?
Surgeon: Well, sort of. Let me ask you something. How do you feel about yourself?
Tiny Little Man. Huh? What do you mean. Like, do I like myself? So you are asking if, in the act of liking, I would like me liking me? Jeez…..Believe me, there is no profit in that kind of stuff. I have a great uncle, Lenny, he got caught in a storm of infinite regress like that when his host got out of the shower one day…I say, just leave it alone, the subject, that is; just leave it be. And put me back, god dammit or I’m gonna call my cousin.

The neurosurgeon and the nurse scramble to complete the procedure, pop the skull back on, and gather all the technicians in a circle. Repeat after me, the surgeon says, urgently looking each of them in the eye: What goes on the Broadman Area Four between the precentral sulcus in front, the medial longitudinal fissure at the top, the central sulcus in back, and the lateral sulcus along the bottom, stays there.

from the blog, CharlieD'oh, at

Jul. 28 2014 01:12 AM
Julian from North Carolina

Outstanding show! There were a few trivial errors but on the whole it was extremely well done. It's interesting how the view of self as understood by modern neuroscience is very similar to the view of "not self" (anatman) taught by in the buddhist tradition.

Jul. 27 2014 07:46 PM
stan klein

sorry about the repat posts. Office computer slow and my index finger too fast.

Jul. 27 2014 05:23 PM
stan klein from UCSB

Ignore previous comment -- too full of typos.

Please. this is a public information station. Try to get folk who (a) know the topic, (b) know the issues and (c) can even offer a coherent idea of the topic (e.g., self) without reversion into incoherent circularity (e.g., the host cleverly croons the "self is a story the self tells itself". Oh my god!!

These "experts" have no clue to the logical incoherence of their blather -- e.g.the UK "expert worries, "an immaterial self? No. How would we know when we found it?"

Well, I do not know. And neither do you. But immaterial does not necessarily mean it cannot be known. Not everything knowable is knowable by science (if there is a proof to the contrary produce it and win a Nobel prize for comprehending a method of demonstrating conclusively all reality.)

The inability to know the nature of reality in its fullness (not just its [possibly complete] material aspects) could be true at almost any time (electrons? How would we Greeks of 450BC know when we found one?)

And please, no materialist presumptions (else stop blithering on about what is in the mind of worms and monkey or even people. You do not know and cannot know. Radiology is correlative neural action and not numerically identical with thought). 2000 years ago no one could even imagine a world in which subatomic particles could be known (they could, and did, imagine atoms might exist, but no ideas were available for how one would know ever detect their presence).

Science changes in ways that are predictable (but not with great accuracy). Aspects of the self have no apparent material presence -- despite the ready availability neuro-scientific promissory notes to the contrary!: But that is a materialist hubris and more; it is simply the expression of a prejudice that "current" techniques cannot -- and thus never shall -- capture aspects of reality that we are unable to see and touch (even 2nd or 3rd hand). Says who? Proof? Reduction is an obvious lazy and ill-conceived goal for those too uninformed to consider the conceptual of their stance.

This is not an argument for dualism, immaterialism, pluralism, non-reductive physical monism... It is to say the material reduction is dogma -- not logically or empirically sanctioned knowledge.

As for the self. get someone on your show who actually has an appreciation of the issues and an understanding of the complexities so we don't have to listen to (a) self-referential question begging propositions or (b) pontification absent familiarity with either the conceptual issues or even the empirical findings (for example, I have published several papers showing amnesics with no episodic memory (i.e., narrative deficit) can have a diachronic sense of self with little problem.)

I am now rambling and I don't feel like editing or going further. Just a final statement -- you do a serious issue no public good when you broadcast such uninformed nonsense as authoritative.

Jul. 27 2014 05:13 PM
stan klein from UCSB

I just had the misfortune of hearing a part of your podcast "who am I". I had to pull over the car to listen -- almost beyond belief what these so-called "experts" were saying (one of the hosts, Rmamsamdran and some UK neuro psychologist).

Please. this is a public information station. Try to get folk who (a) know the topic, (b) know the issues and (c) can even offer a coherent idea of the topic (self) without reversion into endless, incoherent circularity (e.g., the host cleverly croons the "self is a story the self tells itself".

Oh my god!!

These "experts" have no clue to the logical incoherence of their blather -- e.g., "an immaterial self? No. How would we know when we found it?"

The same lack of insight into the nature of reality could be posed to any one at almost any time (electron? How would we Greeks of antiquity know when we found one? And please, no materialist presumptions (else stop blithering on about what is in the mind of worms and monkey or even people). 2000 years ago no one could even imagine a world in which subatomic particles could be known (they could, and did imagine they might exist, but no ideas were available for how one would know their presence).

Science changes and in ways that are predictable (but not with any accuracy). A self (or soul, or consciousness) has no apparent material presence -- despite neroscientific promissory notes!): But that is a materialist prejudice and more, it is a prejudice that "current" techniques cannot and thus never shall capture aspects of reality that we are unable to see and touch (even 2nd or 3rd hand).

Who made our personal cognitive and perceptual limitations the arbiter of what is real? To close the door is simply hubris and contradicted by the very principles of modern science (Plank's tiny spaces and the vast undetermined nature of reality beyond the light cone. this is not an argument for dualism, immaterialism, pluralism, non-reductive physical monism... It is to say the material reduction is dogma not logically or empirically sanctioned knowledge.

As for the self. get someone on who has an understanding of the complexities so we don't have to listen to (a) self-referential question begging propositions or (b) pontification absent familiarity with either the conceptual issues or even the empirical findings (I have published several findings showing amnesics with no episodic memory (i.e., narrative deficit) can have a diachronic sense of self with little issue.

I am now rambling and I don't feel like editing or going further. Just a final statement -- you do a serious issue public good when you broadcast such uninformed hubris.

Jul. 27 2014 04:53 PM
Eric Hamell from Philadelphia, PA

Chimpanzees are not monkeys. They are apes (as are humans by one pretty strong cladistic argument).

Jul. 27 2014 01:19 PM
DesertPoc from San Diego, Ca.

Pertaining to the lady that had an aneurysm, I also had an aneurysm in May 21, 1998. I relate to what she said, during my time of being in a coma I dreamed I was in Heaven, which consisted of a beautiful sky - troparia (sp), tall flowing trees (eucalyptus trees) and an angel guide who was very tall plus crowds of people. Then while recovering I was in a war. Since, I have always felt that I died on May 21, 1998 and became another person - such as the woman/mother related within the lab. Thank you for this interview.

Jul. 26 2014 03:44 PM
Vince Petrovsky from Lake Worth, Florida

The lady claiming to have a recollection of a farmer in Vietnam, possibly had her soul replaced by the soul of the man, who's last lifetime was a farmer in Vietnam. These are what are called "Walk Ins" which means that the soul of the body was exchanged for another soul without the body going through a death experience. Modern thinking only thinks of new souls coming to the planet by birth. However, when one ponders this, this is very inefficient process for a soul wanting to come to this planet. Most bodies contain souls and the soul never experiences death, only the body does. When the lady in the story was taken to the hospital, her soul was looking for an exit and the new replacement soul needed a body. The proof is that that the daughter actually grieved the loss of her mother, when her soul realized that the soul in her mother's body wasn't her mother's anymore.

Just because someone does not believe something, does not mean it does not exist. Belief is how our mind navigates through this dimension, and belief can change as one grows and experiences life. One's mind controls one's belief.

I casually met a woman who went through a drastic personality change in her 30's, and became a completely different person with the same body. This is an example of a "Walk In." I know of two other people who have experienced the same thing once in their lifetime. The memory of the previous person is integrated with the new soul so that life can carry on in the "new" body.

Jul. 26 2014 12:43 PM
myname from location

Anesthetizing each brain hemisphere is not trivial as the story implies. It's a quite invasive procedure, requiring insertion of a catheter in the femoral artery and guiding it to the left (or right) internal carotid artery in the lower neck to inject the barbiturate drug used. The procedure isn't performed on both hemispheres the same day; it's repeated another day for the other hemisphere.

Since this is a diagnostic procedure used before some types of brain surgery, the subjects tested were likely not a "normal population," and thus the results might not apply to the general population.

Jul. 25 2014 10:43 PM
Ed G. from Central Massachusetts

Thanks for a fascinating discussion of intimate and yet fundamental issues regarding the nexus of consciousness and identity.

I am a layman when it comes to cognitive science but have two observations to offer, if I may:

First, your stories reminded me of a different story about discoveries in neuroscience that I heard somewhere online (or on NPR) a few weeks ago and that I just found in print here: the idea that the "claustrum" is the "router" (my term) between the two hemispheres acting as the kernel of consciousness:

Second, your pieces made sense with regard to the conscious experience of individuals as an interaction between the "rational" and "emotional" memories and mechanisms that seem operating in the left and right hemispheres of the brain, respectively; however, I would respectively take issue with the notion that our "identities" are as finely grained as you suggested.

On the contrary (imo), we rely on "personal" factors such as sex, race, family, ethnicity, religion, profession, etc. to define ourselves as we grow from infants into adults. Those "abstractions" - however much they are grounded in concrete realities - are far more important to the definition of "who we are" as individuals than are the very specific personal experiences that each of us encounters (cases of trauma as exceptions to the rule, perhaps... and even then, our "identity" within the confines of these larger constructs usually survives and prevails).

Perhaps the core function of the claustrum (and this is just conjecture, of course) is to connect the "concept" of these distinct factors as formulated in the left-side of the brain with the "memory" in each of our unique experiences as registered in the right hemisphere... and without that connection, all notion of consciousness and identity is meaningless.

Jul. 25 2014 06:06 PM
Joseph Proskauer from LI, NY; Galloway, Scotland

Thank you for another interesting program, touching essential questions. But you missed an essential opportunity -- scientifically, journalistically, and esthetically:

Having opened with the image of the mirror, I was surprised you didn't end with it as well: didn't anyone suggest considering the brain as mirror of mind -- rather than cause? (Or as organ/instrument: does the violin make the music?) (In days of alchemy and astrology, the brain was associated with mirroring silver and the reflective Moon-- but I guess that's another program.)

And alas, no mention of the pervasive error: The (pseudo-) concept "The brain creates thoughts" turns out not to hold water; it is alogical.

You cannot hold these three views simultaneously (and be consistent):

"The brain creates thoughts."
"That thought is correct and true."
"This argument is logical."

If we posit that the brain (or neurons, or electrochemistry) creates thoughts --
then all thoughts are natural processes (like leaves, or weather) --
so all have equal validity.

For example:

"The brain does not create thoughts"
is as valid as
"The brain creates thoughts;"

there is no logical basis for judging between them
(or for judging anything).

Perhaps a program is needed on those who've seen through this error (Kitaro Nishida, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and many others, including recently, penetratingly, and humorously -- Georg Kühlewind. (He also explicates the development and attenuation of the experience of separation, and its consequences. See his "From Normal to Healthy: Paths to the Liberation of Consciousness," Lindisfarne Books, 1988; 978-0-940262-10-2.) Some prominent living thinkers who are clear on this: Arthur Zajonc, Stephen L. Talbott, B. Alan Wallace, Evan Thompson.

As to how mind and body may integrate, there are riches here:

"The Case for Anthroposophy." Selections from "Von Seelenrätseln" by Rudolf Steiner. Translated, arranged, and introduced by Owen Barfield. See especially Barfield's "Introduction" and "Section VII: Principles of Psychosomatic Physiology." Available on line at .

Jul. 25 2014 10:33 AM
Brian from Baltimore

Fellow Radiolab Junkies! Help me compile a list of the music the ever-so-secretive Jad uses in episodes. Seriously, even if you just know one song it would be a huge help.

P.S.: If you help you will feel a warm and fuzzy feeling in your gut.

Nov. 11 2013 07:05 PM

It's been know for some time that face recognition is located in the right hemisphere: damage to that center causes prosopagnosia. So it's not suprising that the right brain is necessary for recognizing our own faces.

May. 31 2013 06:52 PM
Ron Helpman LCSW from New York City

Not that surprising that the right hemisphere is involved in recognizing your own face. Been known for quite some time that face recognition is located in the right brain.

May. 31 2013 06:40 PM

A compelling story with some massaging of the facts, as sometimes did we get to "without the right hemisphere we wouldn't really know who we are" and "the right us self-awareness" (about 14 minutes in) when the result were about beign able to *visually* recognize *images* of (or similar to) oneself? The study suggests the right hemisphere does, or helps us, "visually recognize images of ourselves" and it not the same thing as the much larger broader claim of it "giving us self-awareness" - self awareness goes way beyond visually recognizing images of oneself. The sense of the self, who we are, what we are, even *that* we are (as a separate entity from "everything else) includes far more than what the study suggests 14 minute in when these leaps are made.

May. 26 2013 06:17 PM
Anne Hudson from Newton, MA

Fascinating program, so much so that I drove around the entire hour listening to it because I didn't want to miss even a few minutes of it.

MIT cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky proposed that the mind is not a single entity but a society in his book, Society of Mind. Although I had not worked out all the details of my theory, in ninth grade I drew a picture of my mind in ninth that represented a motley assembly of my activities and concerns as rodents seated on benches while a facilitator mouse tried to give appropriate amounts of time and attention to each of the voices of my assembled mice/functions.

The Otherness of the dark side of the self is not new. Artistic inspiration as an Other goes back to the ancient idea of the Muse.

May. 26 2013 01:29 PM
jeffrey zygar from Poulsbo, WA

Felt surprised you did not bring up Dr. Eben Alexander's experience he wrote about in "Proof of Heaven," which approaches the "Who am I?" question more subjectively. He does have some support from his colleagues that his brain could not have had the experience he had, and in that way, gives objective input to his experience.

May. 26 2013 12:32 PM
Steven Dante

University of California, Berkley philosophy professor John Searle has some very interesting material on consciousness. I've listerned to some of his lectures on

May. 26 2013 12:28 PM
Rick Evans from 10473

A chimpanzee is not a monkey.

May. 25 2013 03:11 PM
Accra Shepp from New York

When considering the case of the woman who had the aneurysm, a scientist said (I'm paraphrasing here) that we are all an accident away from becoming someone else. Afterwards Jad asks the scientist Paul Broks, what keeps us consistent from day to day.

But if you think about it, we don't stay the same from day to day, neither our physical self nor our mental self. Every day we change into the person we are becoming in that moment. The person that each of us is right now is absolutely different from the person who in previous years might have felt differently about a person now dear or was unaware of a song (yet to be written) that now brings a smile to the face.

The brain is a dynamic organ, constantly changing, adding, editing, becoming - us. So perhaps injury or trauma, instead of upsetting a stasis that never existed, actually alters the change that occurs. Perhaps it speeds it up or slows it down, maybe it effects the very nature of the change, so that instead of building on the narrative from which we construct our lives, it begins a brand new one.

While listening I was reminded of a philosophy lecture in college in which the professor asked us to consider this dilemma. The actual atoms that make up the body of our billions of cells is changing all the time. Imagine a bathtub with the water flowing out the drain and water coming in through the tap. The water level never changes, but the water in the tub is constantly new water. A few structures in the body are longer lived. According to a New York Times article from 2005, the DNA in the cell nucleus and the cells of your bones last about ten years. Considering this information, how is it that we feel a sense of continuity, a sense of permanence within this flow?

May. 25 2013 12:58 PM
Zo Halton

I always find your show interesting. However, I was shocked last night to hear a quote of Pres. Clinton's that he does not deserve to have dug up again. I am grateful to Pres. Clinton and his family (New York State residents and probably listeners to WNYC) for all they have done for this country and this world. Doesn't he deserve respect for this? Or are you really so unforgiving? I think it was a cheap shot.

May. 24 2013 06:00 PM

Thank you so much for this fascinating program.
I would suggest that it is the height of human egotism to believe we know anything whatsoever about the perception of reality by other species... we have no way of knowing what the perceptions of an earthworm or of any other fellow life form are... We have not yet come to fully understand ourselves, let alone other species.
Thanks again, your programs are always a welcome treat (they are "brain candy" of the highest order)

May. 24 2013 12:42 PM
Joe from Elmira, Or

Instead of a past or future life, perhaps the little old man Vegetable farmer the lady saw may be a real person living right now who had an experience similar to hers. Perhaps her soulmate or some such thing. It would be interesting to know if a man in Vietnam woke up one day thinking he was a little old American lady.

May. 23 2013 10:15 PM
Lord Snooty from UK

Another new listener. series 1 episode 1, looking forward to the next 6 months listening!

May. 19 2013 05:54 PM

my s+e teacher told me about radiolab for an assignment and now i listen to it whenever i am doing homework

Mar. 06 2013 04:37 AM
Patricia from Chile

I am a big fan of Radio Lab. I leaned about this show in my English classes and I loved it Since the first time. Thank you to all of you!

Jan. 24 2013 09:41 PM

I am a HUGE Radio Lab fan!
AMAZED by Hannah's mom's story.
I'd really like to know more. Did they collaborate on a book, by any chance?

Thanks for a great show!

Aug. 02 2012 01:55 PM
Hannah Rush from Omaha, Nebraska

I am such a Radio Lab junky - I have listened to every episode numerous times. Cannot get enough. Seriously, marry me you two wonderful people?!

Jul. 12 2012 11:43 AM

I just wanted to say that it sounds like Hannah's mother's accident made her awesome. Now she likes to sing, doesn't worry about death, and loves sex. What's the downside?

May. 16 2012 05:24 PM
Gabriel from Living Room

I am disappointed.

Apr. 26 2012 08:53 PM
Theresa from Chicago, IL

Thank you for existing Radiolab.

Apr. 03 2012 04:23 PM
Parker from Boulder, CO

Anyone what song is playing at 17:30 or so? Please share if you have any idea!

Mar. 20 2012 04:47 PM
margaret from Atlanta, GA

C'mon, guys. Chimps are not monkeys.

Feb. 25 2012 11:16 AM
jenn from NYC

Finally decided to listen to the "Who am I" episode.. I'm about half way through and felt the need to share, that as a coma survivor and a victim of that 'one car crash away' from loosing yourself, this episode is amazing, comforting, and very thought provoking. I've struggled with the idea of myself for the last 10 years and its always fantastic to hear new ideas and conversations about the topic. As always, great job Radio Lab.

Jan. 25 2012 03:33 PM

I just found out about Radiolab today and I love it! It makes me think and open my mind to whole new things. I listened to the cast entitled "Words" and fell in love. I've downloaded two pod casts and listen to them when I'm doing my homework tonight. Keep up the great work guys. oh yea, Thanks to my English teacher for introducing me to RadioLab!

Jan. 18 2012 03:08 PM
Kiefer from ON, Canada

After listening to the story of Hannah's mother, i could help but be reminded of the story of Mark Hogancamp and his creation 'Marwencol'.

Oct. 26 2011 11:51 AM
Alex B from Oregon

Wow, I didn't realize OPB radio was playing such old episodes of Radiolab. But a fascinating piece on Hannah's mother. It's interesting to consider how much of the dramatic change was the result of some aspects of her personality being re-set, via the shedding some of her inhibiting social conditioning and/or the re-wiring of parts of her brain. And how much was an independent process of coming to the realization that life is too fragile to get excessively mired in superficial minutia.

Oct. 22 2011 04:35 PM

i don't know if any of you had the opportunity of reading 1Q84, the Haruki Murakami novel...
Well, i just want to say that now i know where the little people came from

Aug. 24 2011 09:44 AM
Kat from Brooklyn, NY

i is you is we =)

Apr. 14 2011 06:11 PM
AHarburg from Ann Arbor

I found the commentary by one of the neuroscientists a little irritating. He states that he doesn't believe the soul is immaterial then asks what it would look like if one found it. If it's immaterial (which is not synonymous with substance-less) it means it is not material thus cannot be experienced by the senses. It is beyond it.

Apr. 01 2011 05:20 PM
Simon F from Miami, Florida

I was very interested in the "little people" segment. Now I want to go to sleep and see if I too can trigger an amazing story.

Feb. 23 2011 12:55 AM
Aline from Paris

Such an amazing documentary! Hannah Palin's account of her mother's story actually made me smile and cry and the same time...
Beautiful and informative. Love it.

Feb. 12 2011 09:53 AM
Martin Z from New Zealand

How in the world can you guys do a program entitled "Who Am I?" without any mention of the concept of non-duality?

Although generally considered as belonging to the spiritual realm (Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, etc.), non-duality is a "singularity" or Void which many scientific explorers - of both the physical and psychological worlds - are increasingly finding themselves staring into, however reluctantly.

You dance to the edge of the precipice, revealing the notion of self (ego) as nothing more than a narrative, in essence, illusion perpetuated by memory. You even flirt with the well-worn analogy of becoming lost in the drama of a movie, which is clearly nothing more than a series of still frames (thoughts/mentations) strung together in time (memory) to give the illusion of substance or continuity (self).

But the movie, however captivating, only exists because of the screen the light is projected on, which remains prior, timeless, unchanged and unperturbed throughout. The screen is Awareness, and that Awareness (the "I am" that has no attributes) is ultimately the only irreducible answer to your question.

Of course, we cannot truly KNOW this true self in any intellectual sense, we can only BE it. Just as the eye ("I") has space enough to hold the entire world, and yet cannot see itself.

"The mind cannot know what is beyond the mind, but the mind is known by what is beyond it."

Feb. 07 2011 03:33 AM
Simon-P from Montréal

I don't really like the description "The "mind" and "self" were formerly the domain of philosophers and priests." ... like if it was no more than science domain. Philosophy is a normative project and not a descriptive one like science... or even when it pretends to be descriptive, it is on an other level than science. (You cannot say Kant was an "old-school" psychologist. Why? Because he doesn't describe the mind itself but the necessity of certain mind capacities in order to tell for sure that we can deduce from seing object A hitting object B that A "causes" B.)

Your own show about emergence is anyway a sign that reductionnism is not necessarily the best epistemic theory (and even though you accept reductionnism, you cannot "reduce" a science and philosophy).

Dec. 05 2010 04:58 PM

Totally Loved It!!!!!

Nov. 20 2010 10:00 PM
Lyssa from astoria, ny

hey guys! great work. i'm hooked.

i was wondering about the piece of music you play during the sleep podcast. i want it! what is it? i think you play a few, but this one is on for a while; it's very atmospheric. reminds me of waves. i love it.

Nov. 18 2010 03:29 PM
James Bros from Brooklyn College

I am at my college cafe library on the computer listening to "Who I am" for an exam tomorrow and I actually like it. it is very educational to listen to Radiolab about "Who am I" espisode 1. Thank to my professor for introduce me to Radiolab

Nov. 07 2010 09:02 PM

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