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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 [9]

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 [7]

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 [36]

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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