Jan 25, 2011

You Are Here

When Sharon Roseman was five years old, something strange happened. She was playing a game with her friends, and when she took off her blindfold--she didn't know where she was. She was lost on her own block, in her own backyard. For most of her life, Sharon feared it was all in her head, and kept her troubles a secret. Until she saw something on TV that led her to get in touch with Dr. Guiseppe Iaria, who helped her find a diagnosis...and a friend with the same condition. And Sharon's story begs the question--how do we know where we are? What does it take to be able to walk down the hall, or down the block, and back? Jonah Lehrer explains the very recent science that's helping unlock how our brains make maps from moment to moment. Along the way, Karen Jacobsen, who calls herself "the GPS Girl" (her voice can be heard in GPS units in millions of cars around the world), helps Jad and Robert navigate the episode's twists and turns.

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Jad Abumrad: Wait, you're listening.

Speaker: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: All right.

Speaker: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: All right.

Speaker: You're listening-

Jad Abumrad: Listening.

Speaker: - to Radiolab-

Speaker: Radiolab.

Speaker: From.

Jad Abumrad: WNYC.

Speaker: C.

Speaker: C?

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

Speaker: And NPR.

IVR: Please enter your address.

Jad Abumrad: Denver, Colorado.

IVR: Calculating route.

Robert Krulwichr: I'll move closer to you.

Sharon Roseman: Okay, now I'm getting closer to him, woo.

Robert Krulwich: I promise I won't bite you.


Jad Abumrad: We begin our journey this hour.

Sharon Roseman: How old are you?

Robert Krulwich: I'm 42.

Sharon Roseman: Oh, man, I'm 63, this isn't going to work.


Robert Krulwich: I don't know.

Jad Abumrad: With this woman, her name is Sharon Roseman.

Sharon Roseman: Okay, enough of that.

Robert Krulwich: Enough of that, all right. We're going to talk about a little predicament she got herself into.

Sharon Roseman: I was about five years old. I lived in a small suburb of Chicago called Maywood, Illinois. I was outside playing on the street.

Jad Abumrad: Her and a bunch of kids, they were playing this game.

Sharon Roseman: Blind man's bluff.

Jad Abumrad: She was "it".

Sharon Roseman: The person who was "it" wears a blindfold and all the other kids try and scatter around and they have to freeze, and then they can taunt and you can only hear them.

Jad Abumrad: The objective is basically to feel around, follow the voices until you tag someone.

Sharon Roseman: Then they become "it".

Jad Abumrad: That's what she does.

Sharon Roseman: Everybody laughs because the person that I tagged is the loser because they found out first. I'm playing the game and they took the blindfold off, and suddenly, I didn't know where I was. I didn't recognize anything. This horrible panic set in because nothing looked familiar to me, absolutely nothing. I ran blindly just running just to run because I was so scared. I ran into the back area of this house in front of me and I saw my mother sitting in a lawn chair.

I said, "Why are you here?" and she said, "What? What do you mean why am I here?" I said, "Why are you in this backyard? Where are we?" She said, "What are you talking about? We're at home. I'm in the backyard." I said, "But this isn't our house," and she said, "Yes, this is. What are you talking about?" I couldn't explain it and I just kept crying and just kept saying, "I don't know where I'm at."

Robert Krulwich: Your mother must have been very worried at that moment.

Sharon Roseman: Unfortunately, my mother said something to me that actually changed my life forever. She pointed a finger in my face and she said, "Don't ever tell anybody because they'll say you're a witch and they'll burn you."

Jad Abumrad: What?

Sharon Roseman: Yes.

Jad Abumrad: A witch?

Robert Krulwich: She said that because you--

Sharon Roseman: I don't know and from that moment on, it was my secret.


Jad Abumrad: She realizes now that what happened to her in that moment when she was five and playing the game was that her whole world had rotated.

Sharon Roseman: A quarter turn.

Jad Abumrad: A quarter turn.

Robert Krulwich: A quarter turn.

Sharon Roseman: Picture where you're sitting right now.

Robert Krulwich: Yes.

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

Sharon Roseman: You would still be sitting in that same room, but the wall that you're looking at right in front of you is now one wall over to the right.

Robert Krulwich: Let me make it easier. If I were on the toilet, say, sitting there looking straight ahead, is now the bathtub in a different place than it was before, the sink in a different place by about 90 degrees?

Sharon Roseman: Yes, everything, everything in the entire universe.

Jad Abumrad: Just horizontally, it doesn't tilt or--?

Sharon Roseman: No, it doesn't tilt. East, west, becomes north, south. In Colorado here, the mountains, the Rocky Mountains around the west end of town, when this happens to me, they move to the north end of town, but everything else moves with it.

Robert Krulwich: The first time that happened, you say you didn't know where you were, yet you recognized things, but they just weren't where they were supposed to be?

Sharon Roseman: No, I didn't even recognize them. That very first time, I was so panicked I just didn't know what to do.

Robert Krulwich: Did it ever happen again?

Sharon Roseman: Over and over and over.


Jad Abumrad: I get lost all the time as do you, but that's--

Robert Krulwich: Yes, this is different.

Jad Abumrad: Yes, before we go any further, let's just orient real quick. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad: This is Radiolab this hour.

Robert Krulwich: Recording at Lost & Found, so we're going to be experiencing the feelings like Sharon just had of being totally lost.

Jad Abumrad: Then that relief that you feel, as Sharon will feel, eventually, of being totally found.

Robert Krulwich: Oh, not totally. Let's go back to her story. Did it ever happen again?

Sharon Roseman: Over and over and over.

Jad Abumrad: She says this 90-degree rotation problem would come on in all kinds of situations, sometimes even when she had her eyes closed.

Sharon Roseman: What saved me was that shortly after that first episode, I went to a little birthday party and we were playing pin the tail on the donkey and they put a blindfold on me and spun me in circles.

Jad Abumrad: You must have been like, "Oh, man."

Robert Krulwich: You didn't want to do that.

Sharon Roseman: It was awful.

Jad Abumrad: Because after that first turn, everything did shift.

Sharon Roseman: Then on the second turn-

Jad Abumrad: On the second turn when they spun her around again.

Sharon Roseman: - it fixed it.

Jad Abumrad: Really?

Robert Krulwich: Really?

Sharon Roseman: Yes.

Robert Krulwich: That's so weird.

Sharon Roseman: If I played a third time, crazy again.

Jad Abumrad: So it's binary, it's like on-off, on-off.

Sharon Roseman: Exactly, but I couldn't tell anybody that.

Jad Abumrad: Now she had a fix or a temporary fix. From that moment on, anytime her world would shift.

Sharon Roseman: I would go into the bathroom and I'd close the door so nobody could see me and I would spin in circles until it fixed it.

Robert Krulwich: You spin and it reasserts itself correctly.

Sharon Roseman: Yes, and I still do that to this day.

Jad Abumrad: Even in public stalls when she has to, which can be humiliating.

Sharon Roseman: Because what would you think if you went into a bathroom and you saw somebody's feet going round and round and round?

Jad Abumrad: In any case, with this secret spinning technique, Sharon has sort of been able to get by. She got married, had three kids.

Sharon Roseman: When my children were babies, if one of them would cry out, just cry out in their sleep.

Jad Abumrad: Invariably she'd wake up.

Sharon Roseman: Being into a wall.

Jad Abumrad: Completely turned around.

Sharon Roseman: Then I would have to follow their cries, the sound of their cries until I could find their bedroom. There was no explanation for that. I had to just say I was clumsy.

Jad Abumrad: So you never told them.

Sharon Roseman: No, and my husband didn't know, and I'm not married to him anymore, and you can leave that in there.


Jad Abumrad: Good point is she kept it a secret, but one day when Sharon was 29, she was on her way to her brother's house and she got turned around.

Sharon Roseman: I called him from a payphone and I said, I can't find your house.

Jad Abumrad: She read him the names of the street signs.

Sharon Roseman: He said, "Sharon, you're like two blocks from my house." I just started crying and I told him the story. He was just shocked.


Jad Abumrad: He dragged you to the hospital and they saw some specialists.

Sharon Roseman: They kept me in the hospital for like a week doing every kind of test you can imagine and it showed nothing. They basically told me it was psychological.

Jad Abumrad: Like it's all in your head?

Sharon Roseman: Yes.

Jad Abumrad: Wow.

Robert Krulwich: That you were the only one in the whole universe who had this problem.

Sharon Roseman: Yes. I thought, okay, I must be a witch.


Robert Krulwich: That's a crazy story.

Jad Abumrad: Okay, just to pull out for a bit. After we talk with Sharon, we ended up speaking with, well, if you've heard Radiolab before, you probably know that voice.

Jonah Lehrer: Jonah Lehrer?

Robert Krulwich: Don't ask it like a question.

Jonah Lehrer: Jonah Lehrer.

Robert Krulwich: Yes, that's it.

Jad Abumrad: Yes, there you go. Jonah is a science writer and an author.

Jonah Lehrer: My last book was How We Decide.

Jad Abumrad: He knows a lot about the brain. We played him a tape from the Sharon interview just to see what he think and he had an interesting take.

Jonah Lehrer: It's just one of these great windows into this talent we completely take for granted and you realize this is such sophisticated software. There are so many different algorithms that are running that allow us to not get lost in the way to the bathroom.

Jad Abumrad: One way to think about this story, he says, is not why does Sharon get lost all the time, but why don't the rest of us?

Jonah Lehrer: Yes, exactly, and a lot of this is brand new science. We're talking the last three, four, five years.

Robert Krulwich: In that time, he says, scientists have just begun to figure out how brains make maps of our surroundings from moment to moment.

Jonah Lehrer: They've identified at least four different types of cells that make these maps possible. Everything from place cells to grid cells to border cells.

Jad Abumrad: Like can we go through a place?

Robert Krulwich: Place cells?

Jonah Lehrer: No, we'll slow down, but all these cells come together to give us these incredibly rich maps.

Robert Krulwich: This all began to make more sense to us when Jonah said, "Okay, let me do it this way. I just took a trip into this office building. I'm sitting in a radio station. Now let me do the same thing as I did it in my brain; I got out of my car, I walked to the front of the building."

Jonah Lehrer: I open up the door and somehow someway my brain begins to make sense of the space.

Robert Krulwich: The first thing that happens, he says, is little cells in his head called grid cells. Come on, mind.

Jonah Lehrer: Grid cells are pretty weird, I got to be honest.

Robert Krulwich: Before he's even taken a step into the building, these grid cells are like mappers or surveyors, they just lay on a grid. This grid, this matrix.

Robert Krulwich: Over the hallway right in front of him.

Jonah Lehrer: Unbeknownst to me, that grid is composed of equilateral triangles.

Robert Krulwich: Triangles.

Jad Abumrad: Wait what?

Jonah Lehrer: Triangles. Yes, it's pretty spooky. As I'm walking down the hallway, I pass from one triangle to the next, my brain is keeping track of exactly which triangle I'm in. I pass by a wall, so some border cells go off.

Speaker: Avoid the concrete wall.

Jonah Lehrer: Which just respond to borders, edges, physical limits. I look to my right, and my head direction cells change, but then they change back.

Robert Krulwich: Wait, head direction cells?

Jonah Lehrer: There's a head direction neuron firing all the time when I'm facing dead ahead, and when I turn my head to the left, that neuron stops firing. We have a new head direction neuron firing. Now I'm back to the dead ahead. I turn to the right, new head direction neuron firing, dead ahead.

Robert Krulwich: These cells keep you oriented so you know where you are in the grid, and now it's time to fill in the details, and this is where things get really cool.

Speaker: Proceed down the corridor.

Jonah Lehrer: As I take a couple of more steps, now my play cells are probably beginning to get active.


It's the I'm here cell.

Robert Krulwich: It's like for every landmark in the space each body passes by, the brain will drop a little hint. It's like an I'm here pin.

Speaker: Here at the coffee table.

Robert Krulwich: Then I'm here.

Karen: At the potted plant.

Robert Krulwich: I'm here.

Karen: At the door in the studio.

Robert Krulwich: So now.

Jonah Lehrer: As I imagine myself walking from this little closet-like space back to my car, as I pass by the coffee table with the magazines, that place cell fires. Now I'm by the front door, that place cell fires. Now I'm on the sidewalk, that place cell fires. Now I'm by my car, that place cell fires.

Robert Krulwich: When you put it all together, the place cells, the grid cells, the border cells, what you get, he says.

Jonah Lehrer: Is just a symphony of electricity, which somehow is translated for me into an idea of a space.

Robert Krulwich: This whole neuron symphony, it mostly takes place in a particular part of the brain.

Jonah Lehrer: The hippocampus.

Robert Krulwich: So if Jonah were to just hazard a guess about Sharon.

Jonah Lehrer: She should get her hippocampus checked out is what she should do.


Jad Abumrad: That's just a guess. Now getting back to that story.

Sharon Roseman: Even though I was 29, I was an adult, I had children.

Jad Abumrad: The point at which we left off, Sharon had gone to the hospital, gotten a bunch of tests, and the doctors told her.

Sharon Roseman: That I needed to go see a psychiatrist. I felt like a freak, but then one day, years after that, I was watching some TV show.

Reporter: Imagine scanning a crowd.

Jad Abumrad: It was a Newsy 2020 type thing about face blindness.

Speaker: Face blindness.

Jad Abumrad: People who can't recognize faces, and at the end of the show, the reporter mentions this website.

Sharon Roseman: To the website.

Jad Abumrad: Sharon goes, she was curious, and when she gets there, this little window pops up that asked her if she wants to take a survey.

Sharon Roseman: I thought, "I'll do it," and it was mostly questions about face recognition, but as I got deeper and deeper into the questionnaire, the questions started turning more to, have you ever experienced being in a place that should look familiar to you but suddenly does not? I was like, "Oh my gosh, that's me," and asked for explanation. I was just typing away and typing away.

Jad Abumrad: Eventually, she meets the doctor who would finally de-witch her.

Guiseppe Iaria: My name is Giuseppe Iaria. I'm a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Calgary.

Jad Abumrad: Do you have a strong sense of direction?

Giuseppe Iaria: I don't actually. [chuckles] I'm not a gifted direction guy.

Jad Abumrad: Giuseppe had this idea that maybe, just like face blindness, there could be such a thing as location blindness, so he asked Sharon to go online and play this game.

Giuseppe Iaria: Sort of video game.

Sharon Roseman: It's like virtual reality.

Giuseppe Iaria: Not like when you have to shoot people and find people and blah, blah, blah.

Sharon Roseman: The screen would be showing you these landmarks like a flower shop,-

Giuseppe Iaria: The bar, -

Sharon Roseman: - bank, -

Giuseppe Iaria: - the bakery.

Sharon Roseman: - and then eventually, I needed to be able to say--

Giuseppe Iaria: Where things are with respect to one another.

Sharon Roseman: Well, nothing. Not even a guess for me, and it actually made me physically ill.

Jad Abumrad: Then Guiseppe told her something. Before you, I'd met this woman.

Giuseppe Iaria: This lady was complaining about orientation.

Jad Abumrad: She also failed this test, so I brought her in.

Giuseppe Iaria: To the lab.

Jad Abumrad: Had her play the game.

Giuseppe Iaria: In the MRI scanner.

Jad Abumrad: In the brain scanner.

Giuseppe Iaria: We were able to find activity all over the brain.

Jad Abumrad: Except in one little place.

Giuseppe Iaria: We were not able to detect any increased activity within the hippocampus.

Jad Abumrad: Which just so happens to be the home of Jonah's little guys.

Jonah Lehrer: Play cells, border cells, grid cells.

Sharon Roseman: That particular part of the brain, the hippocampus, just never developed. At that point, that's when Giuseppe--

Jad Abumrad: For the first time told her this thing has a name.

Sharon Roseman: DTD for developmental topographical disorientation.

Giuseppe Iaria: Developmental topographical disorientation.

Jad Abumrad: That's not trivial because when something like this has a name, suddenly it's not your fault.

Sharon Roseman: I felt like I was reborn. I keep telling him, "You are my hero. You'll always be my hero."

Robert Krulwich: Have you ever met Sharon face to face?

Giuseppe Iaria: I haven't and we are supposed to meet now in this fall.

Jad Abumrad: What if you meet her and fall in love with her and then she gets lost and you rescue her and the science is ruined but you get married?

Speaker: I am already married, sir, it'll be a huge problem.

Robert Krulwich: Oh, okay, never mind.

Jad Abumrad: Anyway, Giuseppe is there, he's got a couple of patients, and he's wondering, how many other folks like this are out there? So he puts up a website.

Speaker: We said, "Okay, we are looking for people who have these specific symptoms." One year later, we were basically dealing with 700 people-

Jad Abumrad: What?

Robert Krulwich: Whoa.

Giuseppe Iaria: - with the same issue.

Jad Abumrad: 700 people?

Giuseppe Iaria: Yes.

Jad Abumrad: So he sets up an internet forum where they can all talk to each other.

Sharon Roseman: I'm the moderator.

Jad Abumrad: Now Sharon corresponds with DTD sufferers from all over the place.

Sharon Roseman: There are others out there who experience the 90-degree rotation.

Jad Abumrad: Really?

Robert Krulwich: Whoa.

Robert Krulwich: What about spinners, though? Have you ever met a spinner?

Sharon Roseman: No.

Robert Krulwich: No.

Sharon Roseman: No.

Sharon Machel: Actually, I should get some water because if I don't get some water [crosstalk].

Speaker: Oh, here. There's one there.

Speaker: You can just use that one, that's fine.

Jad Abumrad: Then a few months later, she did, another woman named Sharon.

Sharon Machel: My name is Sharon Machel. The last name is M-A-C-H-E-L, rhymes with Rachel.

Speaker: Okay.

Jad Abumrad: When this Sharon heard about the first Sharon, she said she bolted straight up.

Sharon Machel: There is a woman in Colorado who has what I have. It was such an emotional moment for me.

Jad Abumrad: That she decided to fly to Colorado to meet Sharon Roseman and they spent a day together.

Dave Bender: All right, so let's just start with the easy stuff.

Jad Abumrad: They spoke with reporter, Dave Bender.

Dave Bender: Describe yesterday, what was it like to get together yesterday?

Sharon Roseman: Yesterday was awesome. I got out of the car and we just gave each other a hug and it was a bond that I've never experienced with anybody else in my life ever.

Jad Abumrad: Now, we still don't know what's wrong with Sharon and Sharon and the others. We certainly don't know how to fix it, but whereas before when Sharon and Sharon were lost and alone, now they're lost and together, so in a way, it's like they're not really lost.

Sharon Machel: We sat down right away in the hotel lobby and started to laugh. We couldn't stop laughing. Everything we were telling, our experiences right away and comparing notes, not even finishing our sentences.

Sharon Roseman: These things that we laugh at were things that nobody else would think was funny. We sat there probably for 15 minutes describing how we were going to navigate from this hotel to the shopping mall that we could see right out the window of the hotel.

Sharon Machel: We had to come up with some contingency plans. What if?

Sharon Roseman: We had the GPS if we needed it, Sharon had a map in her hands if we needed it, we had street names. We were just hoping that at least one of us was there instead of being messed up. We got there.


Sharon Machel: "There it is, there it is, there it is," we were both so excited. [laughs]

Sharon Roseman: We were jumping up and down. [laughs]

Sharon Machel: It was really ridiculous if anybody saw us and had no clue why we were so excited that we found Nordstrom.


Jad Abumrad: Big thanks to Molly Webster for producing that piece with us.

Sharon Machel: By the way, you know the little kid's toy that's called a Sit 'n Spin?

Jad Abumrad: Oh, yes, where you sit on it.

Sharon Machel: You go in circles and you get dizzy?

Jad Abumrad: Yes.

Sharon Machel: Okay, well, I want somebody to invent the-- We're not being recorded, right? This isn't [crosstalk].

Jad Abumrad: No, we are, but it's okay.

Sharon Roseman: Okay, I want the big ass Sit 'n Spin.


That would be so helpful to me. I could just get up in the morning and just get on my little big ass Sit 'n Spin and I could make my day start much easier.


Hi, this is Sharon Roseman. Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation.

Giuseppe Iaria: Enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. This is Giuseppe Iaria from Calgary.

Sharon Roseman: More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

Dave Bender: Sorry, I'm so late, I've been on the road. I'm calling from my cellphone. Radiolab is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR.


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