Oct 18, 2011


Kohn Ashmore’s voice is arresting. It stopped his friend Andy Mills in his tracks the first time they met. But in this short about the power of friendship and familiarity, Andy explains that Kohn’s voice isn't the most striking thing about him at all.

When Andy first met Kohn, he saw a college freshman in a wheelchair who moved slow and talked slow. But it only took one conversation for Andy to realize that Kohn was also witty and observant. They clicked so effortlessly over lunch one day that Andy went ahead and asked an audacious question: why was Kohn so slow? Kohn told him that when he was 8-years-old, he was hit by a car. He was in a coma for five months, and when he finally woke up, he everything about him was slowed down ... except for his mind.

That lunch quickly led to deep discussions and lots of late nights spent joking around and playing music. But when Andy decided to interview Kohn on tape last summer, Kohn told him another story about himself that caught Andy completely off guard--and made Andy question what it means to be truly familiar with something ... like the sound of your own voice, or that of a friend.

Neurologist Orrin Devinsky joins us to answer some questions raised by Andy and Kohn’s story, and the band Hudson Branch helps us hear, and feel, the world through Kohn’s ears.

Hudson Branch is: Matthew and Jacob Boll, Corey and Cobey Bienert, and Enoch Kim. Becky Beighley, Andy Mills, and Kohn Ashmore join them to sing an adaptation of Damien Rice's "Grey Room."

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JAD ABUMRAD: Three, two, one. Let me now propose that I'll never count backwards again. No, I'm serious. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT KRULWICH: I am Robert Krulwich.


JAD: This is Radiolab.


ROBERT: The podcast.


JAD: And today on the podcast, a story about a friendship, really. Because in almost any friendship ...


ROBERT: ... there'll be a moment where you're looking across at this person you think you know very, very well, and he or she will suddenly say something or do something or think something ...


JAD: ... that just throws everything into question.


ROBERT: Everything up in the air. You think, "What? What?" This is a friendship with a big fat "What" in it.


JAD: And the guy that's gonna tell us the story is ...


ANDY MILLS: Andy Mills. And I am a freelance radio producer.


JAD: And the other guy? You'll meet him in a minute.


ROBERT: So maybe we should start, like, how did you meet? Like, what was the -- where did you lay eyes on each other?


ANDY MILLS: Well, it was my sophomore year of college, and it was the time that the freshmen are all moving into the dorms. And I was meeting new people, welcoming the freshmen.


ROBERT: Oh, you're an RA or you're some sort of ...?


ANDY MILLS: No, no. Just one of those chatty people in the dorm.


JAD: You're like, "What's your name?"


ANDY MILLS: Exactly. And as I was talking actually to a group of freshmen in my room, I hear this, like, strange noise from the room next door. It was this kind of low drone. So I kind of peeked over and saw, you know, an 18- to 19-year-old kid in a wheelchair. Dark, curly hair. And this noise I'd been hearing was his voice. Not even a week later, I run into him in the hallway and I introduce myself. I say, "Hi, I'm Andy. What's your name?" And he said ...


[KOHN ASHMORE: My name is Kohn Ashmore. K-O-H-N.]


JAD: Kohn ...?


ANDY MILLS: Ashmore.


JAD: Kohn Ashmore.


ANDY MILLS: Yeah. I was on the way to eat lunch, and I invited him to join me. We sit down in the corner and I notice, like, he brings the fork to his mouth, like, really slowly. Everything about him is slowed down. But I also noticed, like, he's witty, observant. And so at a certain point in the conversation I asked him, "What's wrong? Like, why do you move and talk so slowly?"


JAD: You just asked him flat out?




JAD: Was he offended?




ANDY MILLS: No! I think he was -- he was relieved to find somebody who was willing to admit that it's a little bit weird.


JAD: Yeah.


[KOHN ASHMORE: Well ...]


ANDY MILLS: And then he tells me this story.


[KOHN ASHMORE: The date was ...]


ANDY MILLS: He started at the beginning.


[KOHN ASHMORE: November 15th.]


ANDY MILLS: He said, "I was eight years old."


[KOHN ASHMORE: I was out in the backyard.]


ANDY MILLS: I had this dog. The dog had run off.


[KOHN ASHMORE: Broke loose of his chain.]


ANDY MILLS: I ran out into the street.




ANDY MILLS: The next thing I knew I was waking up from a coma.


[KOHN ASHMORE: Yeah. Five months ...]


ANDY MILLS: Five months later.


JAD: He got hit by a car?




[ANDY MILLS: And when you woke up, what had happened to you? What were the injuries you suffered?]


[KOHN ASHMORE: Well, I couldn't talk, couldn't move.]


ANDY MILLS: And then he comes out of it slowly and slowly, but thing is he stays ...






[KOHN ASHMORE: Very slow.]


JAD: So this is a man who has slowed down, globally?


ANDY MILLS: Right. Except for, of course, his mind.




JAD: Really?


ANDY MILLS: Oh, yeah. He does well in school. He's smart. He has of great sense of humor. And we connected. You know, I was his neighbor in the dorm and we had a lot in common. We liked a lot of the same music. We used to stay up late. I'd play my acoustic guitar and he would sing Matchbox 20 songs from the '90s, you know?


JAD: You -- you must slow down your playing? Is that what happens?


ANDY MILLS: My playing is not exactly rock star material or anything.


[ANDY MILLS: I love that song.]


ANDY MILLS: It wasn't long before we ended up having these really deep conversations into the middle of the night.


JAD: About what?


ANDY MILLS: Well, the fact that both of our parents are divorced, and how we both grew up in households that were fighting all the time and having to sleep at Grandma's is, like, a regular part of both of our lives. Kohn's parents started fighting a lot after he came out of the coma. The mom blamed the dad for not watching Kohn. And, you know, we talked a lot about how, like, that impacted our life growing up, and we just became really close.


[ANDY MILLS: It's a level situation. Tell me what you had for breakfast today?]


ANDY MILLS: You know, I've known Kohn for almost a decade, but it wasn't until last summer that I decided to interview Kohn on tape. And it was in the middle of this interview that Kohn tells me this story that completely changed the way that I think about Kohn and his slowness.


[KOHN ASHMORE: So I really ...]


ANDY MILLS: The story starts off with him in junior high. First big crush.




ANDY MILLS: Her name was Julie. And he's trying to think of something romantic to do to catch her attention. And he really loves music. He was listening to his Walkman one night, and he realized that that's -- that's what he wants to do. He would make her ...


[KOHN ASHMORE: A mix tape.]


ANDY MILLS: A romantic mix tape. And that would be the thing. So he makes this tape, and then he decided that ...


[KOHN ASHMORE: I should try singing.]


ANDY MILLS: ... to actually sing ...


[KOHN ASHMORE: A love song.]


ANDY MILLS: ... a love song to Julie. So he writes this song, records it, puts the tape back in the stereo.


[KOHN ASHMORE: And when I played it back [Kohn singing], I remember being horrified. [Kohn singing]]


ANDY MILLS: He felt embarrassed. He felt confused.


[KOHN ASHMORE: Screaming, crying.]


JAD: Wait. Why?


ANDY MILLS: Well, it turns out that was the first time that he had ever heard his voice the way that you and I hear his voice, and so ...


JAD: Wait -- first time. What does that even mean?


ROBERT: He never heard a recording of himself? Or ...


ANDY MILLS: Oh, no. He had -- not only had he never heard a recording of himself, but when he talks ...


[KOHN ASHMORE: I hear myself like I hear you.]


[ANDY MILLS: What do you mean by that?]


[KOHN ASHMORE: Like, I mean ...]


ANDY MILLS: He tells me that he actually didn't know that his voice was slow.


JAD: How is that even possible? I mean, does that mean his brain is speeding up his voice but not yours?


ANDY MILLS: Yeah, he hears me talk normal, and then he hears himself talk normal as well. Like ...


ROBERT: You think he's slow and speeding up? Or do you think he just thinks he's regular?


ANDY MILLS: It's not like he speeds both of us up.


JAD: Does he mean, like, your -- your voice just -- or his voice just feels normal? Or does he mean it actually sounds normal?


ANDY MILLS: It sounds exactly the same is what I'm saying. Like ...


ROBERT: He thinks he sounds the same.


ANDY MILLS: He could be sitting here right now, he would hear you talk, he would hear me talk, and then he would say something and in his head it's all the same speed.


JAD: But that doesn't make sense because it's, like, variable speed, you know?


ROBERT: I don't think it's -- no, I think he thinks he's just normal. I'm normal inside.


JAD: So we went back and forth and back and forth on this until finally ...


ROBERT: We need a specialist at this point.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: Guess we'll take our positions. Are you ready?


JAD: We ended up calling this guy who we've had on the show before.


ROBERT: All right. So Andy? Orrin's here.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: Orrin Devinsky, neurologist. NYU Medical Center.


ROBERT: He's the doctor.




ANDY MILLS: Hi Orrin. Does Orrin -- does Orrin know anything?


ORRIN DEVINSKY: I know -- yeah, I listen. I'm college-educated.


ANDY MILLS: I mean, not does ...


JAD: Anyhow, Andy ran him through the whole story.


ANDY MILLS: Yeah. Well, he was eight years old, and he was I believe ...


JAD: Everything you've just heard. And here was Orrin's reaction.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: Yeah. So I guess, you know, just -- it's a fascinating case, and my first clinical question would be did he know he moved slowly? But ...


ANDY MILLS: Absolutely, yeah.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: But it was only for his own voice that he was unaware that he was different than everybody else.




ORRIN DEVINSKY: So he does have feedback on himself. The one area he's not getting feedback on is his voice production, which -- which interestingly happens in post-encephalitic Parkinson's patients. They're slow in all their movements, they're slow getting up out of a chair, they're slow walking. But as with Kohn, there are some cases where they just get little focal areas that they don't see their slowness.


JAD: Hmm.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: So Oliver Sacks, when he took care of his Awakenings patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, would sometimes record their voices and play it back and they'd say, "That's not me! You're fiddling with the tape machine. That's not my voice."


JAD: Because the voice to them would sound ...




JAD: Too slow.




ANDY MILLS: Yeah, that's exactly Kohn.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: Do you think his inner voice, his inner mental speed is truly as fast? Or is that also slow?


ANDY MILLS: Oh, it's absolutely normal.




ANDY MILLS: Kohn and I both went to a Christian college. We both made an exodus from that kind of fundamentalist Christian world at around the same time which involved, you know, long talks about what we believe and what we think we might believe next. And there was never a point where I was having to, like, wait for Khan to make some, you know, mental exercise before he'd respond. And those are some pretty complex things dealing with faith and belief.


ORRIN DEVINSKY: What I don't understand fully is why he hears you, Andy, speaking at three times his pace and feel you're normal, but something about his own voice feeding back to his own brain, he never perceived that at a different speed than your voice and everyone else's.


JAD: Do you trust it?


ROBERT: Do you then wonder it?


JAD: Do you wonder about the ...


ROBERT: Maybe would you suspect that if you met him you'd learn something different than you ...


ORRIN DEVINSKY: Yeah. No in medicine, you should always trust the patient's report but keep in the back of your head a drop of skepticism. But my gut as a clinician is more than 95 percent it's real.


JAD: Now keep in mind, that was not a true clinical diagnosis, that was just Orrin Devinsky giving us his gut opinion.


ANDY MILLS: Well, I have a theory. I have a theory, unscientific though it may be. And that is ...


JAD: Well, that's what we specialize in. [laughs]


ROBERT: [laughs] Welcome to the club.


ANDY MILLS: I think that it has something to do with familiarity. Like, when I first met Kohn and I heard his voice, it was so foreign and so strange and I could hardly make out what he was saying, but now I'm surprised when people say, "What did he just say?" And I think "Well, he just said he was horrified," You know, I -- I've grown so familiar to his voice that it ...


ROBERT: Is it sort of like going into a Shakespeare play and in Act One, Scene One you don't know what's going on, but somehow in the second act it begins to click?


ANDY MILLS: Exactly. It's that familiarity. And if I have it, I mean imagine what he must have.


[KOHN ASHMORE: Yeah, I've grown accustomed to hearing something different.]


JAD: But what I don't get is, like, I mean, this went on for years. So how -- how could no -- how come no one told him?


ROBERT: His parents and his siblings and his friends have never turned to him and said, "Hey, you know, come on. Speed it up." They've never ever said that?


ANDY MILLS: Well, no. His parents being deaf, you know, cross them out. They couldn't have told him.


JAD: His parents are deaf?


ANDY MILLS: Both of them.


JAD: Both of them. Whoa.


ANDY MILLS: And Kohn thinks that everyone else just assumed that he knew what his own voice sounded like.


JAD: Really? Like, when you talk to his friends?


[HALEY: Hello?]


[ANDY MILLS: Hey, Haley.]


[HALEY: Hey.]


[DAVE: Hello?]


[ANDY MILLS: Hey, Dave. What's up?]


[DAVE: Oh, not much. What's up, Andy?]


JAD: I mean, and you told them the whole thing. What was their reaction?


ANDY MILLS: Honestly, most of them didn't believe me.


[HALEY: You're kidding.]


JAD: Huh.


[ANDY MILLS: Did you know this at all?]


[HALEY: No, I had no idea. I didn't know that. And so his -- when he speaks, he just thinks that it sounds just like anyone else?]


[ANDY MILLS: Yeah, that's what I'm telling you.]


[HALEY: Oh, that's so sad!]




JAD: So after he found out about his voice, which I guess was the one thing he thought was normal, what did he do?


[KOHN ASHMORE: Well ...]


ANDY MILLS: He said ...


[KOHN ASHMORE: I'm never gonna talk again.]


JAD: Did he -- did he talk again? Obviously he did, right?


ROBERT: [laughs]


ANDY MILLS: Well, that's the same question I asked him.


[ANDY MILLS: After you heard that you were different ...]


ANDY MILLS: How long did you go before talking again? And he told me ...


[KOHN ASHMORE: I do remember going back to school.]


ANDY MILLS: And he doesn't recall, like, the first conversation exactly that he had, but he thinks it went something like ...


[KOHN ASHMORE: Shut up and leave me the hell alone.]


ANDY MILLS: He didn't want to talk, but gradually he realized that he kind of had to.


JAD: And what about singing? You said he liked to sing.


ANDY MILLS: Well eventually, he got comfortable again with the idea of having his voice recorded, his singing voice recorded. And so after the interview was over, he mentioned this song that he actually had been singing a lot. And so I turned the recorder back on and asked if he would sing it for me.


[ANDY MILLS: So tell me the name of the song and then just sing away.]


[KOHN ASHMORE: This is Grey Room by Damien Rice. [singing]]


ANDY MILLS: And it was actually pretty emotional for us both. And as I'm sitting there hearing him sing this song, I'm just wondering, like, what does this sound like in his head? So after I got the tape recorded I brought it back to my friends in Chicago in a band called Hudson Branch. And all of them know Kohn. And I asked them, "Like, do you think that we could maybe play some music to this?" So the music could kind of give us a peek into the way that Kohn hears it and the way that Kohn feels it, and maybe we could feel it too.


[KOHN ASHMORE: singing with music]


JAD: Huh.


ROBERT: What did Kohn say when he heard it, by the way? Did it remind him of anything like what he feels?


ANDY MILLS: Yeah. I mean, when he heard it, he said "Hell, [BLEEP] yes!"


ROBERT: [laughs]


ANDY MILLS: That was a quote from him. Yeah. No, he loves it. He loves it.


JAD: Thanks to producer Andy Mills who just received a -- an award at the Third Coast Festival for a shorter version of that piece. And thanks also of course to Kohn Ashmore.


ROBERT: And the band.


JAD: Yeah.


ROBERT: Andy and Matt Boll, Jacob Boll, Corey Bienert, Cobey Bienert, Becky Beighley, Enoch Kim. They call themselves Hudson Branch. Becky joined them. A lot of Bs. Boll, Boll, Bienert, Bienert and Beighley.


JAD: Right. You know, Hudson Branch could be the name of a rock band that's also a law firm. Anyhow, you can find out more about them at Radiolab.org or at TheHudsonBranch.com.


ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.


JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad.


ROBERT: And thanks so much for listening.


[ANSWERING MACHINE: Message seven.]


[ISAAC: Hi, I'm Issac. I'm from California, and my dad listens to Radiolab. Radiolab is supported in part by the -- what does that say again? Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org. Yeah!]


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