Aug 19, 2010

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.

Read more:

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Jad Abumrad:

I'm Jad Abumrad. Today on Radiolab, Robert Krulwich and I are tackling a question which is very big in neuroscience at the moment, what makes you, you? Sounds actually like a child-like question, and it is, except no one really knows the answer. Before the station ID we heard one scientist's theory that the self, or the mind, or even the soul, is nothing but a story the brain tells itself.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Listening to, what was the name of that guy? Paul, Paul Brocks. The notion that what you are, what a self is, is just a story you tell has some scientific authority behind it.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Does it, cause I actually didn't exactly know what he's talking about.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Well, V. S. Ramachandran, who is a world famous neurologist, also believes that what is peculiarly human about us is our ability to construct stories, and he says this ability is new, or relatively new. It happened at a particular moment in time and he thinks he knows about when.

 

  1. S. Ramachand:

Maybe 200,000 years ago, half a million years ago, something absolutely astonishing happened. The evolution of introspective consciousness and the evolution of the south.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Evolution of introspective consciousness. What does that mean?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Well, let's do this simply and backup for a minute. There are different sets of creatures in the world. There are dumb ones. There are smarter ones, and then there's us. So let's just choose, say a worm for our dumb candidate. Imagine you're a worm, you're crawling through the ground like worms like to do, and you bump into a pebble. And here's what a worm doesn't do. A worm doesn't think, "dang, I can't seem to move this pebble", because a worm doesn't have a brain big enough, or a nervous system strong enough, to support the idea of dang, me, pebble.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Certainly not dang.

 

Robert Krulwich:

There's no... I'm not a worm, but as far as V. S. Ramachandran is concerned, inside the worm's head there is no picture at all. There's just a set of inherited instincts. No pictures in that worm's head. No story there. S.

 

Robert Krulwich:

So let's step up to another level of creature. You give me a creature, but it has to be as more complex one.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay. How about going back to the monkey?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Okay, monkey. Monkey swinging through trees. Monkey sees a lady monkey, The lady monkey, if it has a red, how should I put this, bottom? Then the, the lady monkey is interested in sex. So if you notice, says Dr. Ramachandran, if that rump is-

 

  1. S. Ramachand:

Red, red rumps of a female primates-

 

Robert Krulwich:

I like the way he said "red rumps".

 

  1. S. Ramachand:

I claim a monkey after seeing red can react to it. Maybe can even remember the red and do the appropriate reaction.

 

Robert Krulwich:

And the probably reaction in this case would be to grab that lady monkey and you know, might make a baby with her. This monkey pulls an image of another monkey in, makes an association. And so there's images in the monkey's head, but now, here's something the monkey can't do.

 

  1. S. Ramachand:

You can't juggle the symbol red and it's ed [crosstalk 00:03:02]

 

Robert Krulwich:

So if I said to a monkey, see that Volvo over there, that white Volvo, let's make it a red Volvo. Any human being can take a white car and make it in their imagination [crosstalk 00:03:12].

 

  1. S. Ramachand:

He can paste red on it and his imagination.

 

Robert Krulwich:

But a monkey you don't think can do?

 

  1. S. Ramachand:

It cannot.

 

Robert Krulwich:

And this is so simple for a human being to do. And I... just, let's run through a quick exercise. Imagine for me a bird in your head. Got a bird in there?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. What kind of bird?

 

Robert Krulwich:

A canary.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yes, now it's there.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Is it there? Make it into a brilliantly red canary, even though-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay, like kind of a cardinal, but canary's body. It's there.

 

Robert Krulwich:

That's right. Now make it into a striped canary.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Striped. What color stripes?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Purple.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Purple.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Purple stripes.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Purple stripes on a red canary. Wait, hold up. Purple stripes on a red canary. Got it.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Is it in there now?

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's there and all its vivid glory.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Ornithological stripedness is not one of your favorites. All right, so, at this moment I'm going to point out something to you. There is no such thing as a purple striped red canary in the world. You could search the world and never find one-

 

Jad Abumrad:

That does not surprise me.

 

Robert Krulwich:

But you've got one now in your head, however lamely, it's in there somewhere. Only a human being could do this because only humans can take images from the real world, pull them into their heads, divide them into parts, and then start turning those parts into abstractions. Monkeys, says Ramachandran, can't do that.

 

  1. S. Ramachand:

A monkey can be trained to think of a bird. Ring a bell and show it a bird. And the fifth time you just ring a bell, presumably it's conjuring up an image of a bird. Now, you can not only train a human to think of a bird, you can train a human to think of babies. But now the human can think of a bird's wings on a human baby, conjure an angel, which he has never seen. This is because he is, now has what are called tokens. He has created disembodied tokens.

 

Robert Krulwich:

So color is a token [crosstalk 00:04:59], big is a token. Adjectives are tokens.

 

  1. S. Ramachand:

Adjectives are tokens. And then he can manipulate these tokens, juxtapose them in counterintuitive ways. He can create even outlandish scenarios, what we call imagination.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Let me see if I can get this straight. You've got the worm who can sense the world, sort of. And then you've got the monkey who can pull the world in to some degree and make an association. Then you've got us. And we can play with those associations. How did, how did that happen?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Well, cause of evolution. It's like, we're not different from other creatures, we're just more than other creatures, and when we have these brains that have this extra, like, it's like a layer on layer cake, we can manipulate any idea at all, and we're constantly doing that. We're constantly abstracting. We are imagining so often, so thoroughly, and so well that we eventually can imagine ourselves. I can sit here looking right at you and I can see you right now as Jad, the little boy, if I want, or Jad the old, dying man, if I want or Jad with purple stripes and an elegant set of taffeta wings.

 

Robert Krulwich:

The idea of self, if you think about it this way, is you take all the things that have ever happened to you, pluck from your life. If you're sad, you might pluck the sad things. If you're happy on one particular day, you might pluck the happy things. And you stitch them together into a general, abstract idea, and me then, an idea of self, is really a story that we tell ourselves. It can change from day to day, and it allows the human being to exercise that peculiarly human muscle to experience stuff, and then to abstract it into a story. That's self.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This is radio lab chat here with Robert Krulwich. So this makes more sense to me now. I think this idea that the brain, it spins a story, moment to moment, as you're walking about and that story is you, yourself. If it's so automatic, does it even happen when we sleep?

 

Robert Krulwich:

Why do you ask that?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Well, I asked Paul Brocks this question, and he told me something really strange. Something that made me think that maybe when we're asleep the brain loosens its grip on the self. And that the self tumbles into a thousand parts... or creatures. I don't know. What he told me, basically, is that when he was young, he would have these dreams where he'd see these things, these parts of himself, presumably. The dream would be going along fine, everything would be normal, and then all of a sudden along would come these little people.

 

Paul Brocks:

Yes, literally little people. There were hordes of these little creatures. So I'd see them in a great pageants, or that of sweeping volume. Occasionally they'd come up and I've sensed they're kind of looking at me, but then they'd go away again and I just sort of watch-

 

Jad Abumrad:

So they were aware of you?

 

Paul Brocks:

Well, that's a very eerie thought cause it's my brain that was producing them as well as producing me.

 

Robert Krulwich:

That's such a strange thing. He really means little people.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, and oddly enough, he discovered he wasn't alone.

 

Paul Brocks:

Which is why I was very fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson because his descriptions were very similar to the sort of things I experienced.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Robert Louis Stevenson, you know, the author. One of the most important writers of the 19th century. Apparently, he saw them, too.

 

Joshua Cane:

The little people who manage man's internal theater.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's how he describes them in one particular essay, read for us here by an actor, Joshua Cane. For anyone who's ever wondered, where do dreams come from? Where does an idea come from? This essay is an interesting read and confusing. First of all, Stevenson always refers to himself in the third person as he-

 

Joshua Cane:

This honest fellow-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Or the dreamer-

 

Joshua Cane:

The dreamer.

 

Jad Abumrad:

I'm not sure why. Maybe it's not so strange considering the rest of the essay's about little people in his mind. In any case, what he writes is, at first, the stories they acted out for him were, well, they didn't make any sense.

 

Joshua Cane:

The little people played upon their stage like children rather than like drilled actors performing a set piece to a huge hall of faces.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But over time, an interesting thing happens. Stevenson decides to become a writer-

 

Joshua Cane:

To write and sell his tales.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And things change.

 

Joshua Cane:

Here was he and here with the little people who did that part of his business in quite new conditions.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Now the little people weren't just the things he saw in his dreams. They were a business opportunity. See, he was broke, always, and had to crank out the stories. So, very much in the spirit of the industrial revolution, he decides to exploit his little people, turn them into a storytelling factory.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Which meant he writes-

 

Joshua Cane:

The stories must now be trimmed, and pad, and set up on all fours. It must run from a beginning to an end, and fit with the laws of life. The pleasure in one word had become a business, and that, not only for the dreamer, but for the little people of his theater. They understood the change as well as he.

 

Robert Krulwich:

So then what happens?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Well, he needs stories he can sell. So he trains his little people. This is what he writes in his essay. He trains them-

 

Robert Krulwich:

What do you mean?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Well, he had this elaborate pre bedtime ritual. He would lie on the bed, feet off, raise one arm, close his eyes-

 

Robert Krulwich:

Raises his arm?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, it was a signal for the little people of his mind to tell him a story, and man, it'd better be a good one.

 

Joshua Cane:

And behold, at once little people begin to disturb themselves in the same quest and labor all night long.

 

Joshua Cane:

"Nice, easy [inaudible 00:10:54]"

 

Jad Abumrad:

What he did not realize was just how good they could be.

 

Joshua Cane:

Here is one exactly as it came. It seemed this time that the dreamer was the son of a very rich and wicked man, the owner of broad acres and the most damnedable temper. The son had been living abroad on purpose to avoid his father. When he returned, it was to find his father married again to a young wife. Because of this marriage, as the dreamer indistinctly understood, it was desirable for the father and son to have a meeting. Yet, both being proud and both angry, neither would condescend on a visit. But meet they did accordingly, in a desolate, sandy country by the sea.

 

Joshua Cane:

"To the shore please, driver. "Yes, Sir. Watch your step."

 

Joshua Cane:

And there they quarreled.

 

Joshua Cane:

"How dare you!" "You selfish bastard."

 

Joshua Cane:

And the son, stung by some intolerable insult, struck the father dead.

 

Joshua Cane:

[inaudible 00:11:58]

 

Wife:

No suspicion was aroused. The dead man was found and buried. The dreamer succeeded to the broadest stage-

 

Wife:

"And straight-" "to the riggings." "To the riggnings." [inaudible 00:12:13]

 

Wife:

and found himself installed under the same roof with his father's widow.

 

Widow:

Good evening.

 

Dreamer:

Madam.

 

Widow:

Will you join me for supper?

 

Dreamer:

Oh, thank you.

 

Joshua Cane:

These two lived very much alone, as people may after a bereavement. Sat down to the table together. Shared long evenings.

 

Widow:

Brandy?

 

Dreamer:

Yes, please.

 

Joshua Cane:

And grew daily better friends.

 

Widow:

Oh, the West garden is so lovely this time of year.

 

Dreamer:

Has that old plumb tree gone to flower already?

 

Widow:

Oh, yes! Do you recall it?

 

Dreamer:

Yes, yes. I used to climb it as a boy.

 

Widow:

Really? Did your father teach you how to climb trees?

 

Dreamer:

No. No, he didn't.

 

Joshua Cane:

Until it seemed to him suddenly that she was prying about dangerous matters. That she had conceived the notion of his guilt. That she watched him, tried him with the questions. So they lived across purposes, a life full of broken dialogue, challenging glances, and suppressed passion. Until one day, he saw the woman slipping from the house in a vale.

 

Widow:

To the station, please.

 

Widow:

"Yes, ma'am."

 

Joshua Cane:

He followed her by train to the seaside country, and out over the sand hills to the very place where the murder was done. There she began to grope along the fence.

 

Widow:

There's got to be something here.

 

Joshua Cane:

He, watching her, flat upon his face, and presently-

 

Widow:

Where is it?

 

Joshua Cane:

She had something in her hand.

 

Widow:

This is it.

 

Joshua Cane:

I cannot remember what it was, but it was deadly evidence against the dreamer. Unless she held it up to look at it. Perhaps in the shock of the discovery, her foot... slipped... and she hung in some peril on the brink of the tall sand leaves.

 

Widow:

Somebody please... help me!

 

Joshua Cane:

He had no thought but the spring up and rescue her.

 

Dreamer:

Take my hand.

 

Joshua Cane:

And there they, stood face to face. She, with that deadly matter, openly in her hand. His very presence on the spot. Another link of proof.

 

Widow:

But-

 

Joshua Cane:

It was plain she was about to speak.

 

Widow:

How?

 

Joshua Cane:

This was more than he could bear-

 

Dreamer:

Come.

 

Joshua Cane:

And he cut her short of the conversation.

 

Dreamer:

Let's be going.

 

Joshua Cane:

They passed the evening of the drawing room, as in the past.

 

Joshua Cane:

"Tea, Madame?"

 

Widow:

Yes, please.

 

Widow:

"Sir?"

 

Dreamer:

Thank you.

 

Joshua Cane:

But suspense and fear drummed in the dreamer's bosom.

 

Dreamer:

Why is she not announced me yet? When will she? Will it be tomorrow?

 

Joshua Cane:

So his thoughts ran. Once indeed he sees an occasion when she was abroad. He ransacked her room.

 

Dreamer:

Where had she hidden it?

 

Joshua Cane:

And at last, hidden away among the jewels, found the damning evidence.

 

Dreamer:

My god.

 

Joshua Cane:

There he stood, holding this thing which was his life in the hollow of his hand, and marveling at her behavior that she should seek and keep and yet, not use it. Then the door opened and behold herself.

 

Widow:

Uh, um, what's my line?

 

Dreamer:

What are you doing?

 

Widow:

What are you doing?

 

Joshua Cane:

Once more, they stood eye to eye with the evidence between them.

 

Dreamer:

No!

 

Joshua Cane:

But, before he left the room, he laid back down his death warrant where he had founded it. And at that, her face lit up. The next he heard, she was lying to her maid.

 

Maid:

Oh my goodness, what happened to your room?

 

Widow:

Oh, robbery. Oh no, no, no, it's nothing. I'm embarrassed, really. I thought I'd lost something, you see, and I was looking everywhere.

 

Joshua Cane:

Flesh and blood could bear the strain no longer, and I think it was the next morning, though chronology is always hazy in the theater of the mind, that he burst from his reserve.

 

Joshua Cane:

"Bacon, Sir?"

 

Dreamer:

No thank you.

 

Dreamer:

"Your tea, Madame?"

 

Widow:

Please.

 

Widow:

[inaudible 00:15:58].

 

Joshua Cane:

And no sooner with the servants gone, and these two protagonists alone together, that he leapt to his feet. She too sprang up with a pale face.

 

Dreamer:

Why have you not announced me? You know everything. Why do you torture me?

 

Joshua Cane:

She fell upon her knees, and with outstretched hands.

 

Widow:

Do you not understand! I love you!

 

Joshua Cane:

Here upon with a pint of wonder and mercantile delight, the dreamer, awoke. But his mercantile delight was not of long endurance, as it became plain that in this spirited tale there were unmarketable elements.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Ultimately, Robert Louis Stevenson found the story unusable and he couldn't sell it. But there's a deeper question here. The question of authorship. Let's think about it in more modern terms. When you see a movie and the lights go down, you settle in. From one moment to the next, you, the viewer, have no idea what's going to happen. You scream at the scary parts, laugh at the jokes, cry during the sad scenes. You're taken on a ride, but in order for you to have that experience, someone needed to write the movie, someone needed to direct it, someone other than you. How is it, when we dream, that we do all three at the same time? We write, direct, and watch the film as if we've never seen it before.

 

Joshua Cane:

The little people are substantive inventors and performers. To the end they had kept their secret. The dreamer had no guess whatever at the motive of the woman, the hinge of the whole well invented plot, until the instant of the traumatic revelation. It was not his tale. It was the little people's.

 

Joshua Cane:

I am awake now, and I know this trade, and yet I cannot better it. The more I think of it, the more I am moved to press upon the world, my question. Who are the little people?

 

Paul Brocks:

It was almost like watching a video. You could sort of go and inspect their activities, scrutinize their activities very closely.

 

Jad Abumrad:

That's how neurologist Paul Brocks describes his little people dreams.

 

Paul Brocks:

And it kind of fascinated me that this was, there was part of me, part of my brain activity, but not me. And, so which, which part of my brain activity is me?

 

Jad Abumrad:

And if it seems there's a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde quality to the mystery of the little people, that is no coincidence. On another night, our dreamer, Robert Louis Stevenson, once again captivated by the little people, screamed so loudly, his wife wakes him.

 

Wife:

Robert, Robert darling, wake up! What's wrong?

 

Jad Abumrad:

He was not pleased.

 

Joshua Cane:

Dammit woman. I had been dreaming a fine bogey tale.

 

Jad Abumrad:

But he did manage to remember a few things from the dream. One, a scene at the window, then a man pursued for a crime... and that man takes a potion and undergoes a transformation. That man's name, of course, would become Mr. Hyde, and our dreamer, Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of that classic tale of a divide itself.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The story of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Little People," came from an essay from Paul Brocks, from his excellent book "Into the Silent Land," and it was adapted for radio by Ellen Horn.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Joshua Cane was the voice of Robert Louis Stevenson from his essay "A Chapter on Dreams," and he had a supporting cast of Lorraine Maddox, John Henry Boudreau, Frank Boudreau, Nick Capadich, Sally Herships and Keith Scott. And if anyone was listening closely, they would have also recognized you, Robert Krulwich, on that seaside cliff.

 

Robert Krulwich:

Dying.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Dying. [inaudible 00:19:41]

 

Robert Krulwich:

Here's the thing, what is hard to recognize, if you take a look into somebody's brain, and you ask the question, which we've been asking this whole hour, like, you know who's there or where is the author or where is the, where am I? The story points up that if you look scientifically into a brain, what you encounter is hundreds of thousands of players, not just little people, but teeny, teeny, teeny, teeny brain cells which do all this flashing back and forth. If you were to go to any one of those cells and say, so are you the author of Jekyll and Hyde? The cell wouldn't, would just go [inaudible 00:20:19]

 

Jad Abumrad:

Right, the vocabulary of a neuron is just on or off.

 

Robert Krulwich:

It is only in the group that you can see the electrical outline of a thought or ultimately of a self. While you think of yourself as a "one." Even the thought, "I am a one," springs from 100 million cells connecting to a trillion synapses, and that all of this multiple activity paradoxically creates the "you" have this moment. You are always plural.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And that's especially true in the story we have coming up for you in 60 seconds. This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad. Robert Krulwich and I will continue in a moment.

 

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