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Brain on my parade

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Kohn Ashmore’s voice is arresting. It stopped his friend Andy Mills in his tracks the first time they met. When Andy first laid eyes on 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?

This turned out to be a trickier question to answer than either Andy or Kohn expected, and led to a revelation that 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."

Comments [26]

Joel Etra from Norwich, CT

His speech is bradykinetic (slow) and also dysarthria (imprecise). It is not slowness that keeps him in a wheelchair but an ataxia or paralysis. If his speech was electronically speede up, it would still be distorted. If a normal speaker speaks very slowly, he does not sound like Kahn.
The feedback disturbance is more fascinating. Feedback for speech is not only auditory but is also tactile kinesthetic. Apparently both of these modalities are defective suggesting a more centralized disorder.
First, Parkinson’s disease which is characterized by festinating gait and, speech, which increases in rate and decreases volume as the individual speaks. Interestingoy, these people show little awareness of their rate and volume and even after being corrected will return to the poor rate and volume.
In a stuttering like syndrome known as cluttering, people are unable to control their rate of speech. Their words are cluttered together and become unintelligible. These people also show little awareness of their rate of speech.
I wonder why there is no mention in the piece about Khon undergoing a comprehensive speech and language evaluation by an experienced speech language pathologist. .

Dec. 05 2017 11:06 PM
Ian from Charlottesville, VA

This made me cry. It was so touching and moved in an emotional way. Such a sad but also loving story of a great friendship. Thank you for airing this.

Dec. 05 2017 11:03 AM
Francine Lange from New York City

This gorgeous story broke my heart in a good way. I love radio, I love Radiolab! Thank you.

Dec. 02 2017 12:46 PM

Ohmygosh the story about Kohn and his amazing friend Andy Mills brought me to tears. The fact that Andy and his bandmates incorporated Kohn's singing voice into a song is the most beautiful, loving, kind and thoughtful act I've heard about in a very long time. I can't thank Andy enough for being an obviously great human being, and for not making snap judgements about a beautiful soul different from him. Had he done so he would have missed out on the beauty of Kohn's friendship which has clearly impacted Andy's life in a positive way. And thank you, Radiolab, for this brilliant story, truly one of the best stories I've ever had the pleasure of hearing.

Aug. 15 2015 05:16 PM
daria wilber from Colorado, USA

I have just listened to this story and spent the last few minutes in tears. Dealing with significant physical change as a result of an accident or illness is challenging. Seven years ago my vocal cords were removed after chemo and radiation failed to kill my laryngeal cancer. The cancer left me voiceless but for the use of an electro-larynx which I use to facilitate speech. Who I am and what I sound like are two different beings. I am no less a person than I used to be but my "voice" is harsh and mechanical without warmth or inflection. I'm still unable to reconcile the way many people react to me as a result of my "voice". I applaud Kohn, his strength, courage and determination. He is a role model and inspiration for all of us who live an adaptive life. Thank you Radio Lab for a beautiful story.

Aug. 15 2015 04:21 PM
Nicholas Fulford from Toronto, Canada

I am not sure if this will be useful, but it is something I discovered as a teenager with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a pair of microphones.

I set out a stereo pair of condenser mikes and started recording myself speaking. The stereo pair gives the illusion of dimensionality due to the preservation of phase information. (i.e. sound arrives at each ear at a slightly different time from a source. It is this that allows us to precisely locate the source of a sound and is best noticed with our eyes closed.) The thing I did next - while speaking - was to listen to myself off of the playback head of the tape recorder while speaking. This introduced a delay between my speaking and my hearing of my voice. Wearing a set of headphones while doing this made me sound exactly like Kohn. I felt as though a brake was applied inside my head that forced me to slur and slow what I was saying. What had happened was that applying a delay in the normal feedback loop between speaking and hearing my own voice - which is normally instantaneous - caused my brain to try and resynch, and the only way it could do that was slowing and slurring. It was a remarkable little discovery for me, and one with which I had a great deal of fun as I tried to force myself to speak normally, and couldn't.

Aug. 14 2015 02:55 PM
Brian Breed from Coral Gables, FL

I have listened to every episode of Radio Lab up to this. I love this show so much, and it constantly surprises me. This moved me more than I can express. Thank you so much for sharing this.

Mar. 07 2015 10:17 PM
t & son from Nebraska

I heard the program over the last weekend and was yet talking about it with someone today. I'd listened to it at home w/ my four year old son while eating our very late brunch. We both listened attentively to Kohn and Andy and my son had questions about the manner of speech but was understanding when I explained the accident and resulting injuries. When the arrangement of Kohn's singing played, my son asked, "mama, would you like to dance?", so we did. Kohn's voice, the arrangement, and the song brought us huge(!) joy and moved us - emotionally and literally. Thank you for this beautiful story. We hope Kohn is still singing.

Oct. 09 2013 05:27 PM
Rachael from Jacksonville Florida

This story, simply put, moved me. I sat in the rain, parked in my own driveway, unable to get out of the car until this story finished. Beautiful, touching, eye-opening.

Oct. 08 2013 01:48 PM

I simply fell in love with both Andy - for his beautifulness, and Kohn - for his exceptional beauty as well as his wonderful voice.

His singing was moving beyond measure. I so enjoyed it that I've played it back several times. Kohn - please know that you are unique and your voice is a wonderful balm to my ears.

Andy, you are one terrific guy. We need millions more young men like you!

Oct. 08 2013 01:11 PM
Bob Close from Iroquois Confederacy, Onondaga Nation

I was incredibly moved by this piece. Which isn't probably what Kohn wants to hear, but hey. It was an amazing radiolab production and at the same time wonderful science - and I've listened to, well, at least dozens. Fantastic music mix at the end. Geezus.

Oct. 07 2013 08:56 PM
Terese Newman from Connecticut

Not only was this fascinating, but touching as well. I listened to this in my car, couldn't get out of the car until I heard the end of the story, and then proceeded to find it on this site so that I could post it and send it to others to listen to. It is a wonderful thing that Andy and Kohn met in college and are able to share this amazing story.

Oct. 06 2013 04:00 PM
S from Bay Area, CA

As Jake from MD said, I sat boiling in my car just to hear the end of this piece. It was absolutely fantastic and brought tears to my eyes. People like Kohn, Andy, and the members of Hudson Branch make this world liveable.

Thanks Radiolab!

Oct. 05 2013 07:38 PM
Becky Ernst from Minneapolis

I was moved by the story on Kohn Ashmore and his relationship with Andy Mills, or rather the story on Andy Mills and his relationship with Kohn Ashmore. And once I heard Kohn singing Grey Room I was weeping. I felt so bad for him, and I felt so bad for feeling bad for him. I was drinking and cleaning my kitchen and all of the thoughts, the insecurities, the shame, started to manifest itself as I listened to this one story. My first thought… would I have been so open-minded and moreso brave, as a college student, to open myself to someone with whom I would have been so uncomfortable? Or would I have treated him as something delicate and dangerous, to be avoided but not overtly so?
I would have avoided him, not necessarily because I had preconceived notions about him, but because the society in which I had been raised had preconceived notions about me, and how I should approach a person with such a disability. I did not have the tact that Andy Mills had, nor do I have the tact that Andy Mills has. I also have terrible hearing, and a poor track record with anyone with a speech impediment. My inability to distinguish and filter the noises around me into something meaningful has alienated me from many, for making those with speech difficulties feel ever more self-conscious about it in my presence, or leastways for having to ask, multiple times, for most people to repeat what they’ve said.
Listening to this story brought up so many insecurities in myself, and I am ashamed that I cannot be happy for this man who was able to open up and find friendship and grow with his friends because I am too hung up on my inability to be that Andy to someone whom I’ve met who could have been my Kohn. And is this so particularly shallow and insensitive, as I fear it is? In my drive to be a better and more understanding person, perhaps I have found a more mean and base part of myself that needs forgiving.

Oct. 05 2013 04:32 PM
Jake from Chestertown, MD

The write up on this broadcast said that Kohn's voice was arresting. Well I went out to the store for a quick trip. I ended up sitting and sweating in my hot truck unable to leave the broadcast. Maybe Kohn's voice is not what he expected but it only serves to make me stop, listen, slow down a little, and be more attentive to who he really is. He's a lot more "normal" than he may realize. He is not deficient. He n his friend Andy are more extraordinary than I think they know. Thank you both so much for being who you are and I wish I knew more people like you both. Ill remember this the next time I'm in my own gray room.

Oct. 05 2013 01:54 PM
Frank Wolkenberg from Baltimore

I am surprised that your neurologist did not consider that Kohn's issue might be related to injury to his cerebellum. It is the part of the brain that (among other things) compares motor commands with their execution and is involved with speech. If that were, so to speak, knocked off-line for speech or auditory feedback, his slowed output would not perhaps register as slow. It would have no effect on his perception of others.

I think it wonderful that Andy was able to get past the anxieties and impatience that are often part of being a college freshman to take the time to discover the person who became his good friend.

Great show.


Oct. 05 2013 01:50 PM
Nicole from Montclair NJ

I agree with Roger, as soon as I heard him speak, I thought he was deaf. Having deaf parents should have been explored more deeply. I babysat for a deaf couple with hearing children who had "normal" pronunciation. But I was thinking that since he had a brain accident perhaps when he was relearning to speak some part of his brain recalled his parent's voices. Kind of like people who start speaking with foreign accents after a stroke.

Oct. 05 2013 12:43 PM
Kyle K

I have had a speech impediment my entire life and I thought I was the only one that freaked out when I heard my voice on recording. I am told I talk slow but I never hear it except on recording. This story blew my mind.

Oct. 05 2013 04:35 AM
Ralph from Arlington, Virginia

I kept wondering why Andy or any of you (or even an Oliver Sacks type of person) did not even try to engage Kohn in a choral recitation of a poem or a song: something out loud, where am imposed rhythm and tempo would have become the norm. Too bad.

Jul. 06 2013 10:39 PM
George from Alameda, CA

I suffered a severed infection in my brain when I was two and
it took me a very long time to even speak in a way that was
understandable. To me, my voice sounds very deep and clear -
perhaps I am listening more to my own thoughts than my voice -
but others often have a very difficult time understanding me and
yes it is still a shock to hear my self on audio tape - far less
deep and far, far less than clear.
It seems my vocal chords are doing what they should but the
amount of air I push through the chords is far less than it should
be and far slower - so the sounds I make are not sharp and enunciated
but mushy and blurred...

Jul. 02 2012 06:39 PM
Richard Davis from mill valley, california

just sent the audio to my best friend in the UK. we have known each other since birth, and are now 61 & 60 respectively. mike had an aneurism age 33 that left him with severe paralysis and speech impediment - he sounds like kohn. mike has mentioned to me before that he does not hear himself as we hear him!


Jun. 28 2012 12:31 AM
Drew Goodwin from Boston MA

I wondered what would his voice recording sounded like if they sped up the tape. Could it sound normal?

Jun. 26 2012 02:19 PM
Roger Curtiss from Deer Harbor WA

There seems to be one aspect of this story that is being overlooked. The story states that Kohn was raised by deaf parents. Children learn to talk by hearing their parents' speech. Could it be that Kohn was speaking "oddly" even before he went into his coma? None of the people in the story who knew him were in his life pre-coma. Therefore, we do not know how he spoke even before the incident. Is it possible that he was speaking this way (or closely to it) since learning to talk?

Jun. 24 2012 12:50 PM

Wow!... my grandson is 16 ,has cp ,and has learned to "talk" in the last 5 years,..and walk...both sketchy. We used to "sing" together to Cat Stevens. He'd be so happy just expressing himself,..and I think he thought he was saying the words too,facial expressions and all. The program gave me a lot to think ,and feel about. he's a great kid,..our gift.

Jun. 23 2012 08:20 PM
Gary Bastoky from San Jose, CA

I experienced something similar, although it was the opposite voice perception, in that voices, including my own, were speeded-up. I was 8 or 9 yo and had a high fever. I remember this very clearly because it freaked me out. I remember telling my father to stop talking because he was talking too fast. I didn't understand why. The look on his face ("wow, he's really sick") was scarier than the actual perception. Nothing else was speeded-up, just voices. This lasted until my fever subsided.

I realized, later on, that time was a relative thing. It really has more to do with our perception. I'm sure he was paraphrasing someone else (Einstein?) but I remember Woody Allen saying that time was to keep everything from happening at once.

I have a had a severe hearing loss for most of my life, so I'm acutely aware of anomalies in sounds, voices, music because my perception of them is generally different from normal hearing people. Hearing Kohn's slowed-down voice gave me anxiety as it reminded me of my incident with speeded-up voices.

Jun. 23 2012 04:54 PM
William from Virginia, USA

I found the story about Kohn Ashmore very touching. The description of Kohn hearing his recorded voice reminded me of an epiphany when one realizes that reality does not measure up to one's image of one self. Kohn must be a courageous man, to use his voice in a song. He seems to have gone from feeling sad about his voice, to embracing it's unique quality.
I feel great respect for "Hudson Branch". They recognized an opportunity to create unique artwork, inspired by a unique individual.
Radiolab is wonderful.

Jun. 23 2012 04:18 PM

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