Guest No-Shows: Emergency Krulwich Deployed

The Bryant Park Project is live radio without a net — or it would be, if it weren't for the radio genius of Robert Krulwich.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MIKE PESCA, host:

So here's what happens. We have a guest scheduled. His name is Jordan Wright. He's going to come by, show us presidential campaign memorabilia. You can't really convey some of this stuff over the phone. There's a bit of a problem getting him into the studios, some car trouble. We're going to put him off. He'll come in at a later date.

So, what do we do now? That's right. We break out the Emergency Krulwich.

(Soundbite of siren)

PESCA: Apparently, the Emergency Krulwich is located on a Parisian street. How does that work?

Anyway, when a guest falls out, we break out a radio gem from Robert Krulwich, sort of a disincentive to make every guest show up on time, given that Mr. Krulwich is what is known in the business as a genius.

Today, take yourself back to your very first memory. Most people can remember things that happen when they were maybe three or four. But earlier than that, this next story asks, how far back can you go?

ROBERT KRULWICH: This is the story of a woman - an older woman in her 80s who goes to sleep one night in her room in an old people's home in the Bronx in New York. And according to Dr. Oliver Sacks, the writer and neurologist…

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Writer, Neurologist): She has a dream.

KRULWICH: In her dream, she hears a female voice singing, humming a song.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: It sounds like an Irish ballad. And as she told Dr. Sacks when he wrote about her years ago - he's updated her story in his new book "Musicophilia" - the first song she heard was followed by a second song.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: It was also Irish-sounding. And that one was followed by a third song.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: And then she wakes up. But even awake, her head is still filled with sound - those same songs keep going…

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: …and going and going - and not only that…

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Neurology, Oxford University): They are very loud, so loud that she's puzzled.

KRULWICH: At first, this woman - and Dr. Sacks calls her Mrs. O.C. - at first, he thought, well, these voices have got to be coming from a radio somewhere.

Dr. SACKS: Absolutely. I mean, she wandered around a bit and sort of looked for a radio, but there wasn't a radio on. Everyone else was asleep.

KRULWICH: Strange. Now, if I were an 88-year-old woman in an old people's home in the middle of the night hearing music everywhere which no one else hears, that would frighten me.

Dr. SACKS: Well, it's frightened her.

KRULWICH: She must have thought, I guess I'm going crazy.

Dr. SACKS: You know, hearing things?

KRULWICH: Yeah. But later that morning, when she saw the house doctor…

Dr. SACKS: He said, no, Mrs. O.C. You're not mad, and the mad don't hear music. They only hear voices. You must see a neurologist.

KRULWICH: Who happens to be you?

Dr. SACKS: Right.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: When they first met, Dr. Sacks had to yell over the noise inside Mrs. O.C.'s head. She could barely hear him.

Dr. SACKS: She was now thoroughly rattled, and the music continued deafening.

KRULWICH: So, Dr. Sacks asked her, could you hum these songs? Could you describe them? And she said, yup. They're Irish. They're sung by a female. and somehow, they're vaguely familiar.

Dr. SACKS: They were associated for her with childhood and early childhood.

KRULWICH: And then she asked, well, do you think maybe I had a stroke?

Dr. SACKS: It could be, I said, although I've - I'm not sure that I've encountered a stroke like this.

KRULWICH: So then what's your next move? What do you do?

Dr. SACKS: I wanted to look at her brainwaves…

KRULWICH: Which required an electro-encephalogram or an EEG machine, but they had to find the machine, which meant it was going to be a bit of a wait. And while they waited, the songs in Mrs. O.C.'s head, they start to fade, just a bit little.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, it's diminishing. It comes and goes. It's getting softer.

KRULWICH: So when it was time for the exam…

Dr. SACKS: We said sit, make yourself comfortable…

KRULWICH: And when you hear music, whenever the song starts…

Dr. SACKS: I want you to raise a finger…

KRULWICH: Did she raise your finger?

Dr. SACKS: She raised her finger several times, and each time, one saw some increase in voltage over the right temporal lobe.

KRULWICH: So she wasn't crazy. There was a spasm of electrical activity in a very particular region of her brain.

Dr. SACKS: Exactly. And those parts of the brain where music is perceived, imagined, hallucinated…

KRULWICH: So maybe Mrs. O.C. had a stroke one night that affected the cells in her brain and produced music in her head - musical epilepsy, it was called, by a famous Canadian.

Dr. SACKS: Wilder Penfield, the great Canadian neurosurgeon.

KRULWICH: In the 1940s, Dr. Penfield operated on scores of patients. And when he had them on the table with their brains exposed, he would take a probe and very lightly touch different areas of their brains. You don't feel pain up there, so the patients could tell them in real time what they were experiencing: sounds, colors. But when he touched certain areas of the brain, his patients heard music.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: And the music they heard, Penfield reported, was generic -everybody's music. Christmas carols or famous songs…

(Soundbite of song, "Old Man River")

Mr. PAUL ROBESON (Actor, Singer): (Singing) Old man river…

KRULWICH: So when you examined Mrs. O.C., you knew about Dr. Penfield and his patients. You knew about the songs they heard. So what did you think?

Dr. SACKS: I thought she was having musical seizures.

KRULWICH: But in Mrs. O.C.'s case, there was a difference.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. SACKS: I was struck by the nostalgia which seemed to attach to what the song she heard.

KRULWICH: Mrs. O.C.'s songs, weren't the songs all of us hear. Hers seemed more personal, like real memories. So we asked her about her childhood and discovered that she was from Ireland, that her father had died before she was born and her mother had died when she was only 5 years old.

Dr. SACKS: Her childhood had been rather desolate in a way - orphaned, alone. She was sent to America to live with a rather forbidding maiden aunt. She had no conscious memory in the first five years of her life. No memory of her mother, of Ireland, of home.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: So who was that singing to her? Scientists don't know really how a brain chooses the music that we keep in our heads. There's probably no secret vault of songs from early infancy - no scientific evidence, anyway. But Dr. Sacks could tell that Mrs. O.C. longed for some version of her missing mother.

Dr. SACKS: She had always felt this is a keen and painful sadness - this lack of forgetting of the earliest, most precious years of her life.

KRULWICH: And so, because he was her doctor, and because it might help…

Dr. SACKS: I am something of a romantic at heart.

KRULWICH: So Dr. Sacks gave Mrs. O.C. not a science paper. He gave her a short story by the writer H.G. Wells, which imagines a character who can magically open the secret door to his childhood memories.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: And he said to Mrs. O.C., read this story and maybe your stroke -maybe you can think that it opened that door in you. Now, this is not orthodox science.

Dr. SACKS: I sometimes depart from strict neurology.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: But if you want, he said, think of the stroke as a gift that allows you to glimpse - you're 80 years, 88 years old - to glimpse what happened at the very start of your life when you were a baby girl, you're hearing - singing you lullabies. Let's say that that's really your mother's voice, your missing mother.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: And Mrs. O.C. thought, well, yeah, that fits.

Dr. SACKS: I'm an old woman with a stroke in an old people's home. But I feel I'm a child in Ireland again. I feel my mother's arms. I see her. I hear her voice singing.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Was that really her mother? Dr. Sachs does not know.

Dr. SACKS: I'm now more inclined to think that this is probably, you know, at least richly infused with fantasy and with longing.

KRULWICH: The songs, though, they are real. Irish mothers 80 years earlier had indeed sung those songs to their children. In Mrs. O.C.'s case, however, the songs got weaker, and then weaker, and then they vanished.

And once they'd gone - her brain had apparently healed itself. She discovered that she missed her disease. She missed those songs. And she missed that voice, especially the voice.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

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