The Pulse Go on a sonic adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with host Maiken Scott. Created by WHYY in Philadelphia, the NPR member station that brought you Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
The Pulse

The Pulse


Go on a sonic adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with host Maiken Scott. Created by WHYY in Philadelphia, the NPR member station that brought you Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Most Recent Episodes

The Therapist in Your Pocket

Finding the right therapist — or, sometimes, any therapist — can be a grueling process. Someone with the right expertise, who is still taking new clients, lives in your area, who accepts your insurance, or whose services you can afford. Over the past few years, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp and Talkspace have seen an explosion in popularity. They promise easy access — anytime you need it — and affordability. Major changes are happening in the field of mental health, as more people turn to online services — not just for counseling, but for diagnosis and prescriptions. How good are these platforms really — for clients and for therapists? And what are the larger issues they raise about the field as a whole? On this episode, we look at the rise of online mental health services. We hear stories about working for one of these apps, what clients like or dislike about them, and the unregulated world of online ADHD diagnosis. Also heard on this week's episode: We talk with Charles Jacob, psychologist and professor at Sacred Heart University, about some of the thorny issues facing online and in-person therapy — from state licensing requirements to complaints about unprofessionalism, and how to know if a therapist is right for you. Reporter Grant Hill talks with Gabby Rogut, a Mexican high school teacher who was struggling with suicidal thoughts, about the convenience — and later the pitfalls — of online therapy.

The Hidden Powers of Fungi

When you hear the word fungi, chances are mushrooms come to mind: button mushrooms, maybe portobellos, or chanterelles. But so much of the fungi kingdom is invisible — underground — and many say underappreciated. Fungi are vital to life on the planet, but scientists are just beginning to understand their many functions and possibilities. On this episode, we explore the role of fungi in nature, in medicine, and in our lives. We'll talk about sustainable design that utilizes mycelium, discuss how fungi form networks that communicate information, and look at an experimental and unapproved fungi-based treatment people are using to regain their sense of smell. Also heard on this week's episode: Mycologist and mushroom entrepreneur Paul Stamets talks about growing mushrooms in your own backyard. Biologist Merlin Sheldrake discusses the important role of fungi as the planet's "brilliant decomposers," and explains why he loves the idea of having fungi all around us — and inside of us. We visit Vedge Restaurant in Philadelphia to get a crash course on preparing mushrooms from Chef Rich Landau (Pro tip: hold the salt until the very end!) He explains how to cook with different mushrooms, and recalls a time when portobello mushrooms were an expensive rarity. Designer Danielle Trofe talks about the lampshades she grows from mycelium. They're light, velvety to the touch, sturdy, and yet completely biodegradable. Foraging for mushrooms was a "national sport" in the Czech Republic where Barbora Batokova grew up. Now, she brings her love of mushrooms to fans online, where she goes by "Fungiwoman." Her sites feature beautiful photos of mushrooms that she finds in the wild, as well as explanations and tips for identification.

Communicating with Animals

Humans have long been fascinated by the idea of communicating with other species — not just teaching animals to mimic human words, but truly understanding their calls or cries, and interpreting their meaning. In recent years, new technologies and research are getting us closer to that point. So what are scientists learning about the way animals' minds work — what they think about, care about, and want us to understand? On this episode, we explore animal communication — from their ability to speak our language, to our ability to understand theirs. We hear stories about what viral videos of "talking" dogs and cats are teaching scientists, the hidden meanings behind whale songs and dolphin whistles, and how machine learning is decoding the oinks and squeals of pigs. Also heard on this week's episode: Nicole Cordova says her husky Manson loves to talk — whine, argue, and yell like Chewbacca. We hear about what it's like living with a chatty canine. In 1970, biologist Roger Payne released a haunting album called "Songs of the Humpback Whale" that left listeners spellbound. Fifty years later, what have we learned about what those songs mean? We talk with nature documentary filmmaker Tom Mustill — author of the recent book "How to Speak Whale" — about what scientists have discovered. We talk with Justin Gregg, a researcher at the Dolphin Communication Project, about what dolphin clicks and whistles mean, how their communication differs from human language, and what we're learning about what matters to dolphins. When pigs oink, grunt, or snort, does it mean they feel good or bad? That's the question Élodie Briefer, an animal cognition expert who teaches biology at the University of Copenhagen, is trying to answer. She tells us what machine learning is uncovering about the feelings behind these vocalizations, and how it can help livestock farmers and inspectors improve pigs' lives.

The Transformative Power of Awe

It's the goosebumps you get at the crescendo of your favorite song; the stupefying wonder that comes with witnessing a birth or a death; the astonishing mystery we feel when gazing at the vast night sky. This is awe — a complex, often overwhelming emotion that can elicit everything from pleasure and connectedness to a crawling sense of uncertainty. Moments of awe can create unforgettable memories — and they can have a lasting impact on our minds and the way we interact with others. One of the leading scientists studying awe is Dacher Keltner, a University of California, Berkeley psychologist, who's dedicated the past 15 years to investigating the origins and effects of this emotion. On this episode, we talk with Keltner about his new book "Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life." He discusses his own, very personal experience of awe amid profound grief, the ability of awe to transform our experience of the world, and how we can cultivate awe on a daily basis. We also hear from listeners about their experiences of awe, and listen back to a story about how voyages to space change the way astronauts perceive life, their relationships, and Earth as a whole. Also heard on this week's episode: We listen back to a story by reporter Irina Zhorov about how venturing into space transforms astronauts' experience of Earth.

Making the Best of It

It's the start of a new year — a time when lots of people are thinking about how they can improve their lives ... and themselves. We make plans to get to the gym, eat healthier, sleep more, and have a better work-life balance. But despite our best intentions, these resolutions are usually short-lived, and often fizzle out by February. It's a recipe for disappointment. Not only that — chasing the elusive, future version of ourselves can mean that we're failing to deal with our current reality. So instead of change, we're focusing on acceptance on this first episode of 2023 — specifically, how do we find acceptance under challenging circumstances? How do we adapt when life throws us a curveball in the form of a life-changing diagnosis? We'll dig into those questions — ditching the New Year's resolutions in favor of tales about making peace with where we are now. We'll hear stories about an actor struggling with cystic fibrosis, making your life and schedule work with ADHD, living with a rare and inescapable allergy, and how one family navigated their son's diagnosis with autism. Also heard on this week's episode: Kirsten Michelle Cills always wanted to be an actor. She had the talent and the ambition — just one thing stood in her way: cystic fibrosis. Reporter Justin Kramon tells the story of how this life-threatening illness affected Kirsten's dream ... and eventually opened new doors. We talk with psychologist Jacqueline Mattis, who studies human well-being and positive development at Rutgers University, about ways we can find joy and meaning in what we have now — even if it's not what we wanted. For years, Jonita Davis heard the same things over and over: that she was flaky, unreliable, forgetful — different. It wasn't until she was an adult that Jonita finally discovered the reason — and learned to make her life work for her. Nichole Currie reports. Allergies can range from annoying to life-threatening — but usually people can find ways to avoid the things they're allergic to. But what if you discovered you were allergic to something inescapable? Writer Alison Espach tells the story of how she discovered she was allergic to the cold. Read her essay about the experience, "I Woke Up with Cold Urticaria." Raising a child with autism comes with unique challenges, from making friends to doing well in school — but one of the most daunting is raising them to be independent. Reporter Jad Sleiman talks with Max, along with his parents, Amy, and Tim, about his Asperger's diagnosis, and how it transformed their expectations of who and how he would be in the world.

Noise Annoys

On a technical level, noise and sound are the same thing: vibrating molecules that travel in waves straight to our ears. But when sound is annoying, we tend to call it noise. From garbage trucks to car alarms, shrieking babies to nails on a chalkboard, noise can be really grating and irritating. In fact, some noises are so annoying, so loud, so obnoxious that they can take a toll on our well-being and health. On this episode — part two of our exploration of sound — we take a look at noise, how it affects us, and what we can do to reduce it. We listen to stories about a phantom beep in Brooklyn that had everybody on edge, the quest to quiet hospital alarms, and a day in the life of a noise detective. Also heard on this week's episode: Last fall, a mysterious beeping noise started plaguing Brooklyn Heights — a noise that no one could identify, and no one could find. Reporter Liz Tung tells the story of how a neighborhood came together to track down the phantom beep, and why experts say noise pollution is so bad for our health. This story is based on an article originally reported by Mary Frost for the Brooklyn Eagle, "Search for the mysterious noise in Brooklyn turns into massive crowdsourced investigation." We hear from listeners about their noise pet peeves, from screeching children to ice cream trucks. Alarms in hospitals are supposed to alert staff that a patient is in crisis. But too often, they blare for no reason — in fact, in the majority of cases, they are false alarms. They make patients anxious, disrupt nurses and physicians while they're caring for other patients, and lead to burnout and alarm fatigue. A few years ago, The Pulse met researcher and pediatrician Christopher Bonafide from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He was determined to find ways to change alarms in hospitals. We check back in with him to find out what he's learned. We also speak to nurse Meghan McNamara, who is a safety and quality specialist at the same hospital and participated in this research. We hear, too, from Joe Schlesinger, a physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a musician who has created a series of new alarms that contain layers of important information. Alan Fierstein has an unusual job: He's an "acoustic consultant," aka a noise detective, who spends his days tracking down unwanted sounds in the noise capital of the U.S., New York City. Reporter Jad Sleiman follows Fierstein around for a day as he hunts noise in the Big Apple.

Ed Yong on Animal Perception and the Pandemic

Science journalist Ed Yong is a must-read — with his in-depth reporting, his beautifully told stories, and spot-on analysis. He is one of the go-to-journalists for the most up-to-date and accurate information on the pandemic. On top of his reporting, he also published a book in 2022, called "An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us," about how animals experience the world, outside the confines of human senses. "Each creature really is only able to sense a small amount of the fullness of reality," he said. "I find this idea to be one of the most beautiful in biology. At the same time, it is humbling and also very expansive ... because it tells us how much we're missing, how much there is to understand and know about." The Pulse invited Yong to come to Philadelphia for a conversation at the Academy of Natural Sciences. He talked about what he learned while writing the book, and he also reflected on what it was like to work on the book during the pandemic, and why he thinks we will be stuck in an era of epidemics and pandemics yet to come. Interview highlights On a "scallop TV" experiment: There's a guy called Daniel Speiser. He's done some great work on scallop vision, and ... he did an experiment that he calls scallop TV where you put little scallops on, on small chairs and showed them movies, of flecks of food drifting past in the water. And sure enough, the scallops would open the shells and extend little sensory tentacles out to explore ... hell of a thing watching a scallop be curious about the world. On empathy: I really, really tried to understand how animals use their senses, and a really cool part of the book was this idea that ... "An Immense World" is not a book about superiority, but about diversity. So often one common way of engaging with animals' sense is to prize them only when they exceed our own. So ... an eagle's vision or a shark's sense of smell — the super sensers. But my argument here is that ... the really interesting thing here ... is the variation: it's how disparate the experiences of other animals can be, so that even when you have something like a scallop, which has much poorer vision than ours, there is something truly fascinating about how it uses its eyes and what it gets from the world. On reading a bat's mind through echolocation: It's almost like one of the easiest to study because unlike, say, vision or smell, echolocation doesn't work unless the bat is doing something. It needs to put out energy in the world. The bat says Marco, and it makes its surroundings say Polo back. Because of that, by recording the bats calls, you can kind of gauge its intent. So an echolocating bat will change the types of sounds it produces to get different kinds of information back from the environment. ... You can record that with a microphone and it basically gives you an insight into exactly what the bat, what it's trying to do at that moment. It's sort of like reading the creature's mind, and yet you can't really read the creature's mind. Despite ... the technological sophistication that makes echolocation such an understandable sense, I still don't know what it's like to be a bat. On the mystery of magnetoreception Magnetoreception is the least understood of all the senses because it is by far the hardest to study. It is the only one, for example, we still don't know where or what the sense organ is. ... And partly that's because magnetic fields are a very weird stimulus. They penetrate living tissue and are unimpeded by it. So while a lot of sense organs need to be on the surface, usually connected to some kind of hole in a shell or a skeleton, a magnetic receptor, an organ that senses magnetic fields could be anywhere, could be in my knee, it could be in my elbow, could be buried deep in my body. It could be spread out all across my body ... we don't know. Someone who studies this has described this to me as like maybe trying to find a needle in a needle stack. On science as a social endeavor: One of the biggest lies that is told about science and how it works is that it is a purely objective, like very clinical, very cold procession of facts. ... Instead, it is just a very gradual and erratic stumble towards slightly less uncertainty. And it is profoundly a social endeavor, like, a scientist's interpretation of the world depends on the results from her work, and the results from her work depend on the kinds of experiments that she decides to run. The kind of experiments she decides to run depend on the kinds of questions she thinks about asking in the first place. And the questions she asked in the first place are dependent on her values, her culture, the dogma within her field at a time, all of these like deeply social forces. Why we are in an "era of pandemics": As the climate warms, animals are being forced to relocate to track their preferred environmental conditions. And that means that species are changing their ranges all the time. And that means that animal species that never previously co-existed will suddenly find themselves living in the same place because they will have moved and that will give opportunities for their viruses, which were unique and special to them to jump into new hosts and then eventually into us. There was a very good paper that came out this year showing exactly this process that is well underway and that we are living through probably like the golden age of that process of what I have termed the 'pandemicene' in my reporting where, and the horrible thing about that is that a lot of the spillovers will be concentrated in areas with high human habitation and that process is now effectively runaway, like, even if we halted all greenhouse gas emissions today, the momentum of climate change will mean that those that increased spillover dynamic will continue happening. On hope as a discipline: A lot of the problems that we've experienced in the pandemic boil down to a catastrophic failure of empathy. And while I'm not naive enough to think that learning about scallop eyes is suddenly going to make people take actions that protect their fellow humans, I do think that empathy is a muscle that you can flex and build and strengthen. And I hope that this is part of it. I also know that despair is lethal. Right now, we have a huge number of global, massive problems that need constant attention and persistence ...The abolitionist Mariame Kaba talks about how hope is a discipline. And it's not a nebulous, fluffy thing. It is something that requires effortful work, constant effortful work. And I think to sustain in the face of all the challenges and the tragedies that we see around us, we need to embrace things that bring joy, and that bring hope, and that bring wonder.

Humans and Sound

The soundscape of our lives changes depending on where we are — the murmuring of voices, birdsong in trees, the beeps and dings of technology, and the cacophony of traffic. Our worlds are dense with sound. Often, it all blends together to the point that we barely notice it. But every sound has its own distinct profile — providing information, bringing joy or irritation, causing us to snap to attention or zone out. In this episode, we explore the world of sound, how we interact with it, and the people who compose the sounds that define our lives. We hear stories about the teams designing the hum of electric cars, how the sounds of a rainforest inspired the pings and dings coming from your computer, and a disorder that makes ordinary noises almost unbearable. Also heard on this week's episode: We talk with physicist and oceanographer Helen Czerski about what sound is, how it travels, how our sense of hearing evolved, and her favorite topic — the sound of bubbles. Czerski is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at University College London. Her book is called "Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life." Great cars make great sounds — the growl of a Porsche, the roar of a Mustang, the purr of a BMW. But what about electric cars? They're known for being quiet, but in recent years, electric car makers have been working to create their own signature sound. Reporter Alan Yu finds out what automobiles of the future will sound like. Who decides the sounds our electronics make: email notifications, event reminders, and error alerts? Pulse producer Nichole Currie talks with sound designer Matthew Bennet about the unlikely origin of the beeps and boops that define our daily lives. We listen back to a conversation with Fresh Air's Terry Gross about how different she sounds on the radio than in her head — and talk with William Hartmann, who's part of the psychoacoustics group at Michigan State University, about why that is.

When Humans and Wildlife Collide

Whether we're in a forest, a park, or in the middle of a city, wildlife is always close by. Birds flying overhead, deer peeking through the branches, rabbits hopping through our yards, or rats and raccoons rummaging through our garbage. Sharing space with wild animals means our paths often cross — which can have less than desirable outcomes for either. On this episode, we'll explore human-wildlife interactions — and the challenges that arise from living in the same space. We'll hear about efforts to reduce bird strikes, which are frequent and dangerous for low-flying planes, and find out how scientists are keeping a rabies outbreak among raccoons at bay. We'll also hear about a disease that's being spread by kissing bugs, and meet volunteers dedicated to rescuing injured wildlife. Also heard on this week's episode: In 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 was taking off from LaGuardia airport when it collided with a flock of Canada geese — causing them to lose all engine power. The plane landed safely, but it brought attention to a problem that goes back more than 100 years: bird strikes. Reporter Marcus Biddle investigates a new strategy to prevent birds from flying into the path of planes. For decades, America has been dealing with a growing public health threat that has cute little hands and a ringed tail: rabid raccoons. Scientists long ago identified the problem; the question was: How do you vaccinate thousands of raccoons? Reporter Alan Yu tells this story of an innovative campaign to do exactly that. Wild animals are often injured or killed by human activities — especially driving. Just last year, Pennsylvania had the highest number of animal and vehicle road collisions in the country. But while there aren't many large-scale solutions to lessen the effect, there is a small community of volunteers who are doing their best to save injured wildlife. Producer Nichole Currie reports.

Finding a Way to Live With Grief

The death of a loved one can be shattering — especially when it's unexpected. It destroys our feeling of safety, warps our sense of reality, and often leaves us feeling lost ... unsure if we'll ever come out on the other side. It's an experience just about everyone goes through at some point in their lives, and yet it can feel profoundly lonely. There's no linear logic or prescribed progression; grief advances stubbornly at its own pace. The wounds can feel both fresh and ancient, stifling and endless, like it's a connection to our loved ones — and a wall that we can never break through. And yet, every day, people do survive their grief — they live with it and through it, and emerge on the other side. On this episode, we hear stories of grief and healing. A mother whose son was murdered at the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 describes how her grief has changed over the past decade. We will also explore what researchers have learned about grief in the wake of the pandemic — what some have called a "shadow pandemic" of loss. And we'll meet a researcher who is trying to compile the best information to help people who are dealing with grief. Also heard on this week's episode: For many young people, the pandemic brought their first brush with death. We listen back to a story by student reporter Jacob Smollen, who explored how young people deal with grief, starting with his own experience after losing his grandmother at the end of 2020. Prolonged grief disorder is now an official diagnosis — but what do we actually know how long grief lasts, and how to treat it? We talk with scientist and writer Hilda Bastian about her research after losing her son to sudden illness. When you're grieving the loss of a loved one, time seems to warp — it speeds up and slows down, or holds us frozen in place. We listen back to conversations with grief therapist Claire Drexler, writer Jared Michael Lowe, and others about whether time really heals all wounds.