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

Why We Need Friends — Especially Now

We rely on our friends for all kinds of things — companionship, laughter, and right now — support in times of crisis. But it's only recently that scientists have started investigating how friendship works, and why it matters to our health and well-being. On this episode, we explore the anatomy of this unique bond, with stories about what happens when friendship turns romantic, the painful experience of bestie breakups, and how friendships can form between unlikely animal pairings. Also heard on this week's episode: Science journalist Lydia Denworth discusses why friendship is essential to our health and to our survival. She is the author of "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond." Dakota Fisher-Vance and Cara Scharf were both diagnosed with cancer in their early 20s. They talk to us about how being young adults with cancer brought them together, and why having a shared illness has made their bond stronger. They are the co-founders of Young Adult Cancer Connection. Do friendship apps actually work? Reporter Buffy Gorrilla takes us on a journey as she navigates different apps while looking for friendship in Australia. Some animals form something akin to what we think of as friendship. It's usually animals that live in "stable, bonded social groups," like primates or whales. But sometimes, friendships happen with animals that aren't usually candidates for that kind of relationship. Liz Tung reports on an unlikely friendship between two bears at the Philadelphia Zoo. We also created a mixtape of all of our favorite songs about friends. Check it out on Spotify or press play below.

Slowing the Spread of COVID-19

Communities around the world are scrambling to slow the spread of COVID-19: closing businesses and schools, canceling gatherings, and limiting social interactions. Some countries and cities have even gone on almost total lockdown. On this episode, we hear about different measures to stop the virus, and how they're affecting people. We hear about the impact of medical quarantine, how more aggressive testing could slow the spread, and why some ER doctors think they're not doing enough to keep the virus in check. We also get an update on COVID-19 vaccine research. Also heard on this week's episode: We are asking people all around the country to start sending us little time capsules of their lives as the coronavirus spreads. If you can record yourself on your smartphone and tell us how your life is changing, please be in touch with host Maiken Scott, Regular Pulse contributor and ER doctor Avir Vitra tells us about how medical professionals are dealing with the COVID-19 spread, and whether the medical system is prepared for this kind of pandemic. Sheri Fink, a New York Times correspondent and executive producer of the Netflix series, "Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak," explains why testing is so crucial for both public health officials and anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to the virus. Fink, who won Pulitzer Prizes for her investigation into a New Orleans hospital in the days after Hurricane Katrina and for her reporting during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, also offers advice on how to stay safe and sane during the pandemic. Reporter Cris Barrish takes us to one of the country's first drive-through testing sites, and talks to patients who suspect they may have been infected.

Working Memory

Think about the millions of details stored in your memory: what you had for breakfast; how to get to work; the smell of lavender; your first kiss; a great vacation; how to calculate percentages. So much of our existence is based on our memory. All of the small and big things we accomplish and do every day tap into this system. But how does memory work? Why do we remember some things and not others? On this episode, we look at memory. We hear stories about what scientists say happens to our earliest childhood memories; people who cultivate a practice of remembering their dreams; and a new therapy that uses the senses to improve recall among people with dementia. Also heard on this week's episode: Michael Yassa, professor of neurobiology at the University of California Irvine, explains what we know about how memories are stored and accessed in our brains. We look into the "jukebox" in our heads that stores thousands of songs and melodies — and seemingly plays them at random. We explore the relationship between creativity and memory with Kevin Paul Madore, a research psychologist at Stanford University. We need memory to be creative, but sometimes it can be a tricky partner when we're trying to come up with something brand new.

Changing Treatments

Medicine is always changing. New treatments become available. Old ones become obsolete. But how does a treatment become established? How long does it take for science to get from research bench to bedside? And how do patients decide what is best for them? On this episode, we take a look at how patients and health care providers navigate the constantly changing world of medical treatments. We hear stories about how Accelerated Resolution Therapy [ART] became a hot new trauma therapy; one family's wrenching decision over scoliosis surgery; and health care journalist Kate Pickert's personal journey through modern breast cancer treatments. Also heard on this week's episode: Health care journalist Kate Pickert wrote several stories about breast cancer over the years — but when she was diagnosed herself, she realized that a lot of what she thought about treatment was wrong. Pickert wrote "Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America." Physician Jeff Brenner set out to revolutionize how health care is delivered to some of the country's sickest patients. His goal: to give patients who were using the ER for health care easy access to primary care. But was his approach successful? We chat with Dan Gorenstein, host of the health care podcast "Tradeoffs."

Outbreak 1793

COVID-19 — a coronavirus disease — is spreading around the world, putting people and governments on high alert. How will we respond to this crisis in the U.S.? Are we prepared? Can we contain the spread and treat those who are sick? As we grapple with these questions, this special edition of the Pulse, Outbreak 1793, takes a look back to another time when this nation battled a major infectious disease epidemic. It happened in 1793 in Philadelphia, which was the nation's capital at the time. In the sweltering heat of summer Yellow Fever began to spread, claiming lives at a rapid pace. Those who could flee left the city. Those who remained were panicked. Who or what was to blame? And who would fall victim next? Hosts Maiken Scott and public health historian Michael Yudell visit different parts of historic Philadelphia that played an important role during this Yellow Fever epidemic. We'll meet the people who stayed to fight the illness and learn about the important public health changes that happened as a result of this crisis. This outbreak marked the beginning of public health in America, and led to the kinds of policies and changes that still protect populations today.

Deciding What's Fair

"It's not fair!" That's a common refrain anyone with kids is familiar with. From the time they learn to talk, kids begin protesting the innumerable injustices of everyday life — slices of cake that aren't quite big enough, bedtimes that are earlier than their siblings', play times cut short by unexpected weather. And that obsession with fairness stays with us throughout our lives. It helps shape our relationships and personal values — along with our government, social systems, and national identity. So where does this fundamental drive toward fairness come from? How do we define what's fair — and who gets to decide? On this episode, we explore fairness, and how we learn to understand it. We hear stories about how algorithms are redefining what counts as fair — and why critics say they're doing the opposite; the neuroscience behind why we care so much about what's fair and what isn't; and the complicated fight to distribute donated organs in a more equitable way. Also heard on this week's episode: People with chronic conditions often have to pay out of pocket for medications that keep them alive and well. Dan Gorenstein from the health policy podcast "Tradeoffs" joins us to discuss efforts and ideas to bring more fairness to the insurance system. More than 100,000 Americans are on a waiting list for life-saving organ transplants that only a fraction will receive. Art Caplan, founding head of the division of medical ethics at New York University's School of Medicine, explains how the organ distribution system works, and how it could be improved. We also hear from two people who are currently waiting for transplants. If you want to learn more about becoming an organ donor, visit We talk to one of the creators of the MIT website Moral Machine, which seeks human input on questions of fairness in artificial intelligence.

The Science of Love

What is love? Is it that warm and fuzzy feeling, that crazed obsession, that deep sentiment of trust and good will? It's all of those things, but where and how does love happen in our bodies? On this special episode, we put love under the microscope (and into a brain scanner) to understand where this emotion begins, and where it takes us. We talk with neurologists and psychologists to get a better understanding of the feeling that can turn us into heroes, fools — or both. Also heard on this week's episode: Call it a crush, call it infatuation, call it obsession — some experts call it limerence. Reporter Grant Hill explains the difference between love and limerence, and what it has to do with "love addiction." How much has online dating changed the way we pick our romantic partners? We talk with biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who developed an in-depth questionnaire for the dating site We also put together a mixtape with some of our favorite songs about love. You can find it on Spotify.

How Movies Move Us

Movies may not be real — but in a lot of ways, they're real to us. Great films help us understand the world, history, and one another. They have the ability to reach a level of truth that we feel in our bones. When a great actor delivers a line — we believe them. When a beloved character dies, we mourn them. When danger approaches, our hair stands on end. What creates these strong reactions — and makes the illusion so compelling? On this episode, we look to science to explain how movie magic works in our brains and plays out in our emotions. We hear stories about the creation of movie sounds, method acting for dogs, whether you can really trust an actor, and how we draw the line between onscreen romance, and real-life love. Also heard on this week's episode: Reporter Ari Saperstein takes us inside the world of Foley artists, who recreate everyday sounds for movies, from walking to eating to sneezing. Alan Yu reports on the obsession with on-screen couples, and explores whether acting in love can lead to real romance. For a lot of actors, embodying someone else can take a toll on your psyche. Barton Goldsmith talks about his work as an on-set film therapist, and how it can lead to a more productive movie making experience. We talk with Cornell psychology professor James Cutting about how and why films capture our attention.

Understanding Infertility

When you're a teenager, everybody tells you that getting pregnant happens quickly, under all kinds of circumstances. But when you look at the process of conception and pregnancy more closely, it resembles a synchronized dance of hormones and conditions. So many steps have to happen for a fertilized egg to embed in a uterus. So when this process doesn't happen naturally, it's pretty complicated to figure out how to intervene. Over the past century, reproductive medicine has grown rapidly as a field, from experimenting with artificial insemination to in vitro fertilization. On this episode, we look at fertility (and infertility), and what we have learned about assisting nature. Also, we explore some of the issues and challenges that have come with modern fertility medicine. Also heard on this week's episode: We hear about the emotional roller coaster often involved in trying IVF treatments. Richard Sharpe from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland explains the challenges surrounding male infertility, and why we know so little about this issue. We hear an excerpt from the podcast Sick, which investigated the story of Indiana fertility doctor Donald Cline during its first season.

New Problems

In the decades after the Civil War, the nation was changing rapidly. Cities were industrializing, the railroad was expanding, business was booming in many places — people were busy! Life in the fast lane seemed to have an impact, giving rise to a condition that soon became known as neurasthenia. Some of the symptoms were fatigue, irritability, and digestion problems. Today, we would probably call this stress, or burnout. Each time period has its own problems that people try to name, and get under control. Often, new inventions come with unintended consequences. On this episode, we look into the new problems of our times, and what we're doing about them. Is vaping still a good strategy to quit smoking? Can clunky electronic health records be fixed? We also find out what therapists know about helping people who need to be online for their jobs, and are targeted by trolls. Also heard on this week's episode: Many people have used vaping as a way to quit smoking. But then we started hearing about a mysterious lung illness that's put more than 2,000 people in the hospital, and killed more than 50. Since then, there's been a backlash against vaping — with some claiming that it could be just as unhealthy as smoking regular old cigarettes. Is that true? Reporter Liz Tung — who recently traded Camels in for mango-flavored e-cigarettes — investigates. Journalist Beth Gardiner talks about the global impact of air pollution. Her new book is "Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution." Asthma rates are on the rise across the U.S., but the problem is especially dire on reservations. Reporter Eilís O'Neill visited the Navajo Nation to see how asthma is affecting families and children there. Her reporting was funded in part by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism's National Fellowship and by the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism. Technology means constant distractions, or reminders that something else needs to be done right now. We jump from task to task, or get sucked into social media. When do distractions lead to mistakes? We talk with researchers Samuel Murray from Duke University and Santiago Amaya from Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá. Electronic Health Records were supposed to make it easier to manage patient information, and to avoid mistakes. Instead, many health care providers complain that they are clunky to use, and interfere with treatment. Reporter Camille Petersen explores if they can they be fixed.

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