How to Win a Nobel Prize

How to Win a Nobel Prize

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Inside Michael Houghton’s painstaking quest for a cure for Hepatitis C

From New Trail, Spring 2021

Illustration of Mr. Houghton by Adam Cruft

When Chiron Corp., a small biotech company in California, hired a young scientist named Michael Houghton in 1982, it was already clear he was an exceptional scientist.

Several top biotech companies had offered him senior scientist positions based on research he’d done since obtaining his PhD in 1977 from King’s College London, in England. When Chiron called, Houghton was researching human interferon genes at a U.K. research institute of the large U.S. pharmaceutical company, G.D. Searle & Co.

Soon after Houghton arrived at Chiron, he learned about a mystery unfolding in every country.

A dangerous new pathogen that attacked the liver was running amok in the global blood supply. Left untreated, it could cause cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease and cancer. It wasn’t hepatitis A and it wasn’t hepatitis B. Whatever it was, it was brutal. Apart from turning a blood transfusion into a game of Russian roulette, it plagued the world’s most vulnerable and stigmatized people when they shared a needle — for it seemed to spread through contaminated blood. Roughly 150 million people worldwide were infected with it.

Houghton decided to switch fields and devote his lab at Chiron to finding the mystery virus.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, this will be a good purpose for my lab,’ ” Houghton recalls.

He had no idea what he was in for.

By now you probably know the man we’re talking about. In October, he won the Nobel Prize in medicine, sharing the honour with Americans Harvey Alter and Charles Rice. Houghton, a virologist in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry and director of the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute at the University of Alberta, is the first scientist based at a Canadian university to win a Nobel in medicine since Frederick Banting discovered insulin at the University of Toronto in 1923.

And that, you might assume, is the story in a nutshell: young researcher gets on the train and hops off 40 years later at the summit of human accomplishment, feted by the world as a hero.

But of course, the story isn’t that tidy. And the final chapter is still being written.

“You want to know what it takes to win a Nobel Prize? You do something that many people think is not possible,” says Lorne Tyrrell, virologist and founding director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, which encompasses the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute that Houghton leads. Both work in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

Indeed, it’s necessary to not realize it’s impossible in order to be able to do it, as the Nobel-winning physicist J. Michael Kosterlitz once framed the task.

In video meetings with media following the Oct. 5 Nobel announcement, Houghton presented to the world an expression that was … complicated. A mixture of joy, relief and gratitude, for sure. But the face of the scientist, now 70, also hinted at the kind of determination you’d expect of someone who deals in the impossible.

In 1982, the disease Houghton decided to tackle was known only as NANBH — non-A, non-B hepatitis, as in not caused by hep A or B viruses. A mysterious blood-borne disease defined by what it wasn’t. This would become his quest: to chase a shadow.

Together with Qui-Lim Choo, whom he recruited in 1983 along with Amy Weiner, Kang-Sheng Wang and Maureen Powers, Houghton set to work. One of the things that had slowed progress on NANBH — let’s call it HCV, the hepatitis C virus, since we know now that’s what they were seeking — was the lack of suitable animal models. Other than humans, hep C is only known to infect chimpanzees.

Houghton visited the lab of Daniel Bradley of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an expert in the NANBH chimpanzee model. With Bradley’s collaboration, the Chiron team extracted nucleic acid (DNA and RNA) from infected chimps and patients and cloned them to create vast libraries containing millions of nucleic acid sequences. They began sifting through them for one that looked as if it didn’t belong — a task akin to finding a single typo in a dictionary.

These days, with modern techniques that vastly speed up the copying and sequencing of segments of the genome, virology is a different beast than it was then. Nothing in Houghton’s tool kit at the time was quite up to the scope of this endeavour. “The methods we were applying were not sensitive enough,” he says. If today’s technology had been available back then, Houghton says, “it probably would have taken seven weeks” to find the mystery virus and sequence it.

Instead, it took seven years.

It didn’t help that no one really knew what kind of pathogen they were looking for. Was the virus like hep B or yellow fever — or even a prion? Or maybe it was a retrovirus like HIV. Houghton’s strategy was to go wide, trying many different molecular approaches at once based on the scientists’ best guesses. It was like fishing with multiple rods over the side, each hook carrying different molecular bait. At one point, more than 20 different approaches were in play.

Their work was painstaking. And fruitless.

“After two or three years,” Houghton says, “we were still shooting blanks.”

The path to any Nobel Prize is paved with failed experiments, almost by definition. The breakthroughs that win a Nobel tend to be innovations wrought by failures that force you to rethink and try new approaches.

One day in 1985, three years into the research, Houghton went next door to the lab of George Kuo to discuss a new approach Houghton had been considering involving the generation of monoclonal antibodies against HCV. That key discussion convinced Houghton to try an immunoscreening approach to bacterial clone libraries. At about the same time, Bradley suggested the same idea.

So, the Chiron team put another fishing rod over the side, so to speak.

The tactic, never before tried to identify a new virus, would use antibodies — proteins in the blood that bind to foreign substances — to help detect the virus. The team would copy the DNA and RNA from chronic hep C carriers into DNA in bacteria and make libraries of many millions of bacterial colonies. Then they could screen the libraries using samples from patients with chronic hep C. 

If the idea worked, the antibodies would sniff out and bind to the foreign stowaway, the hep C virus, in a rare one-in-a-million colony.

Over the next couple of years, Houghton and Choo sifted through the cloned DNA and RNA in 11 different bacterial libraries — millions upon millions of genetic sequences. They found nothing at all that might be the elusive quarry.


It has been said that people, like teeth, come in two types: incisors and grinders. And surely this applies to scientists, too. Incisors make an early impact with a provocative paper, enjoy early fame and then often fade from view.

Houghton is unquestionably a grinder. People who’ve worked with him say he is like a dog on a bone. “What distinguishes Mike compared to other researchers is that he zeroes in on a goal and goes after it, and he just never lets go,” says John Law, lead virologist in the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute and a research associate in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology. “He’s not going to fall back on Plan B just because Plan A is hard.”

Back in 1987, after five years of trying and failing to find hep C at Chiron, Houghton was beginning to feel some pressure as the project leader responsible for the research. “The investors put pressure on management, and management put pressure on me.” Houghton knew he was close to being cut loose.

He didn’t particularly care. This was his mission: to fight the toll of disease on so many lives around the world.

“You can go ahead and fire me,” he remembers telling his boss. “I’ll just continue to work on this elsewhere.’ ”

The needle in a haystack

By the fall of 1987, Houghton and his team at Chiron had tried 30 to 40 different approaches and sifted through literally hundreds of millions of recombinant clones. 

Up to that point, Houghton and Choo had been screening the bacterial libraries with serum derived from the rare patients and chimps that had recovered from NANBH infection, assuming they would have the highest antibody levels. They decided instead to use serum from NANBH patients who had not recovered.

One day, while combing through a bacterial library — in a sample that contained a bit of contaminating “goo” that made it look so unpromising it was almost thrown out — Choo found something. It was “a very tiny little clone,” Houghton says. The wee-est fragment of a copy of … what? He and Choo scrutinized it over several months. It looked different from anything they’d seen, not derived from human or chimp genomes. Foreign.

It was a single, small nucleic acid clone derived from a large molecule typical of RNA viruses. Houghton and Choo also showed that the RNA encoded a protein to which most NANBH patients had antibodies that were not present in uninfected control patients. Based on this, Kuo developed a method to test a large number of patients, which confirmed the presence of antibodies in NANBH patients and not in control patients. As Houghton and Choo found more and more related clones and determined their sequence, they saw very faint but significant similarities with known flaviviruses such as dengue and yellow fever. That was when they knew they had it.

Houghton disclosed the finding at a seminar at the University of California, San Francisco, in 1988. Some hepatitis experts were skeptical, even after seeing the data. But not Houghton, Choo and Kuo. “We knew we had it,” Houghton says. “I don’t take drugs to feel good, but I was on a high for two years afterwards.”

Two years. That’s how long it would take to use their precious little snippet to sequence the whole virus. And then to convince the world, with at least eight rounds of verification, that they had the real deal.

Deadly viruses can be quite beautiful. Hepatitis C turned out to be caused by an RNA virus very distantly related to tropical diseases like yellow fever or dengue. Under the microscope, it was small and round and enveloped with surface proteins — a bit like the now-familiar SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 — the better to get its hooks into its host.

With a blueprint to work from, the team rushed to develop a test to screen blood for the newly identified contaminant. The team announced its blockbuster discoveries in Science in 1989: the isolation of the hepatitis C virus and a test that could successfully detect the virus in human blood.

Blood banks around the world finally had the gatekeeper they needed. Until then, the odds of getting hep C from transfused blood had been around the same as drawing a face card in a deck. With new screening tests that could detect tainted blood in advance, HCV was virtually eliminated from the Canadian blood supply by 1992.

Beyond making the blood supply safer, Houghton et al. published the genetic sequence for HCV, which allowed researchers to develop antiviral drugs to treat hep C. It looked as if the hard work was over.

It wasn’t.

The promise of making lives better

This is a story about hepatitis C. But it’s also a story about hep B — for it was Lorne Tyrrell’s work on hep B that, in a roundabout way, built the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology at the U of A. From Tyrrell’s research, pharmaceutical company Glaxo produced the antiviral drug lamivudine, the first oral treatment of chronic hepatitis B, and sank enough funds into the U of A to begin robust virology research and development. Hong Kong billionaire philanthropist Li Ka-shing decided to invest in the scientist whose work had improved, if not outright saved, millions of lives: one Lorne Tyrrell. It was the infusion of $25 million from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation that attracted $52.5 million from the Government of Alberta through Alberta Innovates. The funding allowed Tyrrell to vastly expand his budding virology institute and to found the Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute in 2013.

The new institute was tasked with transforming virology research into treatments, drugs and vaccines that would directly improve people’s lives. And Tyrrell had just the person in mind to lead it.

It began with a phone call in 2009. It was a call that was bound to happen sometime. Tyrrell, in his lab, had made his mark with hepatitis B. Houghton, in his lab, had identified the hep C and hep D viral genomes during his time at Chiron. Between them, they nearly covered the alphabet. It was about time they stopped circling each other like double-helix strands and met.

Houghton was driving through San Francisco one sunny lunchtime when he got a call from Tyrrell. Houghton was then at a different small biotech outfit, where he was working on herpes viruses. Tyrrell floated the news that a new institute within the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology would focus on translating lab discoveries into practical and commercial applications. It needed someone to run it. Tyrrell wanted an outstanding virologist to apply for a grant from the new federal Canada Excellence Research Chair program, which would guarantee funding for seven years.

“Do you know anyone who might be interested?” he asked Houghton.

It was a nervy overture. If there is such a thing as a rock star in the world of virology, Houghton was it. He had won the prestigious Albert Lasker award in 2000. In 2003, his team had developed a SARS vaccine to address the major health threat of that year. (The SARS virus disappeared quite quickly, but had the vaccine been commercially manufactured and stockpiled, Houghton believes it could have changed the course of another SARS virus outbreak: COVID-19.)

On the phone with Tyrrell, Houghton fished for a couple of names of folks who might be interested. “But you know,” he said finally, “I might be.”

It was exactly what Tyrrell had wanted to hear. 

Research that cures disease and improves people’s lives — this is what drives Houghton and turned his eyes toward Edmonton.

Canada typically lags behind the United States in this type of “bench to bedside” research, and Houghton was thrilled to see the U of A cranking up that commercial energy. It was one of the things that made him take the job.

After arriving on campus, he wasted no time in hiring a vaccine team that included a dozen scientists and technicians, many of them Canadian, with Tyrrell as a close collaborator. The goal was to work across disciplines to turn basic research into a safe human vaccine to prevent hep C.

Spirits were high. But the vaccine team would soon run into major challenges — owing partly to the sneaky nature of the hep C virus.

“The virus is difficult in a few senses,” says Law, the lead virologist on the vaccine team. Each strain has a wildly different genetic signature. “It’s almost like a person who keeps dressing up differently to get into a bar he was kicked out of,” says Law. “He keeps putting on different clothes to get past the bouncer multiple times.”

Vaccines trick the body’s immune system into building a defence against a phantom scourge it thinks it’s encountering. The hep C vaccine being developed at the U of A is made from a cultured human cell tracing back to a single donor. It isn’t a weakened copy of the whole virus but rather a little piece of the outer protein shell. And that shell is super-delicate. Like a soufflé. 

“It comes apart easily,” says Law. “Also, the cells don’t like to make this protein. Other vaccines, it’s almost like making a piece of copper. It’s easy. But now we’re making a piece of gold. And we need to give it to everybody. So, we need to have an efficient way to go to the gold mine and extract enough to give it to everybody. And keep the costs down.”

Despite the challenges, something happened in 2013 that lifted everyone’s spirits.

Law and his team were experimenting with a new technique. Many were skeptical it would work, but after many trials, they got a promising result. The technique seemed to neutralize or prevent infection for multiple different strains of the virus. They had solved, as Law explained it, the “getting-past-the-bouncer” problem.

“I remember the day we sent [Houghton] the data,” Law says. “It was right at the time he had to give a report to the funding agency.” At a media conference, Houghton coolly presented the news. The U of A had made, for the first time, a hep C vaccine that appeared to work against most known strains of the virus. 

It was a game-changing development — a development that led to a promising hep C vaccine that Houghton’s team hopes to take to human trials this year or next.

“We’ve got a lot of partners lined up around the world — the United States, Germany, Italy and maybe Australia — to test it in the clinic as soon as we’ve made it. And I think it has a good chance of working,” says Houghton.

The ultimate goal: eradication

Houghton is sometimes asked why we need a hepatitis C vaccine at all. After all, thanks to his original hep C discovery, drugs now exist that can quickly cure most patients with few side-effects. His best argument goes like this: Any treatment, no matter how effective, is still just playing whack-a-mole with the disease. Despite advances in treatment, hepatitis C has infected an estimated 170 million people worldwide, while 71 million live with chronic infection that can lead to liver disease and cancer. Ultimately, a vaccine is the only way to eradicate it from the planet.

And quite apart from the cost in human suffering, there’s the financial hit. Tyrrell likes to say that if you accidentally drop your hep C pill down the sink, you’d better have the nearest plumber on speed dial. A full course of treatment costs around $60,000. An effective HCV vaccine would save Canada’s health-care budget close to $1 billion in antiviral drug costs over 10 years, Houghton estimates. “If you figure out how much it’s going to cost to treat those people with drugs, versus how much to vaccinate, then it’s night and day. It’s at least an order of magnitude cheaper to vaccinate.”

Every year since 2012, Tyrrell had been nominating Houghton for the Nobel Prize. And every year Tyrrell had called the university’s president and dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to say they should keep an ear out.

He knew in his bones that Houghton was deserving. “To win a Nobel Prize, you’re making a discovery that is transformative,” he says. The hep C discovery has saved or transformed millions of lives, if you count the curative drugs developed from it and the blood screening that prevents the disease in the first place. An annual international conference around hepatitis C has been running for 27 years — a whole discipline that wouldn’t exist without the work of Houghton’s team.

Then last Oct. 5, at two minutes to 4 a.m., Tyrrell woke up as he does every year to check his phone for Nobel news. Nothing. He waited a few minutes. Nothing. And then … the kind of news that chalks a high‑water mark onto a whole life.

Houghton was in California. His phone rang at 3:10 a.m. local time. The Nobel committee didn’t have his phone number, so it was his friend, Tyrrell, who woke him up.

“Congratulations, Mike,” he said. “You just won the Nobel Prize.”

There was silence. Ice ages came and went. It was one of the greatest moments in the history of the University of Alberta.


What if Houghton — the man Tyrrell had hired partly for the kind of stubborn decisiveness that made him an awesome research scientist and a refuser of prizes on principle — refused the Nobel?

After all, he had refused the Gairdner in 2013, Canada’s most prestigious award in science, when he learned that it would go to him alone. To his mind, his former colleagues were an inseparable part of the hep C discovery. Choo was his wingman, working 100-hour weeks at the bench for years on end. And Kuo, well, he was the one who had convinced Houghton to try the approach that ultimately worked.

His frustration was not just about recognition. It was, and continues to be, that the world seems not to acknowledge the way science works, he says. Scientific discovery is not some kind of transoceanic row by a solo sailor. There is no single “aha” moment by the genius in charge. Innumerable small wins along the way advance the technology in ways the world never sees.

“I don’t think I’m being unduly ethical,” he says now. “I’m just being honest. When you’ve worked with people for a long time and you know that they’ve made key contributions, it’s just basic honesty.”

Which is why Houghton, after agonizing, told Tyrrell in 2013 he wouldn’t accept the Gairdner (or the $100,000 that goes with it), a gesture that was unprecedented in the award’s 54-year history.

Anticipating the same dilemma this time, Tyrrell had video-called Houghton the previous Friday for a temperature check. Just as he feared, his colleague was deeply conflicted. “Michael, we can’t go through this again,” Tyrrell said. “Please. Look straight at me and tell me, ‘I will accept the Nobel Prize if it’s awarded to me.’ ”

Houghton said he would.

It’s customary for Nobel acceptance speeches to be a little bit lighthearted. When Richard Taylor won the 1990 Nobel in physics for his work at Stanford, he said: “We were asked to be witty. But after a great deal of reflection I have decided that quarks are just not funny. … Perhaps next year the Royal Academy will award the physics prize to someone in condensed matter physics or general relativity. Those are hilarious subjects.”

Houghton’s speech
 wasn’t like that. Instead, via Zoom from his home in San Francisco, he laid a sober bread-crumb trail of his path to the hep C discovery, recognizing by name everyone who contributed along the way. Receiving a special hat tip were Choo, Kuo and Bradley.

It was Houghton’s way of cutting the Gordian knot. He was upset at how major science awards tend to prop one scientist up in the shop window. But he was honoured. 

“It would be too presumptuous to turn down a Nobel,” he says. He owed it to the U of A, to Tyrrell and to his colleagues not to refuse it. “And also, by accepting the Nobel,” he says, “I’ve been able to get the message out loud and clear: ‘This was a team effort.’ ”

After the announcement, the journal Nature reached out to Kuo and Choo for comment. Both took the high road. Kuo admitted he was disappointed to have been left out but was pleased to have had a hand in the accomplishment. And to have been able to model for his children “how important it is to work hard on something that you feel passionately about.” Choo broke down and cried — not with bitterness but with joy. “It’s my baby; I’m so very proud,” he told Nature. “How can I not be proud?”

The magnanimity breaks your heart. But by Houghton’s lights, gracefulness in the face of discourtesy should never have been asked of these two men.

“As knowledge and technology grow exponentially around the world and with an increasing need for multidisciplinary collaborations to address complex questions and problems, there is a case to be made for award committees adjusting to this changing paradigm,” he wrote in an op-ed in Nature in 2013 after refusing the Gairdner.

“What matters is that you are successful with a group of people. I firmly believe the ethical way forward is for all institutions to be more inclusive,” he adds today.

That is science’s bottom line. You’re always building on previous work. No one is freestyling. It takes a team to win a Nobel Prize.

A quirky fact on the way out the door here: Winning the Nobel Prize buys you almost two more years of life. The number comes from a 2007 study based on the lives of 528 Nobel recipients and nominees from 1901 to 1950. No one has been able to explain the phenomenon, though some have speculated that the spike in status may somehow boost the immune system. Perhaps the body knows it has earned a victory lap.

Or maybe the type of person who wins a Nobel is too dedicated to give up those two extra years in the lab.

The famed Merck virologist Maurice Hilleman, who developed eight of the 14 vaccinations that kids get today, carried in his pocket a list of childhood viral diseases that had yet to be conquered. This was his to-do list. When he knocked one off (rubella: check) he would literally cross it off and move on to the next.

Houghton has something of that same mindset. Shouldn’t it just be a normal thing to want to fix the world? And to believe that you can?

“If you really think about it, it’s almost a disgrace that we know so little about so many major diseases,” he says. “Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis. We are capable of curing those diseases. Why haven’t we? Because there’s not enough funding? Yes. But also, there’s not enough cultural momentum to focus on disease. And that sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?”

Houghton has his own to-do list, and it is Hilleman-like. The applied virology institute is collaborating with a wide international network to research, among other things, a Group A streptococcus vaccine, novel therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease and cancer immunotherapy.

“I’ve always felt that contributing to disease solutions is well worth all the failures, all the frustration, all the funding issues, and all the politics,” Houghton says.

“Millions of people are dying and suffering from so many diseases around the world. Working for 40 years on HCV, and several years on other diseases, is the least that I can do.”


On Knowing the Winged Whale

On Knowing the Winged Whale

Featured Science

HAKAI magazine, July 7, 2020

Todd Cravens photo

In the middle of Johnstone Strait, close to the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a calm June day has dialed up a plate-flat sea. But that won’t last long.

“Humpback,” says Jackie Hildering from the cockpit of her runabout, Fluke. She turns her head to a distant sound and a vertical cloud rising off the water.

There it is. Or he, or she; gender indeterminate. Hildering, a humpback whale researcher, angles the boat toward the humpback and throttles the engine way back. She’s just close enough to try—with a telephoto lens—to identify this individual by its unique tail flukes. Humpbacks are fairly slow swimmers, but this one’s moving quickly enough to make her job hard. A mobbing is going down. A half-dozen or so Pacific white-sided dolphins are swarming the whale Hildering will later identify from photographs as an adult named Squall.

The dolphins juke around Squall’s head and flanks. Why are they messing with the whale?

“Dolphins can be mystical and complete jerks—both things are true,” says Hildering, cofounder and director of education and communication at the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), a Port McNeill–based nonprofit studying humpback and minke whales. These dolphins are potentially “learning by provocation,” as Hildering puts it. They’re clearly having a ball. Not so the humpback. This “most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales,” as Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, described the humpback, must be feeling mighty put upon. The whale flexes its body, trying to shake off the harassers, and rolls, exposing one of those great pectoral fins, which can be as long as one-third of its body length, and which gives the humpback its scientific genus, Megaptera, or “large-winged.” Squall slaps it down, apparently in self-defense, like a sweet-natured grandmother whacking a mugger with her umbrella.

As recently as a decade ago, this kind of scene was rare in BC waters. Dolphins routinely splashed about, but not humpbacks. Here in Johnstone Strait, the big show, the prime tourist draw, was killer whales—the salmon-eating residents that prowl the neighborhood. As the humpbacks began showing up in greater numbers in the early 2000s—here and across the North Pacific more broadly—their reputation grew to almost mythic status. They’re big acrobats and fascinating to watch. When researchers discovered that these filter-feeding baleen whales—they prey on small forage fish and invertebrates—will sometimes upend the marine mammal–eating transient killer whales’ dinner plans, that added even more to this new arrival’s narrative. Humpbacks are known to swoop in and disrupt a killer whale hunt, sometimes pulling a targeted seal or sea lion pup safely onto their belly with one of those pectoral fins. You could call them the ocean’s Justice League. “You know how you put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others?” says Fred Sharpe, a research biologist with the Alaska Whale Foundation who has been studying the species for over 30 years. “Humpbacks aren’t like that. They just wade right in to help those in need, as if they can’t help themselves.”

Spend time on the ocean watching humpbacks and you can’t help but be … stirred. Their ingenious feeding strategies, their transoceanic ambitions, the mere fact of their global recovery after a precariously close brush with oblivion, invites a depth of feeling rarely experienced in the average human day. Whatever depths there are to plumb in the hearts of humpbacks, we have been given a second chance to find out.

Hildering doesn’t want us to blow it.

Until the mid-1960s, humans were the villains in the humpbacks’ narrative.

Hunted to near extinction—as few as 5,000 remained, and they had disappeared from BC waters—humpbacks were saved by a 1966 ban on commercial harvesting in the North Pacific. They are managing to bounce back and repopulate in earnest. Of the 14 distinct populations of humpbacks worldwide, only four are still considered endangered. An updated census is in the works, but a 2008 study estimated that the entire North Pacific has around 20,000 humpbacks. The northeast Pacific Ocean has less than half that population: 3,000 to 5,000 each for the Gulf of Alaska and the combined southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia area, 200 to 400 for southern British Columbia and northern Washington, and 1,400 to 1,700 for California and Oregon. The numbers are encouraging. In 2014, the North Pacific humpback whale population was recommended for downlisting from threatened to a species of special concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, a change that came into effect in 2017.

In the United States, officials removed most humpback whale populations from the federal endangered species list in 2016, although the Mexico population that feeds off the coasts of California, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska was only downlisted to threatened.

We can embrace the humpback resurgence as a rare ecological good news story. Few animals that land on endangered species lists ever get off them, except for the wrong reason—they go extinct. But downlisting has some problems.

For one thing, it can paint a rosier picture than is actually the case. A humpback population can get a blanket bill of good health, while certain subgroups within it struggle mightily. In the Gulf of Alaska, humpbacks are not doing great, says biologist Jan Straley of the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) in Juneau. “I never thought I’d see the day when zero calves would [return to] Sitka Sound.” But for a few years there were no calves. The cause was probably a convergence of conditions six years ago that produced a Texas-sized patch of warm water—called the Blob—in the northeast Pacific Ocean that disrupted marine food chains and sent humpbacks into a nutritional tailspin.

Which is another problem with downlisting. When a species is no longer officially threatened, the sense of urgency can be lost, protections may fall away, and then recovery stalls when they’re suddenly dealt an environmental blow.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) began tracking individual humpbacks in BC waters back in 1989 when their recovery was still in question.

Wildlife populations are typically estimated in one of two ways: by sampling—counting the number of animals through line transects and extrapolating to a broader area—or by mark and recapture, whereby individual animals are caught, tagged, released, and then monitored. Humpback populations are unique in that you don’t need to mark them. “They come pre-marked,” as UAS researcher Ellen Chenoweth puts it, with those tails sui generis as a fingerprint.

DFO researchers systematically photographed the black-and-white pattern on the underside of a humpback’s tail and the pattern of bumps on its edge. They gave each photographed humpback an alphanumeric designation and sorted them into three groups—X, Y, and Z—based on the easiest shorthand visual: the amount of black or white on the tail. (So whale BCX004, for example, was the fourth mostly-black-tailed humpback documented in BC waters.)

In 2010, DFO stopped documenting individual humpback whales. However, MERS and the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS) on remote Fin Island, over 300 kilometers north of Port McNeill, and a handful of other groups continued the effort. In addition, they are also collaborating to achieve an updated province-wide catalog for humpback whales sighted off British Columbia’s coast.

Right now a mystery lurks in the local head count: humpbacks cannot reproduce quickly enough to generate the numbers we seem to be seeing in BC waters. “So they’re obviously coming from somewhere else,” says Hildering. Researchers in southeast Alaska have been keeping tabs on individual whales for a very long time, and while a few of their research subjects show up in BC waters from time to time, it’s nowhere near enough to account for the increase. To state the obvious, the ocean is vast and there are only a few scientists at specific locations keeping track of individual whales and comparing notes. It’s easy to lose sight of a whale between feeding grounds in the North Pacific and breeding grounds in Hawai‘i, Mexico, Central America, or Japan—one day you know exactly where it is, and then suddenly an animal the size of a city bus slips through your fingers.

Three years ago, however, a new tool debuted to help with the count more broadly: an online platform called Happywhale, which has brought thousands of citizen scientists the world over into the mix as data contributors.

Invented in 2015 by ecotourism operator and biologist Ted Cheeseman and rocket scientist Ken Southerland, Happywhale uses pattern-recognition software to identify whales. With Happywhale, you take a picture of the underside of a humpback’s tail and the algorithm tries to match it with one of the known humpbacks in its global database. With a good shot, the algorithm is now 99 percent accurate. A digital match isn’t the end of things, though; plenty of curation is still needed. Each entry is manually verified, and this is where local organizations like MERS and NCCS are invaluable. They provide the base data that Happywhale needs to solve the who’s-who puzzle. While a huge, multinational SPLASH project identified nearly 8,000 individual humpbacks from 2004 to 2006 using the old-fashioned method—eyeballing photographs of sighted whales and trying to find a match in a catalog—Happywhale boosted that number almost fourfold. Through the app, people have identified over 30,000 humpbacks worldwide to date, simply through eyes on the water.

Yet all this unsynced data can be confusing. Like international spies with multiple aliases, many humpbacks ply the oceans under different names. “I think the most we have is eight for one whale, traveling between Hawai‘i, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska,” says Cheeseman, who is a PhD candidate at Southern Cross University in Australia. Cheeseman is managing data from 74 different humpback catalogs worldwide. “The coordination,” he says, “is being figured out.”

Hildering and Janie Wray, of NCCS, are relentless in their data collection, gathering information from their personal sightings and those of local whale watchers and private boaters. When someone submits a sighting to MERS, Hildering and her colleagues look for a match in the MERS catalog. If a match is found, the sighting information is entered into a database, a record that keeps track of the whale. If a match can’t be found in any of the catalogs, the submission may be a first for an undocumented whale.

Whatever the system, at the top of the data-collection funnel is still a pair of human eyes. And Hildering’s are among the best.

Nikon dangling from her neck, Hildering steers her open boat out toward Weynton Passage. The wind blows her hair around. She stands five foot two (1.6 meters) but looks taller at the helm of Fluke. Gulls are circling, and common murres are diving in and bursting out of the water. That catches Hildering’s attention: the bird activity means there’s likely schooling herring, the same diet humpbacks in these waters enjoy.

“There,” she says, pointing. I see nothing at first, then, faintly, what looks like campfire smoke on the shore. It’s a blow, two meters high and straight up. That’s textbook humpback. “What we do now depends on who this is,” Hildering says. “If it’s a known whale, we document its location. If it’s a new whale we have to do more.”

Unlike killer whales, which can largely be identified by the shape of their dorsal fin, identifying humpback whales by their stubby little dorsal fin is trickier. “It’s like identifying humans by their nose,” Hildering says. “You can do it, but you can also go crazy trying.” But sometimes dorsal fins are distinct enough to offer a nickname. Gender is trickier. If a whale is lying on its back, tail lobbing, a bump called a hemispheric lobe is sometimes visible. It’s a telltale sign of a female. You can also tell a humpback is female if it’s seen with a tiny calf. As for the chances of spotting a male appendage, unless somehow caught in the act of mating, a penis is never visible.

The whale Hildering has spotted dives and resurfaces, draped in seaweed; he’s playing in the kelp beds. “I’m almost positive this is Ojos Blancos,” she says, pulling out her little yellow notebook. That’s white eyes in Spanish, named for the dots on the whale’s tail flukes.

“Who gets namer’s rights?” I ask.

“You don’t get namer’s rights,” Hildering says. The first to spot an unidentified humpback “gets the privilege of making a suggestion,” she says. The name ought, ideally, to evoke some distinctive physical feature of the whale. One local humpback has a dorsal fin with a little lean; it’s called Pisa. Another’s tail flukes boast what looks like a musical score—dot dot dot stripe. Da Da Da Dum. That’s Beethoven. Names like Zephyr and Poptart and Jigger are more likely to make the cut than, say, Humphrey. (Wait: that one did stick.)

There’s another reason to use names rather than serial numbers: it creates a connection. And connection is the royal road to conservation—as environmentalists discovered when they started giving names (like Luna or the Carmanah Giant) to individual trees within forests they were trying to protect. Whales have an advantage over trees in that you don’t have to split philosophical hairs about whether they’re actually sentient beings. It’s narrative engagement with humpbacks—becoming part of their story—that Cheeseman credits for the success of his Happywhale app. (After you report “your” whale, you get an email notification when it’s next spotted; you can track its progress as it lives out its life.) And that’s also why a number of marine nonprofits, including MERS, have adopt-a-whale programs—feeling a kindred spark with an individual humpback is a good way to open wallets.

Hildering finally gets a positive identification on the seaweed-draped whale—and I can practically feel her vibrating with satisfaction when she does. It is Graffiti, so-named because of the patterning on its tail flukes—to me, a pretty good facsimile of a Jackson Pollock painting.

While we do have an idea of where Graffiti, or Zephyr, or Poptart roam in any given year, humpbacks keep researchers on their toes: a couple of studies have shown that individual whales sometimes switch breeding grounds. One left the eastern North Pacific feeding grounds to breed in Japan one year, and went to Hawai‘i the following year. Another whale, spotted in Hawai‘i one year, was sighted in Mexico the next. Overall, what we know is still swamped by what we don’t know about humpbacks.

They don’t use echolocation like toothed whales doso how do they navigate to their breeding grounds? “Five degrees off and they’d blast right by the Hawaiian Islands,” says Hildering. One theory: animal magnetism. Biomagnetite crystals have been found in whale brains.

How do they hunt? There are only theories, and one of the more fun ones is that they listen for the farts of their prey. The truth is, however, that “nobody on Earth knows how baleen whales find their food,” Hildering says.

How long do they live?

“We haven’t had enough time to figure out how long they can live,” Hildering says.

Why do they sing?

Hildering leans close.

“We’ve been studying the question for over 40 years and still nobody knows why humpbacks sing.”

The first whales Hildering had the privilege of seeing in the wild weren’t humpbacks but killer whales—the matriline A12—here in Johnstone Strait. “Let’s call it what it was—an epiphany,” Hildering says. She heard them before she saw them: that telltale crunching of stones, through the hydrophone of the whale watching boat hovering outside the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve where the whales were rubbing their bodies in the shallows full of smooth pebbles. Then, together, they swam out of the reserve. “And slowly, I saw this family in unison. It felt like I’d been slapped upside the head,” Hildering says. “I realized that I’d drifted off course.”

At the time, Hildering was visiting from the Netherlands where she worked as the deputy head of Rotterdam’s international school. The killer whale encounter changed everything. Hildering moved back to Vancouver Island, where she’d grown up. Stubbs Island Whale Watching, the company that had delivered her transcendence, gave her a job as an interpreter. It was 1999 and humpbacks were still an absolute rarity in these waters. But as her boat tours ranged the area in search of killer whales, humpback sightings became more frequent. A true naturalist with insatiable curiosity, Hildering had to know who these whales were. Her position out on the water allowed her to do just that.

And so, aboard the tour boats, she told the humpbacks’ story.

How each spring they leave their tropical breeding grounds and make the long return trip back to their feeding grounds as far north as the Bering Sea—the second-farthest mammalian migration on the planet (gray whales are thought to swim farther). Humpbacks can put as much mileage on their odometers each year as the average North American puts on a car—up to 16,000 kilometers round trip.

Because Hildering was out on the water every day, she kept track of the local humpbacks: just seven in 2003 and double that the next year. The summer of 2019, she identified 93, perhaps more when all the data is logged. Hildering, a biologist and teacher by training, built her credibility as a humpback researcher through sheer dogged reporting—just observing the animal, taking notes, and reporting what she finds. The first humpback she ever identified—BCX0022, aka Houdini—hasn’t been seen in years, but some of her calves are still around. There are over 380 individuals in MERS’s catalog, and Hildering can often pretty much anticipate their movements. “Once Argonaut comes back, I know very likely where he is,” she says. “I know what Slash does when she has a calf. … Some of them are incredibly predictable in how they behave. But then suddenly things will change. Like, there’s a whale called Freckles that has incredible site fidelity, and then this year, she wasn’t sighted in our area at all; she was sighted in Alaska. Like, what the heck, Freckles?!”

Hildering has an accomplice at MERS: Christie McMillan, a marine biologist who is director of humpback whale research for the organization. The two make a formidable team; together they have made some unique contributions to the field.

In 2011, Hildering observed a young whale named Moonstar, just three years old at the time, engaging in some highly unusual behavior. Humpbacks in these waters are typically lunge feeders, surging up from the depths, mouth agape, to engulf the schools of fish neatly rounded up by diving birds. But what Moonstar did that day was totally different. He was at the surface, poised with his mouth open like a Venus flytrap, letting the birds do the work of scaring the fish into his mouth, and using his pectoral fins to give the fish the final push in. Little Moonstar and an adult male named Conger were the only ones doing it. Hildering was stumped.

“I thought, What the hell are you doing?” Hildering recalls.

Conger and his young pal Moonstar had hit on a sensible way to snack on a few stray juvenile herring. The new technique, which they dubbed trap feeding, soon spread through the local humpback neighborhood—at last count to 25 whales. All animals adapt or die. But it’s rare to observe one, in real time, MacGyvering a solution to changing conditions.

McMillan reckons trap feeding may be a response to dwindling fish stocks. Add in the other observed anomalies—humpbacks returning from breeding grounds to Alaska waters with fewer calves, and changing migration patterns—and the plot thickens. A prevailing theory is the new behaviors are linked to changes in ocean conditions, such as acidification of the water and the vexing Blob that’s been messing with their prey.

Hildering and her colleagues continued to study the behavior and in 2018 published a much-cited paper, coauthored with McMillan and Jared Towers of MERS.

It would be interesting to know what humpbacks are making of these massive changes in their lifetime, if only they could talk.

But of course they can.

On the rocky north shore of Hanson Island, just off Telegraph Cove, in the waters of the Inside Passage of northern Vancouver Island, sits a weathered building perched on pilings. It looks like either a destination brunch place or a redoubt to ride out the end of the world. This is OrcaLab, and on a Saturday afternoon, Hildering noses Fluke up to the dock for a visit with its founders, the husband-and-wife team of Paul Spong and Helena Symonds.

If whales had an undersea liberty monument, Paul Spong’s name would be on it. At the front of the push to ban killer whales in captivity—a stance that got him fired from his research position at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1974—Spong, a neuroscientist by training, is also credited with persuading Greenpeace to pivot from banning nukes to saving whales.

In 1980, Spong and Symonds built OrcaLab and set up a hydrophone array to capture killer whale conversations as they bounced along the acoustic window between northern Vancouver Island, the BC mainland via Johnstone Strait, and Blackfish Sound. For 40 years, volunteers have spelled each other off at the audio deck, 24/7, recording every sound. The by-catch of all that killer whale data is hundreds and hundreds of hours of humpback vocalizations.

That is what we’ve come to hear.

Symonds pushes play on some recent recordings, and, with the acoustic smog of boat traffic filtered out, humpback chat fills the room.

I hear pops and squawks and whirrs and clicks. Humpbacks sound quite different from other vocalists in their environment, unless they don’t, by choice: humpbacks have been known to mimic their neighbors. Sometimes they sound like killer whales, sometimes they sound like birds. Not long ago, OrcaLab picked up a particular humpback call followed by a rush of bubbles. It was puzzling. That call had previously been thought to be a kind of dinner bell, mustering up the group to get in position to eat by bubble-net feeding, a strategy where whales release bubbles from their blowholes to create a curtain around their prey, which panic and form a bait ball. On a signal, the pod lunges up to devour the fish. Each humpback has a particular role and a particular position. They all surface at the exact same spot in relation to others, every single time.

But this humpback was alone. “If they’re doing it on their own,” Hildering says, “that suggests the call has at least as big a role in getting the fish to school up.”

It’s in the tropical waters of their mating grounds that humpbacks really let fly acoustically. There, males issue purring “pickup lines,” a term coined from the research of University of Queensland, Australia, scientist Rebecca Dunlop. Males also dial it up; songs are louder than the non-musical social sounds humpbacks make. Researchers have recorded decibel levels well over 150 from more than 10 kilometers away—in comparison, a jet engine chimes in at 140 decibels from 30 meters away. Some have deemed these tours de force, with repeating refrains, crosses between a Bach fugue and “Stairway to Heaven,” as beguiling and downright sexy.

Those are the sounds that saved the whales.

Those tones pierced the heart of biologist Roger Payne in 1970, when he heard a recording of them captured by a US Navy vessel. Payne did something that now looks like genius: he released those humpback songs on vinyl. They caught an Age of Aquarius updraft to the top of the pop charts. Meanwhile, Payne’s peer-reviewed paper on humpback song was steaming toward publication as the lead article in the journal Science. Soon humpbacks were the face of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. “Really,

[the recording]

ushered in the modern ocean conservation movement,” says Sharpe. “It paved the way for stewardship of the oceans just generally.”

Payne called humpback song “the most evocative, most beautiful sounds made by any animal on Earth.” And NASA apparently agreed. Aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, launched in 1977 and now soaring through deep space, is the calling card of our planet: a golden record of a soundtrack from the third rock from the sun. Interspliced with greetings from UN diplomats, along with other natural sounds—thunder and crickets and the sound of a kiss—are songs of the humpback whale. In our only deliberate attempt to represent Earth to extraterrestrial beings, we gave humpback whales a status equivalent to our own. Which is not so far off Indigenous perspectives of humpbacks. To the Indigenous people of northern Vancouver Island, for example, humpbacks are the record keepers, repositories of ancient wisdom, swimming libraries. But in the Eurocentric telling, the story of humpbacks has been completely reversed. Two centuries ago, they were monsters. Half a century ago, they were hamburger. Now they are the ocean’s mystical elders. Not like us: in some ways better than us.

They are our janitors, even if they don’t know it, reversing our most egregious mess: climate change. The great whales are carbon-sequestering machines. The surface phytoplankton blooms nurtured by their poop pull vast amounts of carbon out of the air. And when a humpback dies, the 30-odd tonnes of carbon its body absorbed sinks with it. Not long ago, economists at the International Monetary Fund tried to put a dollar figure on those cetacean carbon credits, along with tourism and other economic benefits. The average great whale, such as a humpback, they reckoned, is probably worth US $2-million.

They share songs and embellish them, in a way that’s effectively jazz, yet, in a way, they’re ahead of humans when it comes to communication. Chatting across whole oceans, Sharpe says, their songs are such marvels of data compression—whereby songs are “packed up” for their transoceanic journey, like concentrated orange juice—that they’re now being studied by scientists at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, California, as an analog for interstellar messaging. Humpbacks also use tools (bubbles), and they learn from each other (hunting strategies).

There’s nothing to call that but culture. The Justice League? Well, that’s harder to settle. Whether humpbacks are genuinely altruistic remains a matter of fierce debate.

In October 2017, marine biologist Nan Hauser was filming a humpback in the Cook Islands when it seemed to turn on her, nudging her roughly back toward her boat. She climbed to safety, the only blood on her from scrapes from the barnacles that cling to humpbacks. Only then did she see the tiger shark. She’s convinced the humpback was saving her life. “I’m a scientist, and if anyone told me this story, I wouldn’t believe it,” she says. Having been scooped from the path of a tiger shark may produce a forgivably rosy view of humpback altruism, but scientists are inclined to explain such behavior in terms of an instinctive protective response against any predator that might hurt a baby humpback.

Still, the desire to anthropomorphize and interact with animals on our own terms can be strong.

Paul Spong himself was not immune. At the Vancouver Aquarium he’d observed that the resident killer whale seemed to like listening to music, and so “that first summer I was here at OrcaLab, I played music I thought the whales might be interested in,” he says. Through underwater speakers, he piped Beethoven and the Stones to see if the whales would respond.

They didn’t.

“Eventually I got it,” Spong says. “Their lives are centered around each other. And we really exist on the periphery for them.”

That’s more or less Hildering’s position as well.

Some people may feel a need for a relationship but it’s very one-sided, and respect on the whale’s terms has been slow to sink in, so noticeable by how unmindful we really are of their needs. Quieter oceans, yes, but also litter-free. Roughly half of the humpbacks in Hildering’s study area bear the scars of entanglement. Those are the lucky ones, the ones that broke free from our forgotten garbage or ghost fishing gear. It’s anyone’s guess how many, less lucky, sink to the bottom each year.

On a still evening in late June 2019, locals, visitors, and a few dozen local business operators file into the whale museum in Telegraph Cove, a picturesque outpost on northern Vancouver Island that, in summer, is usually a bustling base camp for ecotourism. At this preseason meeting, which includes organizations such as MERS, DFO, BC Parks, and others, people take seats under the skeleton of an 18-meter fin whale hanging from the ceiling. Jim Borrowman, a former whale watching captain who now runs the Whale Interpretive Centre, introduces everyone, and then the presenters get up one by one to speak.

“Show of hands,” says Hildering, when it’s her turn. “Who here has hit or almost hit a humpback whale?”

Eighty percent of the hands shoot up.

“I myself have almost hit one,” Hildering says. “They are that unpredictable.”

In the inshore waters of British Columbia, boaters have become used to navigating around killer whales—they are, usually, pretty obviously going somewhere. They generally travel linearly with their iconic black dorsal fins often visible at the surface. Humpbacks, meanwhile, can surface suddenly after a long dive. They travel in unpredictable patterns. On top of that, they will burst into acrobatic action. Hildering sees it over and over: a boater assumes the humpback is going in a straight line and steers accordingly, like a driver casually calculating to just miss a crossing pedestrian. And the rest is trauma care.

Hildering keeps news reports at the ready as cautionary tales: in May 2013, a Campbell River man needs facial reconstruction surgery after a humpback suddenly breaches in front of his fishing boat, sending him through the windshield. In 2017, a customer in a guided fishing vessel off Haida Gwaii is thrown when the boat collides with a suddenly appearing humpback. He breaks his spine.

Hildering considers this the most urgent work of MERS right now: “To try to close that awareness gap—that you’re putting yourself at risk if you’re just bombing along as per normal not realizing that a whale could suddenly surface in front of your boat.”

In May 2019, humpbacks were spotted in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, lured there by the good hunting and undeterred by freighters, ferries, and cruise ships so big they can kill a whale with their bow. Humpbacks can be astonishingly oblivious to boats. Most of the time, it’s become clear that humpbacks don’t know where the boats are, Hildering says. “Or, they might be aware of a boat, but choose to keep feeding.” And those boats have an impact beyond the risk of collision. Hildering says all marine mammals could well have hearing loss from the low- and high-frequency noise we add to their acoustic environment. It’s not a far-fetched theory. Some biologists believe that the sounds of modernity—like explosive seismic testing for petroleum resources, loud military sonar, and boat engines—significantly harm all kinds of ocean animals.

Whether or not marine mammals are actually going deaf, there’s growing evidence noise is a stressor for them. The first evidence came out of the unanticipated experiment that was 9/11. Two New Brunswick–based research teams had been studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy when the tragedy happened. Shipping along the East Coast was suddenly and completely shut down, and for a few days, the ocean got very, very quiet. The whale researchers had been finding high levels of stress hormones in whale poop. But as the seas briefly returned to 17th-century tranquility, the stress levels in whales eased up.

Anthropogenic noise likely impacts whale communication—exactly how much is under scrutiny. Like most whale species, humpbacks only became objects of scientific interest in the 1970s, and until we know more, giving the whales lots of space is probably the kindest, most sensible thing we can do.

Which is, of course, exactly what most people aren’t inclined to do. At the meeting in Telegraph Cove, an image of a section of Johnstone Strait where whales ply is beamed onto a screen. Boats cram the frame.

Hildering has complicated feelings about the whale watching industry as a whole. On one hand, she knows firsthand the power of seeing whales in the wild; it can be the gateway to a lifelong appreciation for, and stewardship of, nature. Endangered species are never saved if no one cares. Research shows commercial whale watching operations are far less likely to flout the law and encroach on whales than pleasure craft are. And from the very beginning, whale identification has been a joint project of researchers and whale watching captains, deckhands, naturalists, and other citizen scientists who supply valuable field data. Of course, not all whale watching is the same. The difference between doing it respectfully and doing it for the almighty dollar can be subtle. Those that roar in, deliver the guaranteed sighting, and roar out is a perpetuation of the idea of human above nature. That’s also a lot of carbon in the air, a lot of decibels in the water.

There is a passage in Diane Ackerman’s 1991 book The Moon by Whale Light in which the intrepid author acts on a “swim with the [fill in the blank]” zeitgeist. She swims close enough to a humpback and its calf to touch them. She peers into the mother’s eyes and sends messages of loving kindness. It’s a scene so seductive it made a whole generation add “swim with whales” to their bucket list.

Hildering’s mission is to undo this kind of thinking. To explain why getting up-close and personal is a bad idea. To limn the tricky balance of appreciating these animals and celebrating them, without making everyone think they have to mind-meld with them.

“Burdening them with our spiritual needs” is the last thing humpbacks deserve, she says. “They’re not monsters and they’re not gods. They’re just wild.”

In a few places in the world, there are opportunities to dive or snorkel with humpbacks, considered among the most docile of whales and unlikely to do you intentional harm. But they are rather large. As one online poster in a forum on swimming with gray whales, called friendlies, in Mexico mused: “Would you stand out on the interstate to get a closer look at the 18 wheelers?” They’re not out to get you, but they’re dangerously big.

Swimming with whales—interacting with any wildlife on our own terms, in general—is about ourselves, not the conservation of the species.

In fact, if you were a jerk, you could go have an interaction with a humpback called Two Spot near Campbell River. “There are whales that, for whatever reason, sometimes choose to interact with boats, and if you have the knowledge of how to identify these whales, you can set up an interaction like that,” Hildering says. “You have contributed to the hot breath of humanity wanting to get closer to whales. So you have your close encounter, and then you post it online. And now you have helped contribute to the habituation. And if next week Two Spot is sushied up by a boat motor, that’s on you, buster.

“Look, not wanting to suck the pure joy out of it—it does happen that sometimes they just come up to you,” Hildering says.

“What should you do then?” I ask.

“If, unexpectedly, a whale suddenly is close to the boat, and you can’t slowly get out of the way, then shut off your engines,” Hildering says. “The experience you’re having should be as close as possible to the wildlife doing what it’s doing as if you were not there.”

Watching whales should be like going back in time in a thought experiment: you can’t touch anything, or do anything, or even say anything that could even slightly knock off-kilter the natural progress of events. Interference is deadly, but in ways impossible to comprehend in the moment.

In our last hour on the ocean, Hildering hitches Fluke to some bull kelp and cuts the engine. From a cross section of kelp she fashions a horn, which she tips to the heavens and flugels out an almost-recognizable “Baby Shark.”

Hildering has a more ambitious agenda than simply educating people about marine creatures.

“The humility we need to have about humpbacks suggests a humility we should also have about the world in which they live,” she says.

A question we have no business asking of charismatic mammals—“Do you love me?”—ought to be replaced with the more useful “Who are you?” ecologists have suggested. But that latter question can be turned on ourselves. For if whales tell us things about the health of the ocean, they are also a barometer, Hildering says, of our own value systems.

So it’s probably worth making a habit, at every turn, of questioning where we are in our relationship with wild animals and wild spaces in general—how do we fit into their world?

Have You Heard?

Have You Heard?

Aging Essays Featured Psychology Science

The old and the young hear an entirely different world. And that’s becoming a problem.

From EIGHTEEN BRIDGES MAGAZINE, Summer 2018     Robert Carter illustration

In 2005, the owner of a convenience store in the tiny Welch town of Barry had just about had it with loitering teenagers driving away customers. So he installed a prototype gadget lent to him by an inventor friend. He booted it up. The kids scattered. “It was as if someone had used anti-teenage spray around the entrance,” one reporter observed.

The device, called the Mosquito MK4, burped out a loud, rhythmic chirping the kids couldn’t stand. But customers over the age of 25 came and went as before. Most of them didn’t hear a thing. That’s because its sonic pulses are in the 17 kilohertz range — well beyond the reach of people suffering even mild forms of age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis. This affliction, which the World Health Organization estimates will affect half a billion people worldwide by 2025, gradually shaves off the higher end of the aural spectrum. Presbycusis is one of the obvious physical signs of aging. The Mosquito MK4 is a Boomer’s revenge fantasy: the greybeards turning the young’s own faculties against them.

What happened next you can guess. A group of young coders took the Mosquito signal and worked it into the customized phone app Teen Buzz. High school students started using it to send text messages in class, under the noses of their oblivious teachers and supervisors.

The elders returned serve. There are now numerous apps that spit out high-pitched squeals with no purpose but to annoy young people. Some of these apps have been built by young people themselves. (The profit motive will usually trump tribal affiliation.)

This whole saga, while funny, is troubling. The wondrous human sense of hearing, weaponized for intergenerational warfare? If anything hearing ought to bind us together, not drive us apart. We have to hear to listen, after all. And hearing is the most social of the senses.

“When you lose your vision, you sever your connection to things. When you lose your hearing, you sever your connection to people,” Helen Keller said. That quote meant little to me when I first encountered it in high school. But stored in the dark potato bin of memory, it put out shoots not long ago when my own hearing began to fail.

The first signs were the mishearings.

“What’ll you be doing on your Quebec exchange?” I asked my daughter over breakfast.

Well, it’s the Winter Carnival,” she said. “We’re going to visit the Plains of Abraham and pee on them.”

That’s very disrespectful,” I said.

What she actually said: We’re going to visit the Plains of Abraham and ski on them.”

Likewise, my weary wife, Jen, who is a teacher, did not reply when I recently questioned her weekend plans to “return to the grave.”

What she actually said: “Return my grades.”

The top end of the sound spectrum is where consonants live. As we age, it becomes hard to distinguish a “v” from a “d.” So in every sentence there’s at least one word that’s a flat-out guess. Without context you guess wrong a lot. But that’s not even the most irksome thing about presbycusis – as Jen would no doubt attest.

One day the dog got into the bird feeder, which held half a pint of seed and suet. That night she whined every hour or so to be let out. Or so I was told. I heard nothing. Jen kept getting up, while I lay in bed wondering, What else am I not hearing? It was – how else to put it?—an emasculating thought. Men who can’t hear, can’t help. We are firefighters with no alarm, sleeping peacefully while the town burns. Not much later, after some prodding, I got checked out. Two hearing tests confirmed everyone’s suspicions. Full-on presbycusis. My hearing through the top third of the normal aural range was basically shot.

Now, if its consequences were limited to annoying family members by passing them a fork instead of the corn, presbycusis could be ignored as a minor irritant. Eventually, though, hearing loss becomes a mental health issue. It’s correlated with depression, born of that creeping sense of isolation. Losing your hearing is like sitting on an airplane in coach. You’re aware of the boozy hubbub coming from the other side of the first-class curtain. There’s a party going on and you weren’t invited.

But the news gets worse. Mild hearing loss, as the Johns Hopkins researcher Frank Lin discovered, doubles your chance of developing dementia. Moderate hearing loss triples it. No one knows precisely why, but there are two main theories.

The first is behavioral. Cut off from the world, people with hearing loss withdraw even further, thereby starving off the experiential input the brain needs to grow. The main stimulus to brain health is interaction with others.

The second theory involves the physics of the brain. Call it the cognitive overload theory. Your mind is working so hard to understand that it’s sucking resources from other regions, including the hippocampus, where memories are consolidated. It’s as if you’re spending every cognitive dollar trying to hear, and putting nothing in the memory bank. When memories aren’t stored, they can’t be retrieved.

Whatever the cause of the correlation, doing nothing about hearing loss is a bad idea, because we are also learning that once our hearing degrades beyond a certain point, no hearing aid can fully bring it back. Not because the machinery of our inner ear is toast (though dying hair cells are part of the story), but because the brain has changed, and can no longer accurately decode the incoming signal.

That’s the gist of the work coming out of Bruce Schneider’s Human Communication Laboratory at the University of Toronto. Schneider, a professor of psychology, leads a multi-university research group investigating sensory and cognitive aging. That includes the social implications of a dialed-down world.

“Hearing loss is a wedge between the old and the young,” Schneider told me during a recent tour of his lab, at the U of T’s Mississauga campus. A starting place for repairing the disconnection, Schneider finds, is to help people experience what it’s like on the other side.

In his undergrad class, Schneider plays an audio clip of a man talking. But the clip has been adjusted. The high-end frequencies in the signal have been dampened by as much as 70 decibels. So the students hear the clip the way an 85-year-old with significant hearing loss would. They can still hear the speaker. But no one can understand him. The consonants are anybody’s guess.

Then Schneider starts to add back the higher frequencies. “Raise your hand when you start to understand,” Schneider says. A few outliers do, followed by the rest of the class at once: the faux-elderly recovering their youth.

Not long ago, a student came to see Schneider after class. He said the exercise had brought him closer to his grandfather.

Later that morning, Schneider ran me through a couple of the same hearing tests he gives his older experimental subjects.

I took a seat in a soundproof room, between two speakers. This is the dreaded auditory interference test. If you’ve ever tried to listen to two conversations at the same time, you know how hard it is. And this task gets tougher as we age. That’s because “it takes a second or two to segregate the voices,” Schneider said.Whereas in younger people it happens almost instantaneously – within 100-200 milliseconds.” The brains of older people are always playing catch-up. Presbycusis makes things worse. You feel like you’re constantly a beat out of step, like a guy in a football crowd standing to do the wave, hot dog overhead, after everybody else just sat down.

Schneider told me I would hear two stories: a “target” story and a “mask” story. But in this diabolical trial, both would be told by the same person and would issue from the same speaker. My job was to listen to the target and ignore the mask.

Within thirty seconds I was in the weeds. I got sucked into the mask story about Mark Twain. Afterward, given a test on the target story, I failed. The whole thing left me exhausted—the way you feel at the end of a day trying to navigate in a foreign city.

Schneider is sympathetic. At 77, he suffers from the hearing loss he investigates. He knows what it feels like to be on the wrong side of that social divide.

“I was at a cocktail party a few years ago, just circulating around,” he told me, “and I thought I heard somebody say, ‘Joseph Fourier changed Canadian Society.’ I thought, Oh, I know him!’” Fourier, the French mathematician who discovered the Greenhouse Effect, also did pioneering work on harmonics. “I thought, ‘This’ll be an interesting conversation to join.’ It took me awhile to realize they weren’t talking about Joseph Fourier; they were talking about Wilfred Laurier. I got two or three minutes into the conversation. Nobody said anything to me. They must have been thinking one of two things: Either Schneider is so obsessed with signal processing that he can’t talk about anything else, or he’s going demented.”

I laughed with him at the conclusion of this story, but its implications are profound. Consider the stakes for an older person going in for a psychological assessment. Many such tests includes verbal instruction. You think exam-taking was stressful in college? Here your performance may determine where you’re going to spend the rest of your life. You’re ushered into a curtainless room with a hard floor — a reverberation chamber. You miss a couple of consonants at the beginning of words, which leaves you fishing for the meaning of whole sentences. You fail the test. A hearing issue has been mistaken for a thinking issue. And your story just acquired a new ending.

One of the strangest and most disturbing things about the early stages of hearing loss is there are times it seems your hearing is perfectly fine. In a quiet room, looking directly at my wife, I cam make out every syllable she says. Crystal clarity, ample volume.

The senses help each other out. Visual cues are vital to accurate hearing. Watching someone speak yields a fourfold improvement in comprehension. Indeed, looking into a speaker’s face is so important to perception that it can trick us into actually “hearing” a different sound than we think the lips are making. This is known as the McGurk Effect.

But get us hard-of-hearing into a crowded restaurant and even visual cues can’t save us. It’s the ambient noise – the chaos of acoustic interference — that does us in.

And interference is the new normal. The open-plan architecture our culture has decided is the most visually appealing creates a sonic environment only a whale could love. Sound pinballs around. At a recent work lunch at a Thai restaurant in downtown Vancouver, I was reduced to cupping my hands behind my ears like Mr. Magoo. I could hear my young colleagues well enough, I just couldn’t tell what they were saying.

There is a reason commercial spaces like restaurants and bars are so loud: it works. Loud works. A 2008 French study found that when bar owners turned the music up, customers drained an equal measure of beer almost 20 percent faster. The retail environment ups the ante. Hip retail chains oxygenate the air with tunes. Some of the loudest stores in the United States are Urban Outfitters, and Virgin, Katherine Bouton reported in her book Shouting Won’t Help.“Adults come out reeling, she wrote. “Kids, the target market, pull out their credit cards.”

The electronic soundscape of modern life—a chorus of the pings and whooshes of handheld devices—is optimized to the hearing of the young. “Someone who’s 80 and someone who’s 12 are going to have different responses to a sound,” Oberlin music theory professor Will Mason said recently. (Google, on this score, is more ageist than Facebook: it has higher-pitched UI sounds.)

All this ambient noise has a side effect. It doesn’t only make it hard for older people to hear, it clouds their memory. Schneider runs his test subjects through a “paired associations” test. Older people “aren’t as able to store unrelated items in memory while there’s noise,” he says. By tailoring built environments to the young, designers are handicapping the old, unwittingly or not. And so the divide widens. One could argue that the biggest architectural change in recent times is the move from physical to online communication. We no longer see who we’re talking to. Which means the McGurk Effect, the Boomers’ ace in the hole, is out of play.

A few months ago, with a heavy sigh, I signed the paperwork for a brand new set of Oticon Opn 3s, made in Denmark. They are so expensive I’m paying for them in monthly installments, like a car.

Back at home, I popped in their tiny batteries and slid the devices behind my ears. And just like that, the aural bridge between the world of the old and the world of the young was magically restored. Although not so gracefully.

Ka-runnnnnch! Whoa. Did I just run over something? No, that was my wife in the passenger seat biting into an apple. We took the kids to the multiplex to watch A Wrinkle in Time. It was hard to tell if the film was any good. All I heard was a riot of rustling Twizzlers bags and snarky comments from the teenagers two rows back.

Home life has become chockablock with the kinds of sounds foley artists insert into movies post-production. Open the freezer door and something’s crackling in there. I can hear the “ultra-quiet” new Blomberg dishwasher from the next room. I can hear body sounds I should not be able to. The dog basically gurgles nonstop. It occurs to me how annoying my casual whistling must be to everyone else.

The Bee Gees have returned to the grocery store. I’d stopped hearing them five years ago. Now here they are again, with their unconscionable falsettos. For once, I feel an affinity for rocker Ted Nugent, who offered to buy Muzak for $10 million, so he could shut it down.

The hearing aids have been, at best, a mixed blessing. I’m coming to appreciate the high-tech listening devices I already owned. They’re called ears. They pair well with that other high-tech listening device, the brain. Even the best hearing aids aren’t nearly as good at filtering what you don’t want to hear. Like the whine of bicycle brakes. The menacing grind of escalators. Your spouse filing her nails. By boosting the signal, hearing aids introduce distortion. Things sound tinny. Your own voice sounds miked. It’s like Dylan going electric in your head.

On the positive side, I’m more alert. Booting up hearing aids in the morning is like guzzling a cup of coffee. The London-based experimental artist Caroline Hobkinson found something similar when she started playing with different tones. “Staccato sounds,” she concluded, “make you much more aware and much more appreciative.” The aging brain is lulled into a kind of stupor as the senses diminish. Restoring the top third of the aural spectrum is like throwing open the blind to sunshine. The stimulated brain suddenly has more to do.

Unexpectedly, since getting the hearing aids, I’ve also lost a bit of weight. Maybe a co-incidence. But maybe not, suggested the Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence, when I reached him via Skype.

Spence is best known for his crisps study. When test subjects ate stale potato chips, paired with the sound of a lusty crunch as they bit down, the chips tasted fresh. It turns out bland or bitter foods taste sweeter and better when you accompany them with high-pitched sounds. He calls the phenomenon “sonic seasoning,” and it has implications for design soundscapes from restaurants to elder-care facilities.

When you pump music into a coffee shop, and boost the signal in the upper register, customers put less sugar in their coffee, Spence found. I told him of my weight-loss-following-hearing-aids theory. Could be true, he said. On the other hand, one might also expect the opposite: restoring full-spectrum hearing makes eating fun, a crunchy, slurpy, multi-sensory party. So you might eat more.

Oh yes. Those mis-hearings? Gone. But strangely, I kind of miss them. The world is now a little dis-enchanted. No more “pepperoni tree” in the neighbour’s yard. My daughter’s feet are no longer hot in her boots on account of her “flammable socks.” And that tailback for the Raiders I’d heard a broadcaster call “Buffalo Wildwings”? No mention of him lately. Maybe he retired.

I’d been quite enjoying the Snow Falling on Cedars soundtrack of my pre-hearing-aid life. It seemed a benediction: nature’s way of granting the middle-aged some earned peace and quiet. In the accreting stillness of wisdom, the little true voice inside you – the “target story,” not the “mask” story — emerges. And maybe that’s something you really don’t want to fix. I began entertaining the notion that I’d spent almost five grand I didn’t have to make my life worse.

“How are the hearing aids working, Dad?” asked my 13-year-old daughter one day.

“A little too well,” I said. “I hear things I wish I didn’t.”

“Welcome to our world,” she said.

Thus far, scientists’ efforts to find a cure for hearing loss – from hair-cell regeneration to hormone pills – haven’t yielded much. But that could change. “Hearing loss is becoming more prevalent,” says the North Vancouver registered audiologist Katie Daroogheh. “The next generation is going to start experiencing hearing loss in their 30s and 40s.” That’s because aging isn’t the only culprit. Environmental noise is, too. As a species, we might be at peak noisiness right now. The electric machine revolution that will, many believe, make life quieter, is likely decades away from its full expression.

If the young start needing hearing aids en masse, innovation will surge. And so will marketing. “When enough people wear hearing aids it’ll probably become something like eyeglasses,” says the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. Perhaps teams of marketing creatives are assembling already, charged with making hearing aids not just less uncool but actually cool. Not “nearly invisible,” as high-end units like my Oticons are pitched now, but fashionably obvious. Even sexy.

I’d like to be listening through the wall on that ad campaign:

Who’s hard of hearing? Every peacekeeper in a war zone, every cowboy on a cattle drive, every member of your favourite rock band. Being hard of hearing means you have lived. You didn’t run from the lion. You stuck your head in its mouth as it roared.


Long Read: This Doctor Might Have the Answer to the Fentanyl Crisis

Long Read: This Doctor Might Have the Answer to the Fentanyl Crisis

Essays Featured Science

From VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, November 14, 2017

Pooya Nabei photo

“I’m going to be the least compelling speaker you’ll hear tonight,” Dr. Evan Wood tells me as we pull up in front of the Anvil Centre auditorium in New Westminster. People are already trickling in for tonight’s event, Recovery Speaks, featuring inspiring personal tales of sobriety on the other side of hellish addiction.

Wood holds a fistful of titles—including professor of medicine at UBC, Canada Research Chair in Inner-City Medicine and head of the province’s newly established response to the opioid crisis, the British Columbia Centre for Substance Use (BCCSU). He’s giving the keynote address tonight—and he’s going to have to thread the needle.

Many of the attendees here are part of the “recovery community”—their journeys involve getting clean largely via the 12 steps. The path involves fierce personal reckoning and surrender to a higher power until the demon slowly loosens its grip and you get your life back, though with eternal vigilance and abstinence as part of the deal.

“Twelve-step facilitation therapy,” hatched some 80 years ago by the American Bill Wilson (or simply Bill W., as he’s known in AA circles) and Dr. Robert Smith, is still the prevailing model for treating addiction, both in the U.S. and in Canada. It’s traditionally a cold-turkey approach: just you and your god and the dark night (with your support group on call). Wood’s own view is that there’s a less torturous and more effective strategy. Reduced to a bumper sticker, it might read: Get off drugs with drugs.

It sounds like pretzel logic: drink your way to sobriety. Use to get clean. Yet this is the chatter on the frontier of addiction medicine—an emerging field promoting evidence-based strategies to treat addiction instead of the entrenched old ways, no matter how beloved they might be.

Abstinence, the evidence increasingly suggests, doesn’t work for many people. More than 80 percent of those who try it will relapse, some studies show.

The rising death toll in the fentanyl epidemic means it’s never been more urgent to come up with something that works more reliably—and to quickly clear a legislative path for it.

The new thinking, Wood’s thinking, is that, far from being a kind of defect of the psyche, addiction may in fact be an evolutionary inheritance—a deeply human trait that turns out to be ill fitted in some ways to the modern era. Wood is exploring pharmaceutical treatments for addiction, pioneering an approach where abstinence isn’t necessarily the end goal, and even using common street drugs to temper its expression.

All of this would seem to cast him as a fox in the henhouse here. And yet Wood is given a warm setup by the man who invited him here tonight, Marshall Smith, a former top B.C. government bureaucrat whose own lost-now-found story is as dramatic as they come.

Ten years clean after a brutal cocaine addiction that left him unemployed and living in a shipping container, Smith is now in full reboot. He runs a non-profit recovery centre on Vancouver Island, coordinates these speaking events and serves as a senior advisor at the BCCSU, a $10-million provincially funded network aimed at developing an evidence-based framework for addiction treatment. Part of the mandate is to tap the “lived experience” of users to develop effective new strategies, which is where Smith comes in. Wood hired him after he realized Smith’s credibility and charisma could help shape the evolving narrative of addiction treatment in B.C.

It was nuts, both men realized, to present themselves as adversaries—penning opposing op-eds in newspapers, pitting harm reduction against abstinence-based recovery—when all that did was make the entire addiction-medicine space radioactive to politicians and potential funders. “We clearly came from different perspectives, we clearly came from different personal experiences and we clearly represented different constituencies of substance-using people,” Smith says. “But…we were in absolute agreement that the system we have now is failing people at best and killing people at worst.”

Wood steps up to the lectern without notes. Bespectacled and self-contained, he has the air of an uncle about to give a toast at Thanksgiving dinner. He tiptoes through a decent joke before quickly establishing a sensitive, commiserating tone that finds common ground with Smith. “The system of addiction treatment in British Columbia isn’t broken,” he says. “There. Is. No. System.” Sufferers are left alone to figure out their options amid a Wild West climate of murky regulations and an absurd circumstance where opioids are prescribed to people who don’t need them and withheld from those who do, one in which rehabbing users are discharged from detox with a handshake and directions to the bus stop, and where wait-lists for rehab facilities can be months long. Every story he’s hearing, in this room and out there in the world, Wood says, every scrap of data he’s gathering, will go into the batter of this new thing they’re cooking at the BCCSU.

He gets a standing O.

In the Giant’s Shadow

I first met Wood, 43, in his upstairs office at St. Paul’s Hospital, tucked away from the emergency room, where fatal opioid overdoses have become an almost daily occurrence.

His eyes were red behind his spectacles: too many short nights in a row. He was wearing a crisply cut suit in banker’s blue—the better to convene high-level meetings with senior staff of health agencies, convey gravitas in media interviews and beat the bushes for funding. That suit, and his quiet, squeaky-clean intensity, evokes Eliot Ness, the famous Prohibition-era Chicago crime fighter. Only their missions are exactly backwards. Wood is at war against the War on Drugs and all it has wrought—from rampant gang violence to a lethally toxic drug supply. He’s less interested in bringing drug criminals to justice than he is in restoring justice by decriminalizing drugs.

But politics are not his official brief. As head of the BCCSU, Wood’s loftiest goal is to change the way we think about addiction. To make us understand it as a kind of contagion—albeit a social rather than viral one. The best strategy to suppress an outbreak? Deploy massive resources at multiple levels all at once. Toss a blanket over the fire so that it sends out no sparks.

Wood’s job one is to wrangle those resources and channel them toward an effective treatment model. That means training doctors and nurses who work with addiction sufferers on which drugs work best to curb cravings and ease withdrawal, when to use them, and how to wean folks off them where appropriate. It means laying out clear options for users who want to get clean and making sure they have access to them. Right now, it means hosting lots and lots of meetings with addicts and their families, the people whose voices most need to be heard.

Wood’s current position is an evolution of his career at the forefront of public health and epidemiology, but he began by tackling a different scourge.

He grew up in West Vancouver, raised by his social-worker mother. His father was an inventor who designed marine navigation systems and who separated from his mother when Wood was two.

Wood approached the medical-health field in a gradually tightening circle. In an undergrad geography degree at UBC, he did a term project that involved mapping the spread of HIV, which nudged him to pursue medical geography—a subfield that looks at airborne and vector-borne illness. He applied for a summer job at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, where he quickly distinguished himself as a protégé of Dr. Julio Montaner. Hired as a junior research assistant, the young Wood churned out a provocative paper so quickly that Montaner read about it in the newspaper he opened on a flight later that same summer. After Wood knocked off a PhD in epidemiology in 2003, he began publishing at a furious rate. He and Montaner would go on to co-author dozens of influential papers, including two humdingers—one published in The Lancet that helped shape the conversation around AIDS treatment in Africa and another on anti-viral drug strategy, published in The British Medical Journal, that was dubbed Science magazine’s 2011 scientific breakthrough of the year.

In 2005, Wood and his colleague Thomas Kerr—an epidemiologist and now co-director of the BCCSU—found themselves almost single-handedly trying to save InSite, Canada’s first supervised drug-injection site, from a court challenge by the Harper government, which vehemently viewed drug use as a criminal matter. The battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, with Wood and Kerr arguing evidence should trump morality when it came to reducing the risk of disease transmission and overdose.

In the end, their efforts ensured one of the world’s most high-profile experiments in harm reduction, one that has since become a global model in public health, was spared the knife.

In the mid-aughts, Wood interrupted his progress in HIV/AIDS research to go to med school, thinking he would have more impact as a physician. He blitzed through the University of Calgary’s compressed curriculum, putting himself in the comically intense position of being a professor at UBC while a med student in Calgary. He completed his MD in two years and nine months.

Upon returning to Vancouver, however, Wood discovered the fire he was now doubly armed to fight was nearly contained. The death rate from AIDS was down 80 percent, as was the number of new HIV cases. Wood pivoted to apply his harm-reduction strategies to another issue affecting the same at-risk communities he’d come to know through his work with Montaner. He emerged as a leader in addiction medicine around 2010, just as a drug called fentanyl began to show up on city streets, igniting yet another public health crisis and thrusting the issue of addiction into the spotlight. 

What Humans Do

In the lobby of the Anvil Centre, during intermission at the Recovery Speaks event, a woman named Lynn buttonholes Wood. Her 23-year-old son is in treatment, battling a heroin addiction. He’s been in an abstinence-based treatment facility for several months and is due home soon.

Wood listens silently, rabbinically. (Privately, he is a little worried about this young man, who is about to be sprung loose, his tolerance low, onto a landscape mined with fentanyl and carfentanil. “Anyone in that position is just a sitting duck for a fatal overdose,” he tells me later.)

Wood allows that some people do manage to get clean all at once just because they decided to, overriding primitive instructions from a brain that has actually been rewired, by trauma or stress or crushing circumstances, to crave solace. But it’s clear which side he believes the science tips toward. The data doesn’t support abstinence as Plan A.

Lynn tells Wood she has discovered a book touting a pharmaceutical “cure” for alcoholism. You simply take a drug—an alcohol antagonist—an hour before you plan to imbibe, and it whisks the reward off the table. So a drink is just a drink, not a ticket anywhere, and you stop at one or two. Eventually the thrill is gone. You can drink socially without fear of drinking to excess—then taper down to complete sobriety, or not. There’s evidence the drug works for opioids too.

This approach would clearly not be embraced by most of the people in this auditorium. But Wood believes the data shows that you can manage addiction without trying to hold it at bay through brute abstinence. It may even be the more humane tack.

“The vast majority of people who have what we would now call substance-use disorder are working, they have families, they’re going about their life, but they have this compulsion to use,” Wood elaborates later. “They may wish to cut down but have difficulty doing so. They might get withdrawal if they stop. But they’re getting along with their lives pretty well.” In the new landscape of addiction treatment that he envisions, “if people come to a health-care provider, we could offer things to help them cut down, or quit, or reduce their cravings.

“This is really part of the human condition. The oldest written records show people using things like alcohol. We could have coffees in front of us. We could be having a glass of wine tonight. I mean, this is what humans do.”

And here is where Wood and Smith—not to mention the people who have shared their heartbreaking but hopeful personal stories tonight—really do have a common cause. They deeply believe that people with substance-abuse issues ought not to be vilified for being a little more demonstrably human than everybody else.

In a sense, people prone to addiction—and “about 50 percent of the burden of substance use is genetic,” Wood says—are simply exquisitely attuned to the promise of rewards. For most of human history that was a good thing. “Being a good reward appreciator,” as the addiction psychologist Anna Rose Childress put it, would have made an individual more, not less, evolutionarily fit.

Only in the last 75 years, when consumer culture began producing a glut of irresistible temptations, did that trait stop delivering benefits and start creating problems. Now that same quester who was once first to try a new food, a new route, a new mate, is now first to fall hard for the shiny poisoned bauble.

Not long ago, certain variants of a gene called OPRM1 were found to be linked to impulsivity and risk-taking behaviour—and a predisposition for drug addiction.

But, Wood explains, OPRM1 is really an attachment gene. “In rhesus macaque monkeys, having the gene correlates to how upset the babies get when they’re separated from their mother.” The gene is thought to work in a similar way in humans.

“So here you have this attachment gene that makes great sense for survival, so you don’t go wandering off a cliff,” Wood says. “But that same gene, if you get prescribed Oxycontin by your doctor—and Oxycontin is extremely rewarding—it can just grab hold of you.”

Wood works the room. He is adept at saying the right things and leaving out the right things. He chats with the private donor who quietly gave $1 million to his centre and with mothers who have watched their children slip through their fingers—grieving moms have become the face of the fentanyl crisis. Wood’s own kids, aged 4 and 9, are still too little to worry about in this respect.

There’s something almost epidemiological about the way he circulates, each point of contact meaningful in some hard-to-measure way. If the root of all addiction is dislocation, as a recovery-community adage has it, then an antidote for addiction is connection. This is a second belief that both camps share. Indeed, you could say that the secret sauce of supervised injection sites like InSite is not that they prevent substance users from overdosing to death right now (though they indeed do that) but that they bring users into contact with potential social lifelines—health professionals whom they can trust to help them get their lives back on track.

Wood has been welcomed here. The kumbaya factor is high. But there remains one major, lingering disconnect: the God thing.

Another Path to Transcendence

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung advised Bill W. that without a spiritual dimension to AA, it would never work—the roots of addiction run too deep. Many in the recovery movement hold fast to that theory, but the required belief in a higher power also prevents many seeking recovery from buying into the program.

Wood believes there may be a way to square the circle here—to bring God into the picture without losing one’s evidence-based bona fides.

The last five or so years have seen a resurgence of clinical interest in psychedelics—the old hippie drugs that can open what Johns Hopkins psychologist Roland Griffiths calls a “spiritual window” through which deep insight might flow.

“The neuroimaging work that’s being done around this, particularly in the U.K., is really fascinating,” Wood says. One way to look at addiction is as a communication failure on a neural level. The most primitive part of the brain—the instinctive, reptilian part that drives compulsive behaviour—“doesn’t typically talk to the frontal lobe that’s really wanting to make changes,” Wood says. “But on psilocybin, those two brain regions are talking like crazy.” In preliminary experimental trials, the deep emotions that hallucinogenic trips unlock seem to help users reach a profound level of insight into their self and their predicament—which can prove a powerful weapon against hard-to-resist cravings.

Indeed, Bill W. himself experimented with LSD after he became sober, and found it to be such an effective spiritual assist he considered making it a standard part of AA meetings. “So the science is showing that we can probably bring about a spiritual awakening for people at a much higher rate this way than our traditional motivational techniques can,” Wood says.

This spring, the BCCSU announced plans to fast-track hallucinogenic experiments. Drugs such as psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” LSD and/or MDMA (ecstasy) will be administered in a controlled setting—a dedicated, soundproof room in the BCCSU’s headquarters on Powell Street. (Right now the room is bare and clinical; it’s definitely going to need some groovy-ing up—and a bathroom.)

“It’s just a question now of the clinical protocols and then getting them through ethics,” Wood says. “And then getting these medications made by pharmaceutical labs, storing them and then doing the trials” with trained psychotherapists. “But we hope to be doing them in the next year.”

This isn’t something the BCCSU is trying to sneak past the public. The initiative is openly displayed on the website, along with other research such as “Intentional cannabis use to reduce crack cocaine use in a Canadian setting: a longitudinal analysis.”

The message? The road from “sick” to “well” is not a straight shot. For many, the endgame is total sobriety, but for some it will never be. While working at the heroin prescription clinic on the Downtown Eastside, Wood always asked his clients about their long-term goals. In some cases it was as straightforward as “Hey, if you want to see your kids again, this cocaine thing is going to be an issue.” But for others, say, an alcoholic who just wants to be able to drink socially, “recovery” has a different meaning and requires another protocol altogether. A system that can handle both has yet to be developed.

The endgame, which Wood sees as inevitable, is the decriminalization of all drugs along the lines of what Portugal has undertaken. The fentanyl crisis may eventually seal the fate of the disastrous, larcenously expensive century-old War on Drugs, Wood believes, but we’re not there yet.

“If you look at the situation in the States, the opioid crisis is the biggest issue that’s being debated around health-care reform. The Republican base of middle-class white conservative Americans, they’re being hit hard. And this thing hasn’t peaked yet.

“I think fentanyl is going to lead to pretty dramatic changes in Canada, for sure. I think we’re going to see prescription heroin. Investments in things like therapeutic communities”—long-term, professionally staffed rehab facilities—“on the other end.

“Unfortunately, before that happens, there are going to be thousands more dead people than there should be.”


Keeping Up With Your Joneses

Keeping Up With Your Joneses

Essays Featured Nonagenerians Psychology Science Sport What Makes Olga Run?


TO A CERTAIN kind of sports fan – the sort with a Ph.D in physiology – Olga Kotelko is just about the most interesting athlete in the world. A track and field amateur from Vancouver, Canada, Kotelko has no peer when it comes to the javelin, the long jump, and the 100-meter dash (to name just a few of the 11 events she has competed in avidly for 18 years). And that’s only partly because peers in her age bracket tend overwhelmingly to avoid throwing and jumping events. Kotelko, you see, is 94 years old.

Scientists want to know what’s different about Olga Kotelko. Many people assume she simply won the genetic lottery – end of story. But in some ways that appears not to be true. Some athletes carry genetic variants that make them highly “trainable,” acutely responsive to aerobic exercise. Kotelko doesn’t have many of them. Some people have genes that let them lose weight easily on a workout regime. Kotelko doesn’t.

Olga’s DNA instead may help her out in a subtler way. There’s increasing evidence that the will to work out is partly genetically determined. It’s an advantage that could help NYGoodHealth explain the apparently Mars/Venus difference between people for whom exercise is pleasure – the Olga Kotelkos of the world – and the coach potatoes among us for whom it’s torture.

In a spacious cage in a cramped lab in the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside, there lives an albino lab mouse who has no name, so I will call him Dean. Dean is small and twitchy, with slender musculature. He may be the world’s fittest mouse.

Dean is the product of a long-running study of voluntary exercise. Twenty years ago, the evolutionary biologist Ted Garland, then at the University of Wisconsin, gave a small group of mice access to a running wheel. The mice who liked using it the most were bred with each other, so that the trait of running fast and far was amplified in each successive generation until, almost 70 generations later, Dean emerged. When Dean wakes up in the evening (mice are nocturnal) he typically goes straight to his wheel – before eating, even – and just runs full out, making the wheel squeal. He has run as much as 31 kilometers in a night.

Garland and his colleagues believe that, genetically and physiologically, Dean is different from other rodents. “Marathon mice” like Dean seem to find exercise uncommonly satisfying – likely because of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is central to the brain’s reward circuitry. Exercise stimulates dopamine production, which in turn causes a cascade of other molecular effects – a process known as “dopamine signaling.” Dean’s dopamine signaling is unusual: when he runs, some as-yet-unidentified molecule, downstream from the dopamine receptor, gets altered so that it now provides reinforcement that normal mice don’t get.

Those differences, the scientists believe, may help explain why some of us merely tolerate exercise and why others, like Olga and Dean, love and perhaps even need a whole lot of it. If your genes predispose you to loving your workouts, as Olga’s appear to do, and if your environment offers the opportunity to work out constantly, as Dean’s wheel does for him, a certain chain reaction can start. Physical effort feels fantastic, which prompts even more effort, which delivers even bigger dose effects in mood and energy.

How does any of this matter for the rest of us schlubs, who may not be similarly endowed? File this question under “Where there’s a cause, there’s a cure.” If scientists crack the genetic code for intrinsic motivation to exercise, then its biochemical signature can, in theory, be synthesized. Why not a pill that would make us want to work out?

“One always hates to recommend yet another medication for a substantial fraction of the population, says Garland, “but Jesus, look at how many people are already on antidepressants. Who’s to say it wouldn’t be a good thing?” An up-and-at-‘em drug might increase our desire for exercise or, conversely, create uncomfortable restlessness if we sit too long.

It’s pretty clear that Dean the mouse experiences something way beyond uncomfortable restlessness if he sits too long. He is a full-on exercise junkie. When researcher Justin Rhodes, an experimental psychologist at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who joined the study at generation 20, took away his wheel, depriving him of his fix, Dean was miserable. Rhodes scanned Dean’s brain and found high activation in the area associated with cravings for drugs such as cocaine. Both “drugs” – indeed, all drugs – goose similar reward circuitry. “But I think there’s got to be some differences,” says Rhodes. “Because it’s not as if an animal that’s addicted to running is necessarily going to be addicted to cocaine or gambling.”

And therein lies another weird direction for the research to go. What if addicts could take a pill that exploits those minute differences, redirecting their jones from a harmful one to a positive one – a kind of running-as-methadone plan?
Such a pill is conceivable in principle, says University of Michigan psychologist Kent Berridge, who studies how desire and pleasure operate in humans, but developing it presents an enormous challenge. Without knowing exactly how the brain assigns urges to specific objects of desire, how do we ignite a yen to exercise without also stimulating the yen to do things that will land your customers in rehab? Or blunt the urge for drugs while leaving healthy urges untouched? Scientists within the big pharmaceutical companies are no doubt working on it, nonetheless. “I’m waiting for them to contact me and offer me funding,” Garland says dryly.

It’s the kind of drug that Olga – normally one to Just Say No – might even endorse.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

From the archives: This Won’t Hurt a Bit

From the archives: This Won’t Hurt a Bit

Featured Psychology Science

From the archives: East Meets West in the Dentist’s Chair

From SATURDAY NIGHT magazine, 2002

For whatever reason—and there’s endless scope to speculate – pain is a hot topic these days. “That’s gotta hurt!” we say of the extreme snowboarder who lands face-first while jumping a Volkswagon, or of our friend’s kid who flashes her tongue stud or lumbar tattoo. But we’re fascinated. In an age where pain is optional, it has acquired a strange new cachet.

On today’s maternity wards, experiments in mystical stoicism have replaced old-style epidural-aided childbirth (which at least offered mothers-to-be some relief) with “natural childbirth, where lucky women get to sweat and holler and squeeze the doula’s hand, the pain simply the price of being fully present in the moment. The Dene and the Inuit of the Northwest Territories would understand. Many of their traditional games – the mouth pull, the knuckle hop – involve the mutual affliction of pain. “If we know how much pain we can take,” an elder named Big Bob Aikens explained to writer John Vaillant not long ago, “we know we can survive if we are injured.” Most of us below the tundra line are so far away from needing pain for that reason that it’s hard to fully appreciate what Big Bob is getting at. But the possibility glimmers on the periphery of awareness that maybe the Inuit are onto something. Maybe anesthetizing pain is a bad idea, evolutionarily. Maybe learning to feel pain, to take it, to “live inside” it, to study it, to re-engineer our relationship with it, is part of the secret of advancing the species.

There is, of course, another, more immediately relevant reason to study pain: as pain treatment goes, so goes the future of medicine. How we decide to deal with pain matters, now possibly more than ever, because pain disproportionately affects an enormous and growing number in an aging population.

And it’s hear that a clear division has emerged on which direction we ought to pursue. Ask a Western doctor what the future of pain relief is, and he or she will probably start naming drugs that end in x. Western medicine has cast its lot with pharmacology, and, increasingly, biotechnology.

But at the same time, and in record numbers, the afflicted are looking for something different. Collectively, we seem to be letting our guard down about those crazy Eastern remedies that at least do no harm, and may do some good. (British Columbia, where I live, was the first province where traditional Chinese medicine was recognized as a regulated discipline.) Herbs, guided fantasy, acupuncture, magnets, hypnosis, virtual reality, prayer: people will reach for anything when they’re in pain and the old standbys haven’t done the job. The “proof” that any of these “natural” remedies is effective – that is, double-blind controlled-study proof, Western science’s standard – is scanty at best, but the nature of the target, pain, is ephemeral enough that the phrase “controlled study” can seem hopelessly paradoxical.

What is clear is that the mind, when it comes to pain, is more powerful than we ever imagined. Pain, like, time, is an illusion. We interpret it as discomfort because discomfort is nature’s way of ensuring a damaged area gets attention. But is there anything to say that we can’t learn to “read” pain signals dispassionately, as just so many lines of source code, and remove the discomfort from the equation? Or even learn to interpret pain signals as pleasurable – so-called “eudemonic” pain? Hindu mystics have done it for centuries. As that stoic philosopher Arnold Schwarzenegger put it in The Terminator, “Pain can be controlled – you just disconnect it.”

Was Arnie right? I have decided to find out.

It happens that I am one of those people who never had their wisdom teeth removed. Now all four of mine sit like tiny thrones sunk in soft tissue – inviting a controlled test. I will have the teeth on the right pulled the Western way (which is to say, by an oral surgeon and with ample drugs before and after) and the teeth on the left pulled the Eastern way (by a holistic-oriented dentist using a cocktail of New Age measures, no anesthetic.) My own theory is that since the more soulful, creative right brain controls the left side of the body, I ought to be able to recruit some natural pain relief from there. Or at least draw on reserves of faith.

I will turn over my body – my mouth, at any rate – to science. East vs. West: may the best side win.


Dr. Martin (Marty) Braverman is one of the top oral surgeons in B.C. His office is in a mall.

Braverman can extract a couple of teeth in the time it takes to get your oil changed. On a busy day he might pull a hundred teeth. You pay a little extra for a guy like Marty Braverman, because he is a specialist and because he boasts a very low dry-socket ratio. (A dry socket, in which the bone holding the tooth becomes exposed to air, is the very definition of pain.) “Will I be able to drive afterward?” I’d asked the receptionist.

“Can you drive now?” she said.


“Then, yes.” Ba-rum-bum.

Sitting in Braverman’s chair, I survey a rolling cart with a few silver instruments on it. The smell of a dentist’s office provokes a kind of primal fear, and, fast on its heels, the urge to bolt. I have to remind myself: This is the easy side.

Braverman is short and bespectacled and almost alarmingly casual in manner. He’s wearing khakis. With a needle as fat as a fountain pen, he injects, lidocaine, but as he has applied topical anesthetic to numb the gum first, I don’t feel the needle go in. I don’t feel a thing.

“Now, lidocaine usually has about a three-hour duration,” Braverman says, “so in three or four hours you’re going to experience some discomfort.” A nurse pokes her head in to remind Braverman that he has a lunch date in twenty minutes.

He goes to work on the lower right-hand tooth, the trickier one because it’s half-buried. He makes an incision. “What we’re going to do is push the gum back away from the tooth,” he says. “You’ll feel some pressure as we do that.” A scratching sound, a cat at the door. He removes a bit of bone to create some space to lever the tooth up and out. The drill roars. Through the window, I can see the traffic light, hung on a wire over the intersection, being blown so far off plumb by the wind that the motorists can’t tell what colour the light is.

Braverman has the tooth out in two minutes, 35 seconds. He asks for a needle-driver, so that he can “re-approximate” the gum with some stitches. He packs the hole with a dissolving sponge and packs my cheek with dexamethasone, an anti-swelling drug.

The top tooth ought to go even faster, and it does. Braverman levers an instrument called an elevator – essentially a primitive wedge – between the tooth and the bone, grabs onto the tooth with the forceps, and, boom: done. One minute, 25 seconds. I have barely warmed up the chair for the next person. Pain? There has been none. The procedure is over so quickly as to be disorienting. This feels like cheating, the way plane travel feels like cheating, bridging distance you somehow haven’t earned.

Braverman prescribes Tylenol 3 and the antibiotic amoxicillin – a prescription I fill one floor down in the mall, before driving home. The cost is $250. There’s an industry joke about a guy who receives the bill from his oral surgeon. He’s outraged. “Three hundred dollars for 15 minutes’ work?!” The surgeon replies, “Would you rather I’d taken an hour?”

A problem arises as I try to monitor the degree of pain I experience during recovery: how do I measure it? Most doctors acknowledge that the task of calibrating pain is almost impossible, since the amount of pain people feel is ultimately subjective, varies wildly from patient to patient, and is influenced by factors such as mood and expectation. All of the pain scales thus far devised are imprecise, and in fact no one has improved on the old “On a scale of one to 10, how much does this hurt?” The pain I feel on Day 1, after the extraction, is about a 2.

On day 2, the pain climbs to three, and requires a couple of T3’s to keep it in check. I try to pay attention to the pain. It diminishes, narrowing to a little, lingering ache just below the right temple, then migrates to the hinge of my jaw. By Day 4, it is largely gone. For all intents, the right side, the Western side, is over – hardly more psychically disruptive, overall, than a bad haircut. The persistence of a very low-grade headache makes me wonder if there isn’t, just possibly, a little infection, so I start taking the antibiotics again, three a day. A week later I take a closer look at the label on the bottle: “Three a day until finished, as directed by Dr. Salzman.” Dr. Salzman? Oh yeah: the guy I sometimes see from the travel clinic down the street. I have been taking pills for altitude sickness.

EAST (The Preparation)

Canadians spent about $4 billion on alternative therapies last year, and more than two in five say they use some kind of “complementary” medicine. In most cities you can now find a holistic dentist who will manage pain with hypnoanaesthesia or herbology or acupuncture instead of burying it with sedatives or anesthetic. It would be an exaggeration, though, to say that the masses are flocking to these folks.

“People don’t like to feel pain,” says Dr. Craig Kirker, the founder of Biological Dental Investigations, a consultant at the Integrative Medicine Institute of Canada in Calgary – and the practitioner who has agreed to take me as a test subject. Kirker often uses acupuncture in his treatment of patients, usually ones who are terrified of the kind of big dental needles that deliver lidocaine (and for whom, therefore, the reduced pain felt with acupuncture is preferable to the full-throttle pain of no treatment at all). “When you’re frozen with anesthetic, you’ll feel, on a scale of one to 10, zero, maybe point-five. If you have no freezing you might feel a nine when it gets close to the nerve. With the acupuncture you feel about a four. And it’ll peak to about a six. Just once in a while. You know, just kind of like: ‘zing.’”

Regarding my own personal experiment, Kirker is curious, even keen, but offers no guarantees. No painkillers before, during or after? “If you’re just popping a tooth out, it’s not such a big deal,” he says. “If they have to touch the bone, you’re probably going to want freezing. It’s a little different kind of pain down there. But it’d be interesting.”

Kirker sets up the extraction for three weeks hence. He recommends a couple of ways I can prepare. One is a visualization exercise popularized by Jose Silva in a classic of New Age literature called You the Healer. Basically, the subject relaxes by counting backwards from 50. You imagine your hand immersed in a bucket of ice water. You leave your hand in the water for 10 minutes. Then you withdraw it, stiff and numb, and apply it to your face, where the numbness transfers to the jaw and settles deeply into the bone.

“Here’s another little tidbit,” Kirker advises by e-mail. “Get into your quiet space and have a little conversation with your wisdom teeth and jaw. It would be nice if they felt OK about parting ways as well. I know it sounds a little flighty, but I have actually run into cases where this could have prevented a lot of trouble if we had listened more carefully.”

And so Jose Silva joins my night-table stack, atop Mark Salzman’s novel Lying Awake. In that book, a nun named Sister John has been suffering from killer migraines, which we later discover are linked to epilepsy. “I try to see pain as an opportunity, not an affliction,” she explains to a neurologist. “If I surrender to it in the right way, I have a feeling of transcending my body completely. It’s a wonderful experience, but it’s spiritual, not physical.”

EAST (The Indoctrination)

The IMI, a cozy little brick building not far from downtown Calgary, is on the frontier of the field of “integrated medicine.” Its mandate is similar to Andrew Weil’s bailiwick at the University of Arizona – to get the two solitudes, Western and Eastern medicine, to meet for lunch. Mind-body medicine is about breaking the old dichotomy – not “East” or “West” but “the medicine that works at the right time for the right reason.” “The body is capable of healing itself,” the Canadian alternative-medicine pioneer Wah Jun Tze often said. IN fact, perfect health is the body’s natural state, and anything that interposes itself in that process, the mind-body tribe says, is probably hurting more than it’s helping in the long run.

I arrive the day before the scheduled extraction. My vow to do this side the Eastern way forces the direction of treatment somewhat. Kirker will work as part of a team: he’ll do the prep work and the acupuncture while a colleague named Bill Cryderman, a dentist who is on the same page with IMI philosophically, will pull the teeth. “We could have gone with an oral surgeon, but I thought you’d have a more exciting experience with Bill,” Kirker says. But before I meet Cryderman, there’s a little “tuning up” to be done.

“Here in the West we’re hunt up on the double-blind placebo study,” Kirker says as I frump into the chair next to a “bioresonance” machine called a MORA. “First we observe. We make theories. Then we test those theories, and that’s science. When Newton proposed an invisible force called gravity, they almost threw him out of the institute – but then they started testing and found out he was right.”

Craig Kirker is a nice guy. If Mr. Rogers ever decided to have a dentist on his show, Kirker would be the man he’s invite. He has a habit of telling an anecdote with a surprise ending involving spontaneous or dramatic healing, and punctuating it with “Interesting.” The MORA machine is making high-pitched squeals. Its job, Kirker says, is to detect imbalances in my body’s “harmonics” and try to kick me back into plumb. A nurse jots down the readings she’s getting. Apparently I’m a little out of balance,” “possible from the plane ride,” Kirker offers, charitably.

Next, in another room, my autonomic reflexes are tested to determine how much my body reacts to anesthetics the dentist might have if the pain proves too much to bear. Kirker puts a number of different samples in a little receptacle, one by one, and determines how they conduct energy through an acupressure point in my finger.

In still another room, I lie on a massage table with an oxygen mask over my mouth. I get a fix of ionized oxygen for 16 minutes – eight minutes of positively charged ions followed by eight minutes of negatively charged ions – which Kirker tells me has a general “detoxifying” effect and boosts my immune system. (If you could take a picture of the energy field around my body, he says, you’d see that after the oxygen had saturated the cells, the energy field would have expanded to Michelin Man dimensions.)

Then we add light. From the hood of a “biophoton machine” poised over my scalp, tiny red pulsing diodes send light energy into my body, filling me, Kirker says, with qi energy. A magnetic ring around my ankles catches energy that would apparently otherwise be lost, and sends it back into my body.

Finally Kirker puts a tiny vial of liquid in the “honeycomb” – a device that takes the frequency signature of whatever you put in it and feeds it through the lights. The liquid is a homeopathic remedy created from a flower essence – an ultradilute solution of dew collected from a flower petal in a meadow in Western Canada just as the light of dawn struck it – selected for me by an IMI staff “intuitive” named Iris.

“We’re working on you from all levels,” Kirker says.

Now, there is plenty in New Age medicine to be suspicious of. In my suitcase is a thick folder full of articles that take the air out of exactly the sort of thing we’ve been doing. But I haven’t read them yet. I’m highly motivated to believe. What’s going on here seems nutty, but my job is to take my own cynicism out of the equation at least until my teeth are handed to me in a sack. No theories, no baggage, just direct experience.

As he finishes the tune-up, Kirker tells the story of his own drift from hard science to the speculative fringe. How, almost as a lark, he played along with the leader of a workshop called “Body Symptoms as a Spiritual Process,” and allowed the possibility that symptoms happen for a reason and that the painful kink in his neck was just his body’s subconscious trying to tell him something. (The kink vanished.) And how, a while later, a naturopath using a similar technique managed to cure him of chronic abdominal pain. As far as extra-normal talent goes, for that matter, Kirker’s associate Iris, the “medical intuitive,” has a reputation for being downright psychic. Sometimes she turns up in pictures of gatherings she wasn’t even at. And here she is now, poking her head into the treatment room. “Will you be there tomorrow?” I ask.

“Not in body,” she says.

“Then how will I know if you’re around?”

“I’m a little clumsy,” Iris says. “If somebody knocks something over, that’s me.”

EAST (The Extraction)

Bill Cryderman’s workplace feels less like a dentist’s office than like the “pioneers” wing of a museum of natural history. Water rills down a slate waterfall and trickles lazily into a catch basin. Fire blazes in a hearth. A pair of snowshoes sits propped in a wall niche. And overhead, positioned so that its ribs fill the field of vision of the prone patient, is a ‘40s-era wide-bodied wooden canoe.

Cryderman himself is a small man with a sort of jocular confidence. “Good to meet you,” he said, emerging from behind a partition and pumping my hand. “Are you all psyched?”

I am lying in his high-tech dental chair. With a low hum, parts of it move to adjust to my contours. Some money falls out of my pocket onto the floor. “That’s the automatic coin-remover,” Cryderman buy ambien online visa says.

He draws himself in close, trying to gauge my level of trepidation. “You know we have a backup, right?” He means lidocaine. “It’s just for your mental security. I don’t want to give you a back door. This is going to work.”

It’s hard to tell whether Cryderman’s as certain as he seems to be, or as certain as he needs to be fore me to believe him.

There comes a point – and actors and speakers must feel this – when apprehension becomes a bigger burden than the thing you’re apprehensive about, and you actually wish yourself forward in time to meet the event. I felt that way this morning. But now I’m in full retreat, my stomach in coils.

For the past week, I’ve been practicing the ice-bucket exercise. In theory, I should be able to effect an actual physiological change. In other words, I’m not just fooling myself into thinking the area’s growing numb – it IS growing numb. Neurons generate electrochemical charges that actually block the pain messages coming back from the brain. In theory.

Craig Kirker is beside me. He seems quietly stoked. He is the pit crew, the doula, overseeing the acupuncture. Carefully, he hooks up tiny needles to acupressure points in my right ear, left hand, left food and face. Some of these needles are basically just electrodes, through which a mild current (called, oddly, a tsunami) will run from a machine called, unpromisingly, an Accu-O-Matic. There’s very little sensation: the needles hardly feel as if they’ve penetrated the skin. This could easily be a total ruse. “Now I’m just going to dial it up,” Kirker says. “The frequency you’re on right now is for healing.”

What am I doing here? No, really, literally, what am I doing here? Trying, in a sense, to reprogram the body. Pain is the fire alarm of a healthy, functioning nervous system. So the question becomes, can we make the mind aware that, yes, we’ve heard the alarm, we’re aware of the fire – but it’s a controlled burn, a regeneration burn, and therefore there’s no need to ring anymore. Can we tell it that? And will it listen?

“Ok,” Kirker says, “now start counting yourself down.”

I close my eyes and move slowly backwards from 50, breathing deeply, rhythmically. The idea is to slow down the brain activity and drift toward an alpha state, where the right brain, the creative, intuitive side, predominates.

“We’re going to just allow the body to numb,” Kirker says, “and we’re going to give the release to the teeth. We’re going to allow them to leave, and we’re going to allow the process to take place without invasion. The tissues will adapt if they need to, and healing will begin to take place as soon as the tooth is gone. We’re going to do the same visualization we’ve been doing, with the ice water, but we’re also going to draw our consciousness back from the body. To do that we’re going to go up some stairs in the mind. Only a few stairs until we reach a landing. Now look back and see your body in the chair.”

I can see it. The body. It’s me but it isn’t. It looks like an exhumed mariner from the Franklin Expedition, mummied in ice. The eyes are buried like bulbs under the skin, the whole left half of the face is crusted over with thick, white frost. This guy is dead.

Kirker reinforces the image with another. There’s a thermostat in the wall. The thermostat will be used to put the jaw into a deep freeze. At “1” the jaw is already numb. “When we turn the dial to the number 2, the numbness deepens, becomes more pervasive. Now turn the dial to 3. Turn it to 4. Deepening almost to the very tip of the root, now. Five. It’s starting to feel almost like stone. No sensation. Numb and very dense. You’ll still feel pressure, but nothing other than pressure.”

Image-making. In repressive regimes, the room where victims have been tortured has often been given a nickname. In the Philippines it has been called “the production room.” In South Vietnam “the cinema room.” In Chile “the blue-lit stage.” The very thing that manufactures and heightens sensations of pain – the projection booth of the mind – can be recruited to do propaganda for the good guys. In theory.

Somewhere across the room Cryderman is laughing. He and the receptionist strike up the Johnny Cash tune “Ring of Fire.”

I can hear things being unwrapped, instruments.

“Breathing in numbness,” Kirker says, “breathing out tension.”

A machine issuing three tones: GEG…GEG…

Cryderman is standing, for better leverage.

“Bruce is wired for sound,” he says, surveying the electrodes on my face.” “Second floor: lingerie.”

The top tooth is lying at an angle, like a newspaper box that’s been tipped over and frozen into a snowdrift. “It’s pointing a little sideways, but it’s manageable,” Cryderman says. His assistant, Monica, is at his flank. “I’m going to apply some pressure now around the upper wisdom tooth.”

You’ll feel pressure, but no pain.

Extracting a wisdom tooth is like prying an oyster off a rock. You’re pulling ligaments away from the bone, and attached to each ligament are nerves.

“Try and shift your lower jaw towards Monica,” Cryderman says. “Good for you.” The man is relaxed. He’s selling this. A little probing, a little digging – pressure, as promised, but pressure is not pain. Stone cold, bone numb.

“I’m going to try a straight elevator,” Cryderman says. “That was too easy.”

So far, so good. The dentist is smooth. He’s in there working on my mouth, and I haven’t really felt much of…

Mother of God.

Cryderman has leaned on the tool as if it were a tire iron. There’s a sick-making twisting, each sucker being yarded off the rock like snot till it pops free. Painwise, that was a six at least. Or was it? The lateral motion was what got to me, that unfamiliar sensation I interpreted as pain.

“You OK?” Cryderman says. “Yes? He’s going to be fine, then. You are going to be just fine.”

Pain is a private experience. To feel it even for a moment is to glimpse how it must, for chronic suffers, be a brutally estranging force. The human being is affiliative by nature, constantly reaching out; but the human being in pain is isolated, constantly looking in, drawing on reserves, spinning down to a hidden centre.

Quell the fear. Most of pain is fear. Breath in numbness, breathe out tension. Hey, this isn’t so bad. On the other hand, if the same procedure were happening in a different circumstance – the Tower of London in the 18th century, say – my subjective experience would likely be different.

“Hang in there, buddy,” Cryderman says. “Good show. So, we’re done there.” The top tooth is out. In seven minutes. Not exactly a slow float in the shallow end of the kidney pool, but manageable, surprisingly so. One down, one to go.

If I could somehow have known what was to follow, I might have bailed right there – paid up and been on the next plane home.

“I’m going to enlist your aid here, OK?” he says. “I want to control the bleeding in the lower left. I want you to imagine that the blood supply to that corner of your mouth is delivered by a garden hose. I want you to turn the tap off. Imagine yourself turning it right off. Cinch it down tight and shut the blood supply off to that wisdom tooth area. That’s it. Just imagine that you’ve stopped it altogether.”

Most of the tooth is covered by a crown of skin, which will have to go. Cryderman picks up a scalpel. Its blade is as long as my thumb.

“For all I know, this is the part that will bother you more than the actual tooth removal.” He pushes the blade in deep, drawing it down nearly a quarter of an inch and all the way forward, creating two flaps he then peels back on either side to expose the bone. It feels like a scraping, a scouring, a beating of rugs, uncomfortable for sure, but by now I have defined pain down – anything that doesn’t involve twisting is OK by me – and I let him go on.

“So we’re going to make some noise just like for a filling.”

Constant suction. Cryderman needs a point of leverage to get the tooth out of there. He starts to drill. Now he is digging a little trench in the bone. What helps stave off panic is that the drill, I discover, is preferable to the elevator, whose sudden, stump-uprooting action creates a more mentally vivid and therefore more flinchworthy sensation.

I can feel him moving back there. He’s a long way back, so far back that maybe he’s working on somebody else’s mouth. The mouth of the dead guy, Franklin’s man in the ice.

The tooth is butted up to the next molar too tightly. It’s not going to come out in one piece.

Cryderman starts to drill. He burrs down from the top of the tooth at an angle, the sound of a jet plane on takeoff heard through earmuffs. He brushes the pulp – a zing of pain, electric, a fist flying open. “Hang in there,” he says. “We’re making great headway.”

Whenever the rational mind is activated, there is suffering. Cryderman can tell when I am in my rational mind. He knows the circuit is open, two people receiving each other. He’s talking to me now, engaging directly. He knows I’ve gotten off the lift and am taking the stairs, and he is helping me up those stairs.

I fall back on the Jose Silva technique. The trick, Silva figured, is to concretize the pain, make it a physical thing. The right brain, which creates pain sensations, deals with subjective constructions. It can’t deal with things. So once you’ve given pain dimensions, you’ve taken it out of the right brain and put it into the left, which feels nothing. Concretize the pain. It is the shape of the sun, the sudden weight of a wheelbarrow full of rocks.

“Thanks for opening so wide,” Cryderman says. “I had a little girl just before you, and I keep wanting to say, ‘Bruce is being a big helper.’”

With a loud crack the corner of the tooth shears off. The idea is to plug the elevator in and try to level the tooth out. But again, it refuses to budge.

Strategy changes. Cryderman and his assistant have a little conference. Kirker, who has been down at my feet massaging the acupressure points, pops up to have a look. “OK, let’s try it,” Cryderman says finally. “We’ll just go really slow and see how we do.” He begins to drill straight down into the pulp chamber of the tooth. If lidocaine were ever going to be needed, it’s now. I can feel the burr going in, but the pain is more a frisson than a jolt, no worse than some of the bad dentistry I had as a kid, nothing I can’t handle. If the other “pain” sense cues were absent – the scraping of the scalpel, the cracking of the teeth, the smell of burning pulp – there would be almost no sensation. At intervals Cryderman stops drilling and tries levering. I can hear myself making whale sounds. “Let’s give him a rubber bite-block – that should improve his ability to stabilize his own jaw,” Cryderman says. “I think that’s going to help you, Bruce, because I’m torquin’ on ya.”

The roots of the tooth have grown together into a kind of monoroot, which means Cryderman will have to bore down almost all the way down to the jawbone before the tooth splits. Then all that will remain is to slip an elevator into the crack, twist it, and the two pieces should split like cordwood, free to be lifted out. In theory.

Light blooms periodically as Cryderman’s headlamp beam passes over my eyelids. I can feel tight skin near my temples where the tracks of tears have dried.

The steady trickle of the waterfall. Kirker has turned up the current on the electrodes on my face so I will feel a reassuring buzz, but I don’t feel a thing.

A hazy notion is born and forms and tries to take hold. It’s the sense that there are two worlds in opposition – the world I normally live in, the grasping world, self-centred and busy and messy, my brain full of way too much pop-cultural arcane; and the other world I am beginning to glimpse, a letting-go world, a place of acceptance and submission and yes, faith, where the real show is happening beyond conscious awareness, your biochemistry sensitive to toxins at almost an atomic level, dead relatives along with you for the ride and every organic thing pulsing at an almost audible frequency, giving off a visible light. A place that, once you decided to live in it permanently, would probably make the other world look like the restroom of a gas station next to the beach.

How we experience pain, eventually, falls into the preverbal realm, or possibly postverbal – casting us back into the frustrating limitations of infanthood or forward to the final mumblings in the vapour tent before the ventilator is turned off English has no words for it. At best our descriptions are crude approximations. Pain is the original language, not what the body speaks to the world but what the world speaks to the body: you are still alive.

Cryderman is almost entirely through the tooth. “Hang on,” he says. “I think I’m going to have some good news for you pretty quickly.”

The tooth splits with a crack. “OK, let’s see what we’ve got.” The two pieces should lift out easily. But they don’t. They are fused to the bone. Akylosis. Cryderman will have to pry each out individually.

At this point let me collapse the story. Plenty of things happen in my mouth, and plenty of things happen in my mind, not least of which is that I adopt a new strategy, leaning not on images, but on fact (“Look, this is the way it was done for thousands of years”) and affirmations (“The only way out is through”). Cryderman describes a required manoeuvre to Monica as a “dipsy-doodle.” He tells her to be a little more aggressive. At a certain point, I find myself talking to the tooth: “Let go, pal.” The tooth and I have fairly clear communication going. We are staring at each other across the table of a bad Mexican restaurant on the night, after 25 years together, that it all ends. The tooth says, “Why are you doing this to me? What have I ever done to you?” It senses an impure motive. This is not a diseased tooth. It wasn’t causing any trouble. Strictly speaking it did not need to come out. Was the thrill gone? Was there another, younger tooth in the picture? No. I was doing this for the money.

“OK, Bruce,” Cryderman says. “You made it.”

Sixty-five minutes after he began to tackle it, the last piece of this tooth is out. Cryderman’s face is filmed with sweat. “Holy mackerel,” he says. He puts a couple of stitches in. I don’t feel them. I am floating on endorphins.

This has turned out to be one of the most stubborn extractions Cryderman has ever undertaken.

“OK, I’m not ordering anything with sun-dried tomatoes on it this weekend,” Cryderman says “Monica is destroyed on sun-dried tomatoes now. Possibly forever.”

In his byzantine excavations, Cryderman managed to miss the major nerve that runs under the wisdom teeth – if he’d hit it I doubt any amount of acupuncture or guided imagery would have prevented me from jumping out of the chair. But even so, this was a pretty sensational bit of trauma. And with acupressure, and what amounts to positive thinking, I was able to endure it. the dissociation from my own body in the chair – not “astral travel,” but something closer to a state of light hypnosis, suggestibility with awareness – worked. “Turning off the tap” worked. Cryderman removed only two gauzes’ worth of blood – way less than there should have been for a wound that size. A dental patient who’s not completely frozen will typically feel pain the moment the drill penetrates the enamel, moves into the dentin and brushes the pulp. Cryderman drilled right through the pulp. “That,” says Kirker, “is like doing surgery.”

Here’s the truth. I am not a tough guy. I cry at track meets. And I’m easily distracted. A stronger person with a more disciplined mind could almost certainly enjoy something close to a pain-free experience.

“Western medicines definitely have their place,” Kirker says as we make our way back to the IMI in his minivan. “They’re very useful for some things. It’s hard to beat a good nerve block.” I know what he means. Strictly in terms of quantifiable pain, the Western side of this experiment “won” hands-down. But the Eastern side was a lot more interesting.

No doubt Silva made some mistakes, and Iris misses the barn some days, and Deepak Chopra bends some facts to fit his myths, and a lot of the “Kirlian photography” people you see at science fairs are charlatans, waving the Polaroid over a 60-watt bulf before handing you back an aureole-ringed picture of yourself. But somewhere in the fog is the right way forward – to a future where doctors are paid even if they don’t make a referral or prescribe a pill, and patients are encouraged to do all they can for themselves, and Western and Eastern medicine collapse into something we call ‘using what works.’ And pain still exists though we all start thinking about if differently, trying to answer the question of why it dogs us from a little further upstream.

The healing curve on this left side is steep. Kirker gives me a couple more sessions of the oxygen and the lights. He makes a liquid homeopathic out of the pieces of my own tooth. He feeds into the bioresonance machine he’s using on me the signature of healthy tissues from pigs raised on an organic farm in Germany. (Using healthy human flesh would no doubt present, um, ethical issues.) There is very little swelling, which surprises him. “When you touch bone,” he says, “almost invariably you swell up like a chipmunk.”

The night of the operation there’s a little low pain, maybe a Two, not enough to prevent me from sleeping. The next morning it is gone.

On Monday, Kirker and I shake hands goodbye.

“Oh. Iris phoned,” he says. “I asked her if she was there. ‘Oh yeah,’ she said. ‘Dragged on awhile, eh?’”Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Great Fossil Feud

The Great Fossil Feud

Featured Science

from DISCOVER MAGAZINE, Dec. 7, 2011

The first shot across the bow came in 2002, when Oxford paleontologist Martin Brasier challenged the authenticity of what were then widely regarded as the fossil remains of some of Earth’s first life-forms. In the bargain he took on one of paleobiology’s great lions, J. W. “Bill” Schopf of UCLA, who made that find and still defends it. “It was like tackling Jesus or Moses,” Brasier says.

Now Brasier has emptied his second barrel. In August he and David Wacey of the University of Western Australia staked their own claim to a candidate for the oldest known fossil: a set of Slinky-shaped cells found on an ancient beach in western Australia, just 20 miles from the site of Schopf’s discovery. Brasier asserts that his fossilized cells are the remains of primitive anaerobic bacteria that lived 3.4 billion years ago. Schopf’s samples, he believes, are just ancient, patterned rock, with no fossils at all.

Settling the debate matters a great deal. At its heart is one of the biggest questions in science: When and where did life begin? Brasier’s find suggests that life on Earth started not near some oceanic thermal vent but rather in a warm, oxygen-depleted bath near the surface. It also bolsters the case that there once was life on Mars.

But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the late order tramadol online now Carl Sagan once said, and that is a hard standard to meet in a field so rarefied that all of its top experts could probably fit in a Volkswagen. After a decade of mapping rock formations and analyzing samples, Brasier believes he has attained the extraordinary evidence that Schopf has not.

Both scientists used light-?scattering lasers to dust for chemical fingerprints, but Brasier bundled several techniques to attain detailed 3-D images. He found sulfur, carbon, and nitrogen, suggesting biological origins. Schopf detected carbon too, but Brasier argues that it is unrelated to life. Schopf counters that no one has ever found carbon in the geological record that is not a remnant of life.

Context may matter just as much as chemistry. Schopf’s cells were free-floating in rock like raisins in raisin bread. Brasier’s fossils appear in tangled clumps stuck to sand grains. “And that’s much more what biology does,” he says. “Bacteria cluster together in great populations.”

Schopf, 70, stands by his fossils as “the most thoroughly studied?—by the most workers, using the largest array of analytical techniques that have provided the greatest assemblage of relevant data in the history of science.” Naturally, Brasier disagrees with that, too. It will be up to their small group of colleagues to resolve the debate, or to make it moot by finding something even older.

What does the future hold for the Twins Who Share a Brain?

What does the future hold for the Twins Who Share a Brain?

Featured Kids Psychology Science

from VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, Sept. 1, 2011

The moment they were born, on October 25, 2006, in Vancouver, this much was known about Krista and Tatiana Hogan. The girls were conjoined—what used to be called “Siamese”—twins. Their skulls were fused such that their tiny bodies together made the shape of an open hinge, the girls facing the same direction but essentially away from each other. Each had her own organs and limbs, but they shared plenty of blood vessels in the netlike sheath beneath their scalp. And they shared something else, too, something believed to be unprecedented among living twins: a “bridge” of tissue connected their otherwise-separate brains amidships, at a crucial relay station called the thalamus.

Eight hours after the twins’ birth, a remarkable thing happened, and it immediately transformed the story of two little girls from Vernon, B.C., into something almost mythic. Tatiana got a shot and Krista flinched. Clearly, the girls were not just attached but connected. Sensory information passed between them.

“This is not telepathy. This is not ‘sixth sense,” says Douglas Cochrane, a veteran pediatric neurosurgeon at BC Children’s Hospital who has been the twins’ wingman—their doctor, advocate, and, in a sense, protector—since they were in utero. “The girls send chemical messengers in the bloodstream between each other. They send electrical impulses and information between each other along this bridge”—on the CT-scan image he’s pointing to, it looks like a long kidney bean—“and I’m sure along the coverings that they share.”

The bridge has been likened to a FireWire connection between their brains, and its bandwidth appears broad. Months after their birth, tests confirmed that images falling on the retina of Tatiana were processed in the visual cortex of Krista. What one girl looks at, the other girl sees.

This development, bordering on miraculous, had a flipside: separating them would be a bear. The risks were extraordinary. At best it would likely mean, at the end of many complicated operations teasing apart bone, skin, and vessels, some vision and speech impairment for both girls. Plus: “Given the way the brains are packed together—they’re physically separate but they sort of interdigitate like the teeth of a zipper—it was clear to me that we’d end up with weakness on one side for one twin and on the opposite side for the other,” Cochrane explains. “What else would happen no one knows.”

A semi-crazy-sounding philosophical question presented itself: Is it better to be healthy and fused to someone at the head, or to be impaired and partially paralyzed but on your own? To answer means having to assign a value to independence. Do we perhaps overvalue it? And undervalue—because no singleton can appreciate it—the presence of someone who gets you because they are in you, of you?

Cochrane viewed his job, in those early days, as articulating what splitting the girls up would mean (in terms of gains and losses), and then stepping back and letting mother Felicia Simms—then just 21—and the rest of the family make the call. The family chose not to separate. The twins would move into the future as one.

Brain surgeons have a reputation for an appalling bedside manner—almost as if they’re unwilling to devote even a bit of RAM to niceties that could go instead to saving lives. But David Douglas Cochrane has somehow found space inside himself for both. He is a big man with softly recessed eyes and a cultivated patience. On the consumer website, where patients can describe their experiences with physicians, a father weighed in. Cochrane had successfully excised a bone cyst from his son’s skull. “Dr. Cochrane is the most professional, talented, kind, humble man I have ever met,” he wrote. Other comments strike a similarly devotional tone. (Alerted to the praise, Cochrane laughingly dismissed it because the sample size isn’t statistically significant.)

Cochrane became a doctor for some of the usual reasons: he wanted to help people, a family friend whom he idolized practised family medicine in hometown Cambridge, Ontario, and he (Douglas) had the brains and the stamina to get through med school. His ambitions drew him into the wider world. At the University of Toronto, he won the Faculty of Medicine’s Cody gold medal, then struck out for Angola and worked under the medical missionary Robert Foster at the tail end of a brutal civil war. Foster’s resourcefulness under fire (literally) provided a new benchmark. Cochrane decided there to specialize in neurosurgery. Neurosurgeons are medicine’s bomb squad—brain disorders are among the most threatening to patients, and treatments carry the most risk. Family medicine it isn’t, but for Cochrane that combination of complexity and high stakes was exactly the appeal. “I found I enjoyed trying to solve tough problems,” he says. Pediatric neurosurgery is the no-limit table: the highest stakes of all. If your itch is to help, life offers few more useful places to scratch. He has been at Childrens’, where he specializes in fetuses with congenital neurological malformations, for 25 years.

But nothing in his background, he says, prepared him for a case like the Hogan twins. Cochrane is watching and listening like everyone else to see what the girls reveal about who they are.

The twins, chestnut-haired and blue-eyed, are nearly five years old. Developmentally they’re closer to four, Cochrane says, but that may just be the Ginger Rogers syndrome: they do what other kids do, but backwards and in heels, so to speak. “They have had to learn motor movements differently,” Cochrane says. “They had to work on how to sit and stand and cruise and walk.” (Even bum-scooting required heroic teamwork.)

Their language has come slowly. Cochrane admits he doesn’t quite know why but reckons the answer might be social rather than physiological. The twins are the not-so-still centre of an extended family of 14 people, all mustered under the roof of a 10-room rented house, all more or less devoted to the insatiable needs of the world’s rarest craniopagus twins. “You could say that there’s a household there that’s so full of adults and kids communicating that they’re kind of communicating for them,” Cochrane says. “It’s like the third child: he’s not going to talk until he’s three because the other two are doing all the talking for him.”

Exactly what the girls’ internal landscape is like we can’t yet know. The best tool for getting a real-time snapshot of what’s happening in the brain is an fMRI scan, which measures changes in blood flow (which correlate to changes in neural activity). For those pictures the girls will need to go into the scanner without anesthetic, which means getting their cooperation. It’ll likely be at least a year before Cochrane lets that happen. For now everybody is guessing.

Some things are established. It seems clear that Tatiana will “see” the sickle moon that Krista is looking at (and vice-versa). Very likely, in some fashion, she will hear the Bruno Mars song piping into Krista’s ear bud, and taste the Tin Roof ice cream Krista just licked, and feel the give of the soft-shelled where to buy ambien cr online crab Krista just picked up. (One exception: she may not smell the chrysanthemum Krista has leaned down to sniff; olfaction appears to be the one sense that routes around the thalamus.) The fear Krista experiences in her nightmare will agitate sleeping Tatiana, too. And when Krista jars awake, so will Tatiana. (The thalamus governs wakefulness.) So they will save money on alarm clocks.

It’s not clear how their brains will sort out the interference from the two-way traffic on the bridge. If they are both reading a book, will each see both sets of words? (Some neurologists wonder if the twins will have an increased chance of synesthesia—a blending of senses disproportionately common in visual artists.) The communication between them will likely prove to be a uniquely intimate call-and-response. But can we say what they are sharing are actual thoughts?

The thalamus relays not only sensory information but also some memory information to a part of the midbrain called the cingulate cortex, which is involved in, among other things, processing emotion. So the exchange is bound to have at least a dimension of what we think of as “thoughts.”

Felicia Simms is convinced her girls are playing a sort of private game of tennis, mentally. Kelowna filmmaker Alison Love, who spent a year with the twins while helping create the documentary Twins Who Share a Brain, believes it, too. “In the beginning we weren’t sure ourselves,” she says. “Is it just Mom hoping that the kids are really more special than they are?” But then both she and filmmaking partner David McIlvride began to see the same thing: a tight, coded link between the girls’ behaviour without a sound passing between them.

Cochrane, for his part, is somewhat a kindred spirit to Atul Gawande, a Boston-based endocrine surgeon and popular writer. Both men crusade for patient safety, ensured by systems of checklists and protocols for doctors to work more efficiently and limit catastrophic errors. Gawande wrote a book called Better, which promotes these issues; Cochrane co-directs the Canadian Patient Safety Institute and was recently appointed to chair the inquiry into thousands of medical scans performed and interpreted by a couple of B.C. doctors unlicensed to do so.

But Cochrane is like Gawande in another way, too. Gawande has an oft-quoted line that could easily be Cochrane’s mantra: “The social dimension turns out to be as essential as the scientific.” Cochrane is a listener above all else. Patients know better than doctors do whether their treatment has been “successful,” but that’s not the way the equation works now. Correcting that thinking, Cochrane says, “becomes more important to me the older I get.”

A powerful social lens may prove one of Cochrane’s best assets as far as the girls are concerned. (For theirs is going to be as much a social story as a medical one, a story of standing out and fitting in.) Cochrane is a curator of the twins’ uniqueness who emphasizes their ordinariness. “My sort of mental model of these kids is that they’re two kids who come to visit me,” he says. “I’m involved in the care of many kids with deformities and malformations, kids who don’t look normal and their arms and legs don’t work normally.” In this sense, the twins are like any other of his patients. “I see them as children.” If this case were special, the other ones wouldn’t be.

Cochrane doesn’t burn much daylight thinking about the philosophical and poetic implications of the girls who share a brain. Even the twists and turns of the neuroscience don’t preoccupy him. “I am interested,” he says, “and when the time is right we’ll try and put some sense to this. But I’m not prepared to put the girls out as medical curiosities. I mean, where historically did these people end up? In circuses.”

This is Cochrane as protector—trying to create normalcy around a family circumstance that would quicken the pulse of a reality-show producer. That 14-member extended family—including mom Felicia and father Brendan, five kids (the twins have an older brother and a sister, plus a baby sister called Shaggy), grandmother Louise, and various aunts and uncles and cousins—are stretched impossibly thin. The monthly budget doesn’t cover the frequent car trips to Vancouver for medical tests, which are only partly subsidized by the provincial health ministry. Some of the adults, at least three of whom have health issues of their own, report that they sometimes go hungry so that the twins can eat. To manage the twins’ exposure and drum up income (through things like speaking gigs for Felicia), the family has retained Los Angeles agent Chuck Harris. The self-described “Wizard of Odd,” Harris counts among his other clients “Lizard Boy,” “Wolf Boy,” and a guy who balances a car on his head. (Not to mention 49-year-old Lori and George Schappell of Reading, Pennsylvania, the world’s oldest set of craniopagus twins.)

The frenzy of academic interest in the twins is its own kind of P.T. Barnum scrum, in Cochrane’s view. “It’s ‘Who’s published about it? Show me the article!’” he says. And here the face of this perfectly controlled man clouds with frustration. (Cochrane has published no papers on the girls himself.) “The kids need to develop in order for us to understand some of the things that they’re asking. And the case study of these two twins will in fact be important when we can do it.”

The Hogan twins—the fact of them—is a little like the fact of life on Earth: a series of odds-defying events compounded to a level of staggering improbability. They weren’t supposed to make it this far. Early fears were that Tatiana’s heart, which was doing almost the work of two hearts, might fail. But now that the twins have grown, and grown stronger, that fear has faded and they are thriving beyond all expectation. Cochrane heaps credit on the family. “The support I remain in awe of,” he says. “That family has remained absolutely committed and absolutely strong. Without them the girls probably would have ended up in foster care.”

Out in public the girls still generate strong reactions. That’s not likely to change. “People’s immediate response is, ‘The twins should be separated—let’s make them like us,’ ” Cochrane says. Whatever the motives for that reflex—to spare the girls an impossibly complicated life or just to spare ourselves the uncomfortable feelings they might arouse in us—it’s not likely to happen now. “The only two other twins I know of who had this form of joining, though not the bridge, were two Iranian sisters,” Cochrane says. “They chose to do it in adulthood. And they did not survive.”

So, barring some game-changing microsurgical advance 30 years down the road, these two British Columbian sisters, bred in the bone, will move through life together, communicating in ways they’ll probably never be able fully to articulate. No one else will understand. But one man will understand better than most.

A bomb is ticking in your genome. Do you want to know about it?

A bomb is ticking in your genome. Do you want to know about it?

Featured Psychology Science

from PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, May 3, 2011

Paula Wishart, a career counselor from Ann Arbor, Michigan, learned in her 40s a sinister family secret: Lynch syndrome runs through their genes.

Lynch syndrome is caused by a collection of genetic mutations that vastly predispose a person to an early and aggressive form of colon cancer. (In women it’s linked, too, with uterine or endometrial cancer.) The mutations were discovered in the early 1990s. That was too late for a whole string of Wishart’s ancestors—including her great-grandfather and her grandfather. Their mysterious deaths fostered the mythology that there was, as Wishart puts it, “bad blood in the family.”

Lynch syndrome is like an assassin hiding in the attic with a dozen different ways to kill you. It’s a specter so dire that, when Wishart’s aunt learned a decade ago that there were now tests for diseases like Lynch, “she wanted no part of it,” Wishart recalls. “The feeling was, ‘Why would I want to know that?'” That aunt died of colon cancer. Shortly thereafter, her daughter—Wishart’s beloved first cousin—succumbed to cancer in her 40s. “If my aunt had been screened, then my cousin would have been screened earlier,” Wishart says. “It could have prevented their deaths.”

Wishart’s aunt’s choice to remain in the dark was by no means unusual. Genetic screening for a potentially fatal illness is so fraught and frightening that most candidates for such a disease don’t get tested.

Wishart, too, had been scared to know. But she was more scared not to know. When her mother’s tissue sample tested positive for Lynch syndrome, she and her four siblings were tested. Her three older siblings came out clear. Wishart and her twin brother weren’t so lucky.

She had a mutation in one of the Lynch genes. Initially, the recommended course was that she just keep close watch, via regular internal exams with a scope. Then one of those exams revealed a small polyp. Within a year, it had swelled into a growth that completely encircled a portion of her colon. This wasn’t cancer—but cancer is certainly what it would become, doctors insisted, unless decisive measures were taken. That meant radical preventative measures to remove not only the growth but places cancer might appear in the future. Like her colon. And her uterus. And potentially her ovaries.

Now the full calculus of life and death and risk and pain and prevention came into play. Her cancer-stricken cousin had left small children behind. Paula could not bear to think of her own kids growing up without a mother. She dutifully reported for the full program of excisions. She was 44 years old.

Not long ago, fatal vulnerabilities were known—so it was said—only to the gods. Mortality was fated. Then doctors replaced gods and that information passed into their hands for safekeeping. Now the so-called genomics revolution has changed the game again. It has passed that information on to us. This has complicated matters, for better and worse.

Genetic tests vary wildly in their predictive value— from absolutely definitive to so speculative as to be worth not much more than a horoscope. (This latter is the realm of direct-to-consumer outfits that cater mostly to healthy, curious tire-kickers—with no known hereditary risk of serious disease.) Fatal diseases are very rarely linked to a single gene—usually they are the product of an interplay of genes beyond the current understanding of scientists. So discovering you have a glitch in a snippet of DNA thought to be linked to a disease may be quite significant or not very significant at all. “Probability rather than certainty is the rule,” says Edward McCabe, a Denver pediatrician and former president of the

American Society of Human Genetics. Usually, when someone’s a candidate for a heritable disease, at least one piece of the puzzle—a reliable test or an effective treatment—is missing.

And so the era of widely available genetic testing has created a kind of laboratory for studying uncertainty: How well do we handle it?How clearly can we see our way through it?

Environmental Visionaries: The Diaper Farmer

Environmental Visionaries: The Diaper Farmer

Featured Science


from POPULAR SCIENCE, July, 2010

When asked to imagine the Earth in 2040, many scientists describe a grim scenario, a landscape so bare and dry, it’s almost uninhabitable. But that’s not what Willem van Cotthem sees. “It will be a green world,” says van Cotthem, a Belgian scientist turned social entrepreneur. “Tropical fruit can grow wherever it’s warm.” You still need water, but not much. A brief splash of rain every once in a while is enough. And voilà—from sandy soil, lush gardens grow.

The secret is hydrogels, powerfully absorbent polymers that can suck up hundreds of times their weight in water.

Hydrogels have many applications today, from food processing to mopping up oil spills, but they are most familiar as the magic ingredient in disposable diapers. The difference with agricultural hydrogels is that they don’t just trap moisture; they let it go again, very slowly, almost like time-release medication, into the root system of plants. That continuity of moisture is what brittle landscapes like deserts need to become fertile again. Water activates a mineralization process, order tramadol pay cod setting free nutrients in the soil so that life can grow.

But water alone won’t make gardens flourish in sand. So van Cotthem, an honorary professor of botany at Ghent University in Belgium who has helmed several international scientific panels studying desertification, invented a “soil conditioner” called Terracottem. It’s an 8- to 12-inch layer of dirt impregnated with hydrogels, along with organic agents that nourish the natural bacteria in the soil.

Van Cotthem’s early experiments with his soil are now literally bearing fruit on every continent except Antarctica. Where Terracottem sits, barren plots of land are now fertile, and have already changed lives. In 2005, UNICEF invited van Cotthem to oversee the construction of “family gardens” in the Sahawari refugee camps in Algeria. Since 1975, thousands of Africans in the camps have lived in tents and shacks, dependent on the World Food Program to provide them with dry and canned goods—a diet that left them vulnerable to disease. Today more than 2,000 pocket gardens there provide healthy food.

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Why Do I Get So Lost?

Why Do I Get So Lost?

Essays Featured Psychology Science


Let me tell you a few things about my relationship with the points of the compass, and then we’ll jump to the meat of this thing.

At shopping malls, my eldest daughter has to frequently tell me where we parked. She is five.

Once, while visiting Paris, I went out for a jog and got disoriented. Eventually I spotted a police officer, and I pulled from my shoe the address where we were staying. “Ah,” he said. “You want to go back to Paris.”

On a quest many years ago to climb the highest mountain on Vancouver Island, a pal and I got so lost that there was no turning back, because it just wasn’t clear which way back was. It wasn’t clear where forward was, either, except that we’d seen a plane fly in over the ridge ahead, so we went that way. (Did I mention that my pal was bleeding from a head wound?) It was a long shot but—don’t you see?—it was the only shot, because that slot in the horizon was our lone landmark.

I am like Captain Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show, who was so navigationally inept that the crew kept him on a fake bridge, with dummy instruments, so that buy generic phentermine imprint e5000 he’d think he was in charge while the ship was in fact being steered elsewhere. My instincts are reliably wrong—which is as good as their being reliably right. You can take a “gut” reading and—Hello, Cleveland!—go do the opposite.

I tell you this not as a pathetic cry for help, or a claim to a perverse kind of pride, but to try to understand: Why does people’s sense of direction vary so wildly?

My own case by no means defines the low ground. There is a woman in my hometown of Vancouver—I can’t tell you who because she’s only described, not named, in the journal Neuropsychologia—who suffers from a pathology called “developmental topographical disorientation.” She’s in her 40s, and in most ways fully functioning—she can watch TV and read the newspaper and even get to and from work so long as she doesn’t deviate one iota from her regular route. But she can also get lost on the way home from the bus stop. She can’t make and store accurate mental images of her environment.

This kind of impairment is vanishingly rare, but it does make you wonder. Are those of us with more moderate symptoms different in kind or just degree? Is there a genetic component to this?

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Power From the People

Power From the People

Featured Human Power Science

Wind, solar, tidal—all are battling for the renewable-energy crown. But what about the six billion highly efficient short-stroke engines in our midst? What about us?

From POPULAR SCIENCE, March 2009

Cave Junction, Oregon, was once, long ago, the center of a gold rush boom that, like so many booms, ultimately consumed its host. Prospectors mined the land around the towns in an ever-tightening circle, until the only gold left was below the saloons, assayers and burlesque halls. Those fell next. The towns were mined right out from under themselves—with no trace left of the old frontier burgs but scars in the earth.

The people who trickled back, decades later, came to satisfy a different urge: not to pursue something but to escape it. Certain hardy members of the hippie diaspora of the ’60s realized that you could live out here entirely under the radar and off the grid. With no one to badger you, you could pursue your own idiosyncratic dreams. You could, in fact, quietly build your better mousetrap and wait until the right time to spring it on the world—the very moment when the world needed saving.

On a lonely stretch of blue highway near the treehouse he lives in and the workshop where he’s been refining that mousetrap, Charley Greenwood slips into the driver’s seat of the FM-4 HumanCar. Or rather, the seat the driver would occupy in a regular car. You don’t “drive” the HumanCar; you row it. It’s the pulling and pushing of the four passengers, converted by a four-gear transmission into rotational thrust, that powers the car at 25 or 30 mph easily, and up to 60 or so on a good downslope. (Where you go in the HumanCar is your business. But rest assured, it won’t be to the gym.)

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The Time Machine

The Time Machine

Featured Science

It’s been called the biggest scientific project ever. And Vancouver scientists are poised to help understand the origins of the universe

from VANCOUVER MAGAZINE, December 2008

Given Canada’s key role in the experiment, it would have been a little embarrassing if this business at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva had destroyed the universe. In theory, it still could produce microscopic black holes that will suck us into oblivion and pull our screams in behind us. But frankly, scientists at TRIUMF-Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics-aren’t too concerned. “These collisions are going on all the time with cosmic rays,” says Nigel Lockyer, TRIUMF’s director. “I wish we could make collisions of higher energy than what nature does routinely.”

No, any nail-biting at TRIUMF concerned whether the hardware would work on game day. TRIUMF built a part of the accelerator-a system of “kicker magnets” that spank the already fast-moving protons into the main ring of the collider where they really start to motor. There was a tense moment when word came from CERN (Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment) that some magnets had failed, followed by relief when they weren’t crucial and, as one TRIUMFer puts it, “they weren’t ours.” In fact, the “Canadian Insertion” worked perfectly and the Great Discovery Machine was up and humming, conducting the groundbreaking ATLAS Experiment, stalking the so-called God particle and probing the mysteries of the origins of everything.

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Mirror, Mirror On the Wall (I Feel Your Pain, After All)

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall (I Feel Your Pain, After All)

Featured Psychology Science

Mirror neurons may hold the key to understanding how human beings respond to one another’s plight

from IN CHARACTER, April 2008

Simon Lovell is a British-born stage magician whose long-running Broadway show Strange and Unusual Hobbies exploits his dexterity with playing cards. But for most of his adult life, Lovell turned a less reputable dime. He was a full-time con man. It was a trade he came by naturally. By age four he was already learning gambling-table tricks from his grandfather, and before long young Simon was traveling with carnivals and three-card-monte troupes, absorbing the patter and the confidence and the ethic of the “short con”  (in and out before the victim knows what hit him). It was an easy way for Simon to put himself through college; it was an easy way to put himself through life. Like some opportunistic grifter in a David Mamet play, seducing hapless victims and then betraying them without remorse, Lovell plied his craft for ten lucrative years, until the age of thirty-one.

And then one day everything changed.

He had spotted his mark in a hotel bar in Europe, and, after chumming the man up and plying him with drinks, had drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of the team, primed to make a bundle if he just, well, plays his cards right.

It went beautifully. “He lost the whole enchilada on one big hand,” Lovell recalls. “We took him for an extremely large amount of money.”

The script at that point called for Lovell to berate the mark (“I told you to wait for my signal!”), drag him out of the hotel room, and tell him to get lost. But in the hallway of the hotel, the disengagement sequence faltered. The mark went to pieces. “I’ve never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell says. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing, and in a very sorry state. He looked as though he was in need of a visit to Bellevue.”

And that’s when it happened. “It was like a light suddenly went on,” Lovell recalls. “It was very strange. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. It was the only time I had ever felt that. It was like my heart started to beat. For the first time I actually felt sorry for someone.”

Lovell did something, then, that he couldn’t quite believe himself. I gave him some of the money back. Not all of it—I had my people to pay—but I gave him enough.” Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured himself a drink, and said, that’s it. When you run cons you have to have an ice-cold heart,” he says. “There was an absolute epiphany that if I’m going to start feeling sorry for people, I just can’t do it anymore.”

Almost overnight, his life changed. The necessary ink cloud a con throws up to keep the world (and himself) from knowing who he is, cleared. “I had become,” he says, “a real human being again.”

Just what happened to Simon Lovell in that hotel corridor? He himself is not much help here. All he knows is that whatever happened to him was fast and dramatic and, apparently, permanent. It felt like an almost Promethean kindling of compassion. But what really went on inside his brain?

We do not yet have a neuroscience of compassion, although a number of scientists are converging on compassion’s more quantifiable cousin, empathy. Empathy is sometimes described as “emotional sympathy.” Both compassion and empathy are complex responses that seem to involve many brain systems. Both consist in tuning in to another person’s emotional experience— although compassion involves the added dimension of care, a desire not just to imagine another’s circumstances but to want to relieve his suffering. Empathy is contained by compassion, but does not contain it. You can have empathy without compassion, but you cannot have compassion without empathy.

Empathy is increasingly being recognized by scientists for what it is: the very denominator of what it means to be human. It seems to be hard-wired into us almost from birth, though actually imagining the perspective of others might more accurately be said to emerge around the age of four. If sociopaths are sometimes considered “inhuman,” it’s because they apparently lack one of the signal determinants of what we’ve decided it means to be human: the ability to connect with another. And one way we connect is by imagining ourselves into each other’s worlds.

“The neuroscience of empathy is still young,” says Tania Singer, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich and one of the field’s most active investigators. The terrain is a forest of questions. Are the old mechanistic models of the brain still valid, or are they obsolete? Is there a lateral difference – that is, do the two hemispheres play different roles? Does emotion or cognition dominate? And is the pathology model of understanding the brain – we discover how parts of it work by studying people in whom those parts aren’t working at all – going to yield to a more, well, holistic approach?

This much is becoming clear: The story of empathy is probably going to involve fairly recently discovered cells called mirror neurons. And it’s probably going to involve the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a plum-sized area a couple of inches behind the eyebrows, where primal social emotions are thought to be packaged. It may involve a curled little strip of tissue in the middle of the brain called the anterior cingulated gyrus, which seems to detect and manage conflict. And it’s sure to involve other parts of that mighty prefrontal cortex, which just generally plays traffic cop in the busiest city in the universe.

Mirror neurons are cells that fire not only when they’re commanded to fire to move us, but also automatically, as reliably as an echo, whenever we notice someone else moving. Discovered accidentally in monkeys by researchers in Parma, Italy, in the early 1990s, and later pegged in roughly the same spot in the brains of humans, mirror neurons have been hailed as the most major discovery in neuroscience in two decades. Together the cells form a circuit, spread through several brain regions and attached both upstream to the prefrontal cortex and downstream to the most primitive parts of the limbic system. They connect who were with whom we evolved to become.

Mirror neurons seem to prove an explanation – really the first explanation – of how empathy works at the cellular level. Though scientists vary in the degree of meaning they place in the find, Vittorio Galese — one of the original discoverers of mirror neurons in monkeys, and one of the most radically enthusiastic — believes mirror neurons are a tiny model of the brain’s organizational structure: the whole brain functions as a kind of mirror device.

If that’s even mostly true, it blows apart the long-embraced model of the brain as a kind of sequential processor, in which other people’s words and gestures are detected in the hindbrain, fed through the limbic system, and finally converted into meaningful emotions in the frontal cortex. “That old model is just wrong,” says the neurologist Marco Iacoboni, in whose California lab human mirror neurons were discovered. “It sounds completely counterintuitive to say, but there’s evidence that motor actions are actually part of our perception.” It’s not the joy or distress I see in your face that makes me smile or slump in sympathy, in other words: it’s that I reflexively mirror the joy or distress I see in you, and that action – my body reading my own behavior – is what generates the emotion. The most intriguing research to support this theory was conducted by the eminent British neuroscientist Jonathan Cole on patients with facial-muscle paralysis. These individuals couldn’t smile in response to another’s smiles, or frown in response to another’s anxiety. “It turns out that these patients are not even able to understand the emotional state of others,” says Iacoboni.

Such findings make empathy seem a richer and subtler process than we thought. We aren’t merely radios tuning in to other people’s frequencies, the research implies. We’re more like stringed instruments that other instruments set vibrating – and are amplified by the vibrations we get back – and so on in an infinite feedback loop. It changes the whole idea of communication between human beings from something almost robotic into something almost organic.

“When Bill Clinton said, ‘I feel your pain,’ everybody made jokes about it,” Iacoboni says. “But he was actually anticipating what neuroscience was about to tell us.”

So essential to empathy are mirror neurons believed by these researchers to be that the eminent neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has said he thinks autism may be caused by a mirror-neuron dysfunction. Iacoboni expects we will learn that sociopaths, too, are deficient in mirror neuron cells – or are at least saddled with a flawed mirror-neuron system. “It’s going to be difficult to know if that’s because they were born without those cells, or if their experience did not shape the system enough. It’s hard to study.” In the older model of empathy, we all functioned in our interpersonal dealings as detectives, deducing other people’s internal states by observing their behavior. The new research suggests we’re more like Method actors, actually reproducing those states in ourselves. Empathy, by this telling, is as automatic as seeing or hearing. It just happens. Mirror neurons simply fire. Even, we have to assume, in Simon Lovell as he pulled con after con. The reason the message didn’t get through for so long is that there is another neural system in play.

A useful way of appreciating how the brain seems to work out “moral” issues is to think of it as a kind of Odd Couple-like partnership between two modules. You might call them, very unscientifically, the Grandmother Module and the Spock Module. (A third region, the anterior cingulated gyrus in the middle of the brain, seems also to be involved as a kind of referee between them.)

Spock captained the debating team in high school. He does the packing on car trips, counts cards in Reno (always playing the percentages), reads the philosopher John Stuart Mill (who argued that we should choose to do what produces the best results for the most people), and lives mostly in the frontal cortex, up top and to the outsides of the hemispheres. Grandmother always wanted to be a nurse, but discovered she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. She prefers Kant to Mill (believing, like him, that some things are just intrinsically right and good and we should honor them). She reads Harlequins, plays the lottery (when she’s feeling lucky), fastens her goals on the fridge with little daisy magnets, and picks up her mail in the ventromedial region – at the bottom of the frontal cortex, near the middle. The two are in constant dialogue, and together form the machinery of moral reasoning. During moral dilemmas – those pregnant moments that can define values, expose character flaws, or even change lives – the two are drawn into a kind of competitive tension. The Grandmother Module asks questions like, Oh my, are you sure you can pull the trigger? Are you sure you can fleece this poor fellow? Look at him: he’s … like you. The Spock Module relies on pure utilitarian reason: What’s “right” is circumstantial, but generally, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Spock is often called on to explain, after the fact, our own instinctive behavior.

The Spock Module dampens our natural empathic impulses – which is not so much a killjoy function as an essential one. Those impulses need dampening. Mirror neurons fire less strongly when we observe someone performing a function than when we perform it ourselves, and that’s by evolutionary design. “If we felt a sufferer’s pain to the degree that they feel it,” says Iacoboni, “we’d be overwhelmed and unable to help them.” To dial down the empathic response, to let us keep our head amid chaos: that seems to be the job of still-little-understood systems in the frontal lobe — the Spock Module. “And I guess in some people that control system is really, really robust,” Iacoboni says. Robust from birth, possibly, and certainly strengthened over time by, say, practicing cold-hearted cons on innocent people, over and over.

What seems to have been happening in the brain of Simon Lovell, as he inched toward his epiphany, was an epic Mexican standoff between Grandmother and Spock. “At some point, evidently, for some reason, Simon’s control system just couldn’t contain [the emotion] any more,” Iacoboni says. Had he been brain-scanned as it all unfolded, “What I would predict is that there’s a strong mirror neuron response, a strong limbic response – and in these frontal areas that we believe repress the limbic activity, there would be no activity whatsoever.”

To hear Simon Lovell tell it, the flood of compassion came out of nowhere. “Which makes sense,” Iacoboni says. “These are cognitive-control mechanisms. You need to be almost un-alert, need to be caught by surprise for these to be subverted – because otherwise you’d use your control systems to suppress these emotions. So it makes sense that it was something sudden.”

But that still doesn’t explain what triggered the moment when Spock was unable to surmount Grandmother – and why.

Here’s one guess: at a certain point the whole circumstance had simply become personal for Simon, in a way that made it impossible to duck responsibility for the suffering he was causing.

The work of the Harvard philosopher and cognitive psychologist Joshua Greene sheds light here. In an experiment, Greene presented subjects with moral dilemmas, all the while scanning their brains with a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine. The dilemmas required snap decisions in imagined life-and-death situations. They were cunningly designed to manipulate the degree to which either emotion or cognition was brought to bear. Greene guess that it would depend on the nature of the dilemma — to what degree the “moral violation” the subjects were asked to perpetrate felt “personal” or “impersonal.” The more personally on the hook the subjects felt for the morally objectionable act, the more likely the Grandmother Module would come into play — emotions would overtake reason. The more distance they could keep from the damage, the more emotion could be kept out of the moral calculus.

Imagine, Joshua Greene proposed, a runaway train. Five people are helplessly stuck on he tracks. If you could save their lives by pulling a switch and shunting the train onto a siding where a single person was stuck, would you do it? Most people, Greene reckoned, would say yes. (And his research subjects in fact did.) But then Greene threw a curve. What if simply pulling a switch to reroute the train wasn’t an option? What if the only way to stop that train from barreling down on those five people was to physically push somebody off a bridge, into the train’s path, listening to his screams as he fell? Most people, he figured, would probably balk – even though killing the one was still the “rational” thing to do. (Green’s research subjects indeed balked.) Most of us can’t overcome the physical revulsion at doing actual harm to other human beings. (As Grandmother would say, They’re like you.) The likelihood that a subject will undertake a deeply taboo moral violation – like killing someone, or hurting him, or betraying him – even for a “good reason,” depends on how much emotional detachment he can muster.

Greene looked at the scans of brains choosing to sacrifice one person to save five by shunting the train. Then he looked at the scans of brains of those unable to push somebody onto the tracks. The in the first instance, the scenario that allowed emotional detachment, regions associated with cognitive processes – the Spock Module – lit up. But in he second instance, when the subjects had to face their demons square on, and recoiled, the ventromedial area was aglow. We might expect that, for a spell, both areas were furiously active as Grandmother sent signals of moral disgust and Spock tried desperately to rationalize the behavior. But then activity in the higher prefrontal areas would have diminished – as if the subjects were finally simply unable to be clinically detached. Grandma had wrestled Spock into submission.

If you think of Simon Lovell’s turning point as essentially a moment of moral decision-making, when some personal “truth” burns through a long-held, self-serving cover story, then Joshua Green’s model is a relevant prism. For ten years Lovell had found plenty of ways to distance himself from the victims (“They weren’t people, they were walking wallets, that’s all they were,” he says of his marks), and plenty of ways to rationalize what he was doing. But the gathering guilt and unease – what Lovell calls the accumulated weight of “ten years of bad karma” – finally became stronger than his cognitive control system’s ability to manage it. The whole enterprise became, you might say, unavoidably personal for Lovell. Grandmother’s sermonizing grew too loud to ignore. He fell victim to compassion.

Compassion, according to Aristotle – the first thinker to propose a theory on how it is (or is not) generated I human beings – involves a three-step process. We must see the suffering is significant, that it is undeserved, and that the sufferer could just as easily be ourselves. (“There but for fortune go I.”) Without these three conditions in place, the heard remains locked. Advances in brain-imaging technology within the last decade have allowed us to test what Aristotle could only guess at, to see the effects of these three triggers on the brain.

When we notice appreciable suffering, empathic circuits in the brain light up: this much mirror-neuron research has been pretty much proven. Another person’s suffering makes us emotional, so long as it captures our attention.

Is the suffering undeserved? This is a front-brain question – a job for Spock. The University of Chicago cognitive neuroscientists Jean Decety has addressed it, roundabout, in a number of studies. When suffering is detected the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, probably chiefly on the right side, pumps for context – and it’s the context that will determine to what degree the cognitive apparatus suppresses the limbic response, downgrading the state of emergency, reducing the empathic pulse. A man being beaten on the sidewalk immediately arouses our interest and compassion – but if we learn that the copy was simply defending himself after the man had cold-cocked him with a beer bottle, our compassion for the stranger flags. Mothers generally cannot easily bear to see their children in pain. But if the pain derives from, say, a flu shot, then the urge to intervene to stop the suffering diminishes – for now the suffering is deemed not wicked bad luck but rather a necessary cost of getting better. (Last year, Decety set up an experiment in which subjects were asked to observe a painful treatment for tinnitus. Brain scans revealed a stronger empathic response when the treatment was ineffective – the suffering was, you might say, without purpose – than when it was effective.)

Can the observer imagine a similar fate: What happened to this person could happen to me? It is the cognitive component to empathy – responsible for the simple act of trying to imagine another’s circumstances – that allows us, over and above the natural, primal compassion we feel for a member of kin or tribe, to project ourselves into the shoes even of those who are utterly dissimilar from us. You don’t have to have walked in those shoes – you just have to imaging that you could. In a study co-authored by a number of neuroscientists last year, subjects were asked to remember a personal experience of fear and anger from their past. Then they were asked to imagine an equivalent experience of another person, as if it were happening to them. Scans revealed that “when people could relate to the scenario of the other,” they felt the sufferer’s pain as if it were their own: the neural signatures were almost identical. “But when they could not relate to the other’s story, differences emerged on all measures.” The actual physiological response was reduced, there was less recruitment of emotive brain regions. Clinton thus stands definitively exonerated: “I feel your pain” is a valid trope – at least “to the extent that one can relate to the state and situation of the other.”

Compassion is an ephemeral, elusive thing, and so efforts to take a neural “snapshot” of it seem quixotic at best. Nonetheless the neuroscientist Richard Davidson approached the task directly when he set out not long ago to map a kind of compassionate embrace-of-everything that Buddhists call lovingkindness.

Davidson and his team at the University of Wisconsin’s W. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior recruit as research subjects Tibetan monks hand-picked by the Dalai Lama. The monks were injected with a radioactive tracer and fitted with electrodes, and Davidson and his colleagues watched the results onscreen as the monks climbed the ladder of their breath up, up into the rarefied precincts of good will. No single area of the monks’ brains came alive, but Davidson and the researchers did see discrete changes – notably, a shift in activity from the parietal love (as the monks detached from their conscious sense of self) to the premotor part of the frontal lobe, a region connected to the deeper emotions and involved in plans (such as springing to the aid of those in distress).

The root of lovingkindness meditation is the extension of care, in ever widening sweeps, until not a living creature is missed. Receive everyone as if they were your mother is the famous dictum: the compassion you feel, when you can convince yourself they are, is almost boundless. And the neural signature of those moments should be dramatic. So too, Simon Lovell, whose ability, cultivated over a decade of ruthless cons, to view his marks as not quite human, could not withstand that final test in the hotel hallway. Those clinical rationalizations were smashed by something like a sense of common humanity. “Maybe in that moment,” Joshua Greene conjectures, “Simon Lovell became a little more monk-like.”Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

My rocket is going to get you to LEO!

My rocket is going to get you to LEO!

Featured Science

And other rallying cries from the fringes of the final frontier

from POPULAR SCIENCE, May 2004

UC Berkeley space scientist Greg Delory devoured Carl Sagan’s books as a kid; now he hunts for extraterrestrial water—and life—in the solar system. Jeff Greason learned to pick locks at Caltech, from none other than Richard Feynman; now he burns LOX (liquid oxygen) in engines built by his California rocket company.Alexander Poleschuk spent six life-changing months aboard the space station Mir; now this Russian ex-cosmonaut obsesses over his nation’s lofty space goals—and its inability to pay for them.

Three men, buy canadian ativan three visions of space exploration. As NASA scrambles to recover from the Columbia tragedy, the next phase of spacefaring has already begun. It’s an era marked by new philosophies and agendas—and, according to Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation, a space-travel advocacy group, by three types of space adventurer. There are the Saganites, who yearn to comprehend outer space; the O’Neillians, who want to colonize it; and the von Braunians—who just want to get there first. Welcome to their worlds.

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What Your Genes Want You To Eat

What Your Genes Want You To Eat

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A trip to the diet doc, circa 2013. You prick your finger, draw a little blood and send it, along with a $100 fee, to a consumer genomics lab in California. There, it’s passed through a mass spectrometer, where its proteins are analyzed. It is cross-referenced with your DNA profile. A few days later, you get an e-mail message with your recommended diet for the next four weeks. It doesn’t look too bad: lots of salmon, spinach, selenium supplements, bread with olive oil. Unsure of just how lucky you ought to feel, you call up a few friends to see what their diets look like. There are plenty of quirks. A Greek co-worker is getting clams, cheap tramadol sales crab, liver and tofu — a bounty of B vitamins to raise her coenzyme levels. A friend in Chicago, a second-generation Zambian, has been prescribed popcorn, kale, peaches in their own juice and club soda. (This looks a lot like the hypertension-reducing ”Dash” diet, which doesn’t work for everyone but apparently works for him.) He is allowed some chicken, prepared in a saltless marinade, hold the open flame — and he gets extra vitamin D because there’s not enough sunshine for him at his latitude. (His brother’s diet, interestingly enough, is a fair bit different.) Your boss, who seems to have won some sort of genetic lottery, gets to eat plenty of peanut butter, red meat and boutique cheeses.

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The Hound of the Data Points

The Hound of the Data Points

Featured Psychology Science

Geographic profiling pioneer Kim Rossmo has been likened to Sherlock Holmes; his Watson in the hunt for serial killers is a digital sidekick — an algorithm he calls Rigel.

from POPULAR SCIENCE, March 2003

Until he was called in on the Beltway Sniper investigation, Detective Kim Rossmo’s most confounding case was the South Side Rapist. For almost a decade, an unknown assailant,
his face bandit-wrapped in a scarf, had been stalking women in quiet Lafayette, Louisiana, and then assaulting them in their homes. He remained at large in 1998 when Rossmo, then a detective inspector with the Vancouver Police Department in Canada, was called in to help. The police were under pressure. The town was hungry for an arrest. There was a glut of raw information. But after a couple of thousand tips and close to a thousand suspects — numbers that would be dwarfed by the 15,000 tips a day that the sniper case would generate, but a sea of data all the same — investigators were no further ahead.

Rossmo’s job was to help direct the manhunt. If he couldn’t find the needle, he hoped at least to radically thin the haystack. And he would do so through the careful application of that most powerful of investigative tools: a mathematics equation.

Rossmo, 47, is the inventor and most zealous proponent of criminal geographic targeting (CGT), more commonly known as geographic profiling. He uses CGT to hunt society’s most dangerous game: violent serial criminals — arsonists, rapists and murderers whose taste for carnage seems only to sharpen with time, and who tend to programmatically continue their offenses until they are caught. There’s no mistaking Rossmo for the FBI profilers down in Quantico’s Behavioral buy accutane online with paypal Assessment Unit, the ones that movies like The Silence of the Lambs have turned into celebrities. He can’t tell what kind of offender is terrorizing the town, how old or what race, whether he has delusions of grandeur or issues with Dad — nor does Rossmo particularly care about those things. His interest is in the most neglected of the Five W’s: Where did the offender strike? From this Rossmo can usually calculate where, most likely, he lived.

In Lafayette, Rossmo and lead investigator McCullan “Mac” Gallien walked the city’s streets for three straight days, revisiting the crime sites. Then Rossmo produced a computer-
generated printout that resembled a tie-dyed shirt; its bands of color — from cool violet to hot yellow — told police, essentially, where to look first. That narrowed the hunting area to half a square mile, and reduced the pool to a dozen suspects who lived in that zone. Investigators were buoyed. But the bubble burst when, one by one, each of the suspects was cleared based on DNA evidence.

Then Gallien received an anonymous tip that he almost dismissed as a joke. The man the informer named was someone Gallien knew personally — another cop — Randy Comeaux, a pleasant-mannered Stephen King lookalike who was a
sheriff’s deputy in a department just outside of town. Idly curious, Gallien checked Comeaux’s address and compared it to Rossmo’s probability map. Not even close.

To be complete, though, Gallien fished out Comeaux’s personnel file. At the time of the rapes, he discovered, Comeaux had resided someplace else. Gallien checked that address against Rossmo’s profile and drew in a breath. The house fell right into Rossmo’s “hot zone.”

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Jump! Jump!

Jump! Jump!

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Two angles on the world’s most dangerous high-altitude stunt

from POPULAR SCIENCE, January 2003

In the middle of the plate-flat Canadian prairie, not far from where writer Raymond Carver hunted geese, a flurry of activity broke out last September around a small, rural airfield. Here was ground zero for French skydiver Michel Fournier’s audacious attempt to ride the pressurized gondola of a helium balloon to 130,000 feet-the cusp of space, the highest anyone has ever gone without a rocket-and topple out earthward. Diving into a near-perfect vacuum he would, in 31 seconds, hit 670 mph and slam into the sound barrier, the first human being to do so with his body. If all went well-a big if-he’d free-fall for just buy ambien cr 12.5mg online under 5 minutes before his chute delivered him to the ground.

The helium truck had moved into position in the adjacent canola field near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The doors to a hangar yawned open, revealing a phone-booth-size, airtight gondola ready to be moved onto the flatbed launch truck. An ambulance stood by in the event of catastrophic failure of any components-the balloon, the gondola, the parachute couplings, the oxygen supply, the partial-pressure suit, the supple oversuit designed to shield Fournier from freezing atmospheric temperatures. After two weeks of dashed hopes, it looked as if Le Grand Saut -The Big Jump-just might happen. All the ghoulish handicapping of Fournier’s chances of coming down alive had ceased.

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