Audio File #3: Getting Entangled in Invisibilia

Cover for "Entanglement" by Daniel Horowitz
“Two things separated in space can be the same thing.” –Geoff Brumfiel, Entanglement

After the hit podcast Serial landed and enraptured a widening audience of audio fanatics, I think that a lot of people have been searching for new shows to fill the gap left behind by the conclusion of Serial season one. To this group—and to existing podcast aficionados—I present Invisibilia.

Invisibilia is the spiritual successor of Radiolab, and its production love-child along with This American Life. The two hosts, Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, are founding producers of This American Life and Radiolab, respectively, and NPR science reporters besides. Latin for “all the invisible things,” Invisibilia promises a weekly exploration of the invisible forces that shape human behavior. So far, four shows in, this means Spiegel and Miller are creating a surprisingly spiritual discussion rooted in cutting edge neuroscience about the psychology and brain biology behind how humans feel and act.

The first three episodes covered the power and intrigue of our very own thoughts; how to control your fear (and what happens when you feel none); and the profound, very real, effects of people’s expectations of the blind. Each is truly, almost alarmingly, excellent. Today, I want to cover the latest episode: Entanglement.

Lulu and Alix begin by visiting a physics lab at the University of Maryland to witness the creation of quantum entanglement, the physical phenomenon of linking two objects together at a deep level. Once entangled, if one particle is altered—even at a great physical distance from its partner—the other responds accordingly. It’s messy, and brushes up against our notions of causality and the fundamental limit of the speed of light, but it is very real. And quantum entanglement is the lead in to the equally bizarre and fascinating world of entanglement among people, how we are intimately tied to the people around us in conscious and unconscious ways.

The first story of entanglement takes Alix and Lulu to a woman, Amanda, and her family. Amanda experiences a very rare form of extreme empathy, called mirror-touch synesthesia. Synesthesia is the general term for relatively rare but well-documented cases when people experience a mixing of traditionally separate senses, like seeing colors in numbers or tasting sounds. Basically, synesthesia boils down to crossed wires in the brain, which ultimately integrates all of our senses into conscious experience. In some people, that integration is messier.

For Amanda, the very experience of seeing someone experience something triggers the subjective sense of that act within herself. When she was young, she realized that seeing someone get hugged felt like a hug, at a very real, physical level. A woman scratching her arm felt like a scratch. People chewing food felt like they were stuffing food in her own mouth. Pain also transferred across space. Experiencing all of this, and an intense level of emotional empathy as well, left Amanda drained every day, and even unsure of her own identity as she took on the feelings and mannerisms of those around her.

The neurological explanation of Amanda’s difficult condition relies on mirror neurons. Observed directly only in monkeys so far, mirror neurons fire both when observing an action and when doing it. They are a cellular explanation for empathy. Presumably, mirror neurons, or something much like them, cause Amanda’s sensory cortex to light up just when watching a stranger feel or do something. I will leave the engrossing and melancholic exploration of the effects of this overcharged empathy on Amanda and her family to the hosts. Suffice to say, it is not easy being so intimately wrapped up in the world.

The second story features psychology researchers Elaine Hatfield and Dick Rapson of the University of Hawaii and their studies on ‘emotional contagion,’ the phenomenon of mimicking the physical and emotional states of those around you. Unconsciously, we match the posture or speaking patterns of people we interact with. Lulu goes on to explain that even imperceptible patterns, like blinking or breathing, will become synchronized.

Emotional mimicry is at play here as well. Linked to microexpressions—unconscious, rapid-fire flashes of emotion—this kind of emotional empathy influences the mood of everyone you interact with. Filled with audio of old Candid Camera episodes and the meshwork of Elaine and Dick marveling at the subject of their studies, the story comes alive with emotion and a sense of wonder. The researchers explain the consequences of this sponge-like absorption of our environment’s emotional energy, which include a limit on our individuality. We cannot truly be isolated, emotionally contained individuals if we react so viscerally to the emotions around us. Like smokers who try to quit but still hang around smokers, all of us are influenced in obvious and subtle ways by the people we surround ourselves with.

Or as Lulu explains: “It's like without quite being aware of it, we are all one organism, a heaving, swirling organism contracting the feelings and thoughts of the people around us.”

There is a bonus story at the end about the greatest entanglement—the one with our mothers—that I won’t spoil. In their exploration of Amanda’s extreme empathy, and our commonplace experience of it, Lulu and Alix manage to weave an emotional hour of awe, sadness, and laughter. Their story-telling pedigrees, and science journalism chops, combine to create the best science show I know of since Radiolab.

The show can stretch credulity. This is clearly not an accident. Alix and Lulu want to stretch your mind to the border of science fiction, and then push you back just over the edge toward reality. They deliberately construct ridiculous claims—about the blind seeing or the material reality of thoughts—and then carefully lead you to that exact conclusion through their narrative. They may test the boundaries of accuracy with hyperbole, but the sense of curiosity and wonder they instill seems worth it.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the refreshing power of having two quick, smart women discuss science with a clear sense of awe, respect, and desire to learn and share. Although Lulu and Alix are journalists, not scientists, I expect the show could really impact our culture where women are still underrepresented in science and face a lack of role models for scientific curiosity. Not scientists, no, but Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel have the scientific curiosity down, and we all benefit in Inivisibilia.