The Call - Nancy Mahl

“I heard the phone ring in the motor room and that usually is bad thing.”

Photo by Jason Falchook

The Call

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In this hour, stories of ringtones, rekindled connections, and revolution. Revealing phone calls, missed messages, and finding one's calling. This hour is hosted by The Moth's Executive Producer, Sarah Austin Jenness. The Moth Radio Hour is produced by The Moth and Jay Allison of Atlantic Public Media.

Susan Fee gets a surprise when she calls her daughter.

A series of missed calls gets scientist Moran Cerf in hot water.

Nancy Mahl gets a call from her mom on 9/11.

Cheech Marin finds his calling after dodging the draft.

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Nancy Mahl

Mrh1923 Nancy Mahl Extra 1

Nancy Mahl's mom as Miss Larchmont.

Moran Cerf

Links for Moran's stories:

  1. A CNN article about the work: “How close are we to video-recording our dreams?
  2. A Wikipedia page that was built for the ‘dream recording machine’ discussed in the talk: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_recording_and_reproduction_device  and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moran_Cerf
  3. And… the actual paper in Nature and the infamous clip that stared all the: the paper, the video.

So I'm a neuroscientist and I do research on people. We don't get all of fame doing that, but I actually, I can tell you a story about how I did somehow end up being famous for that. So in my research, I'm working with patients undergoing brain surgery and we tried to do all kinds of things to help them, but we also do research with these patients. And one of the things I did in the last couple of years was a study where we took patients who are undergoing brain surgery and they put electrodes deep inside their brain during surgery to help them with clinical reasons. But we also did something where we told them, we're going to show you pictures and see how your brain looks when you see those pictures. And we can have a map of your brain when you see those pictures. And then we can basically know how your brain looks when you think of those things.

So the patient could sit in bed and think about the Eiffel Tower. We would see a pattern that they organized from before and we would picture, we would project a picture of the Eiffel Tower in front of their eyes. So patients would basically sit in bed, think about things, and we would project their thoughts on a screen in front of their eyes. This was a remarkable project. It took us five years to accomplish, and when we finished, we were very excited and wanted to tell the world about it. And the way scientists tell the world about things is by publishing it in a paper. So we write a paper describing everything you did and we said we could have people sit in bed, think about things, and project their thoughts the journals basically take your work and try to find flaws in it. And if they can't find any flaws, they publish it. 

And that's basically what you do as a scientist. This is your career. Now journalists get all kinds of rankings and the highest ranking journal in science, the hardest to get in, is called it Nature. Nature is where you put your work if you really are going to change the world. To give you an example, this is where the discovery of DNA was published in the 1950s. When they cloned the sheep Dolly, it was published there. When they discover a new galaxy, they publish it there. It's really the place where you put your work if you're going to change the world. So we submitted our work there and it took six months, where people try to find flaws in our work, and eventually on October 1st I got an email saying, "Congratulations, your work is going to be published in Nature, in three weeks." And I was excited.

This is something that doesn't happen regularly to scientists. It happens usually zero to one times in a scientist's career. So I was really happy that that my work is going to be there. I was still a graduate student at the time. I was ecstatic. And then they tell you that they're going to come up to your work within three weeks. So you have three weeks to kind of prepare things and then they have a press release where they announce to the world your work. And usually those press releases don't go well, people don't get it right. So I had this idea. I contacted Nature and I said, "Why don't we create a YouTube video explaining the work? We're going to make a live video where I'm interviewing myself, my colleagues. We're going to show, like, videos of the patients thinking and projecting their thoughts and this video is going to explain to people how it's done."

And they were very happy with it and I said, "I'm going to make it. I'm going to edit and make this movie." So I spent the next few weeks working on making this movie and I actually worked day and night and I learned stuff and I did a lot of, like, cool things in the movie and ended up working until the very last day, the day the press release was about to happen. And I worked all night. And at 8:00 AM that morning, I actually put this video out there on Nature's website and I just waited. Now the press release was scheduled for 1:00 PM, so I had five hours to sleep and I said, I'm going to go to sleep now, rest before my glorious day comes out. And I put my phone on vibrate and I went to sleep to relax a little bit, and I was planning to wake up at 1:00 PM to see how things kind of come out.

But actually ended up waking up an hour before because my phone kept vibrating the entire time and woke me up and I pick up my phone, I look at it and I had 50 missed calls and my answering machine was full of messages and I didn't know what's going on. And then my phone was ringing right away. So I pick up the phone and on the phone who was the senior producer for BBC Nightly News and he says, "I saw your work. I saw your video and I’m gonna, I’m gonna, I want to open on nightly news with this video."

Now here's the thing about the video. In the video. I asked one of my colleagues, a neurosurgeon in our team, to explain what this work can be in the future, what could happen in the future with this work? And he says, "Well, in the future you can use this thing to have machines work by using just thoughts, using memories, using dreams." And then the movie kind of ends gloriously with the future. And we fade out.

And the guy on BBC calls me and says, "I saw your video, and I want to know about this dream recording thing that you're doing." Just to be clear, dream recording is not what we did. We never recorded a dream and we never did anything with dreams. We only had patients think about things and project their thoughts and just the movie ends with the final two words, recording dreams. So he asked me about it and I say, "I don't know what you're talking about. W-what is this dream recording?" And he says, "Well, one of your colleagues in the team said it was something about dream recording." And I say, "Well, I don't think it's true, maybe it was a mistake." He says, "I don't understand. Is it possible or impossible?" And I say, "Well, in theory, it's possible." He said, "Thank you." [Beeping noise]

And so the last thing that I said to the BBC senior producer was that dream recording is possible. And I say, well, it's not a big deal, one little mistake, it's not going to be a big deal. Probably one little fluke, but it doesn't matter. And now it's 1:00 PM and I refresh my browser to see what comes out. And the first thing is Nature, having this press release, is describing the ability to have people think about things and see their thoughts. And the second thing is BBC with a headline, "Scientists say that dream recording is possible." And I say, well, one mistake, not a big deal. No one's going to notice that. And I refreshed the browser again. Ten minutes later, MSNBC, "Scientists have been recording dreams." Refresh the browser, Fox News, "Scientists have been recording dreams keeping them in storage." Refresh the browser, Wall Street Journal, "Scientists recording dreams. Keeping them in Database. They have hundreds of years of ..."

The story gets bigger and bigger. Everyone talks about the dream recording, no one even mentions the ability to think of things and show them on the screen. No one even mentions that. And as I refresh the browser again and again, more and more news outlets are talking about the scientists at Cal Tech who can record your dreams. And I'm really frustrated. I don't know what to do. And people are calling me and I answer and I try to explain to one by one, each person that called me, that it's not the case, but no one really cares. They keep talking about recording dream. They have a name for it now the DRM, the Dream Recording Machine. And it has a price and people buy it. And they were like you can buy 10 for $8.

And people talk about this thing and however much I comment about it, no one really cares. And I'm really frustrated because this is my career. It hinges on this project and no one cares. So I called my dad who is a journalist and I said, "Dad, here's what's happening. How can I kill this story because it won't die by itself?" And my dad said, "Look son, no one cares about science. Just turn off your phone for two days, don't answer anything and the story is going to die by itself, because no one cares about it." And so I do just that. Two days later, the story is number one, they have, like, this ranking, and it's number one on BBC, MSNBC, Fox News, Wall Street Journal, Reuters. Everyone keeps talking about this dream recording machine.

And because I didn't pick up my phone for two days, now, people email me. So I get emails from people sending me their dreams, people asking me to go to hearings with the CIA, explaining how their dreams have been recorded for years now, and I get more and more those emails. All of that, of course, not true. And I get this chef, a famous British chef sends me, it says he dreams about this particular recipe and you can't get the ingredients, and he wants me to put electrodes in his brain and give him the ingredients. And Apple called me, and they say they want to have this recording machine in their next operating system. And I say, "It doesn't exist, sir. I don't know." He said, "Fine, you want to play it far the other way. Okay, we're going to option this thing so when you actually release this thing, then we're going to buy it." I say, "It doesn't exist." He said, "Oh, you're really playing it tough. Okay, good enough."

And so people call me and ask about it and the story won't die. There was like something that the queen said and still, my story trumps this thing, and I don't know what to do. I really feel frustrated and my friends who've seen me upset for two days now, they contact me and say, "You know it's Halloween now, October 30th, it's like a fun night. Why don't you go out with us? Have a night out, forget about this thing and just go out." And I say, "Fine, it's a good idea. I'm going to go out with you guys." And I do that. We go out and I dress up in a kind of a self deprecating sense of humor, I dress up like Freud.

I put a little beard and a pipe and I comb my hair to the side and I have these little glasses, and I go out and now we all have great night out in New York, and they take pictures of me. And the night after they’re putting it on Facebook and on places. So now, when they look for my name, not only do they see my work, but they also see a picture of me looking like Freud. With a title, “Moran Cerf Can Record Dreams.” So the story gets even bigger because everyone now knows about this thing, was actually the new Freud. That's me. And I say, "Oh my God, this story is never going to die. I don't know what to do." And I tried to find all kinds of tricks to kill the story by going on live shows and explaining it's not the case, but now nothing happens.

And nowadays people say, you know what, it's now October 30th but in four days they're going to have to mid-term election in the U.S., November 4. Surely, this story is going to trump your story. Four days later, the house changes hands, but still the story number two now is about the scientists who can record the dreams. Nothing will kill the story. And I'm waiting. It's been a week now and nothing ends. And I think that, "Wow, this is never going to happen. My scientific career is over." And at the same time, there are other scientists who have been trying to record dreams, who have been commenting on my work saying that it's impossible that I've been doing that because they've been trying for years now and other scientists have been competing with them, say that of course they can do it because I'm better than them. And there's like a battle between scientists all about my work, where I'm not involved in. And I think to myself, "Wow, this is not going to end and I just have to wait and give up my scientific career."

When suddenly I get the phone call. I was sitting in my office and the phone rang, it was 6:00 PM, and I answered the phone and on the line was this woman and she says, "I'm going to put Chris up with you in a second." And I wait for a second, and on the line is a person who introduces himself as Christopher Nolan. A famous filmmaker who just released a movie called Inception about the same time, about people who could do stuff with dreams. And he calls me and says, "Look, I've been looking at your work now for a few days. It's great. We're going to have a DVD release of Inception in a few days and I want you to be the face of this thing. I want you to go on a world tour with me and explain how you've been doing it for a while. So my work is going to be getting the, like scientific authority, the scientific stamp."

And I say, "Well, sir, I don't know what to say. It's a really great movie, but, you know, we never did it. We never recorded dreams and I don't think it's possible in the sense that you think it is." And he says, "Well, send me the paper. I want to read it." In fact, he was the first and only guy out of all the reporters all over the world who actually asked me to give him the paper. So I send him the paper and he reads it and he calls me back and he says, "Look, I looked at your work. Yes, there's nothing about dreams there, but it doesn't matter. I still want you to go on a tour with me because you're now the face of dream recording. Everyone thinks you are. Just go on a tour with me and explain how it can be done. No one really cares about the details. Just go on tour with me and explain how it's done." And I say, "Well, let me think about it."

Because on the one hand lies fame and fortune and other hand, my integrity and science, and I need 24 hours to think about which are the two I'm going to choose. So, I spend 24 hours thinking about it. And after 24 hours, the phone rings again. And I pick up and I say, "As much as I would have loved to help you in this, I don't think I can go on this world tour with you and explain how dream recording is possible given that it's not." And he says, "Well, I understand. If you ever changed your mind, we're working on Inception 2." And I say, "I'll remember and I'll call you back." And so all I was left was with a scientific project that gradually went the right way and people actually now know the truth about it, and a story.

Thank you.