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Jul 8, 2016
Originally published on July 31, 2016 4:19 pm
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

So let's go back to World War II.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: America goes to war to save the homes and ideals of free men from Axis domination.

ROSIN: America was fighting a terrible dictator determined to take over Europe.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: From the harbor, a Nazi sea plane flies on some mission of war.

ROSIN: And to defeat him, everyone needed to play a role. We all had to be pulling together and feeling good about the mission and about each other. And so to better understand how the troops were feeling, the government turned to a sociologist named Samuel Stouffer. And they told him to go out and ask as many troops as he could about their morale.

THOMAS PETTIGREW: What made them unhappy? What made them happy? What they liked about the service and didn't like?

ROSIN: That was Thomas Pettigrew, a social psychologist who worked with Stouffer when he was a grad student. And he says one of the main groups the government was concerned about morale-wise was with African-American soldiers.

PETTIGREW: I mean, it was tough. The Army was still segregated. There was enormous amount of discrimination. And the Army was concerned that black soldiers would be particularly unhappy - low morale - when they were based in Southern camps.

ROSIN: Now, to be clear, it's not like life for African-American soldiers in the North was easy.

PETTIGREW: There was plenty of discrimination in the North.

PETTIGREW: It's just that the Army was more worried about soldiers stationed in the South because if you think about it, soldiers, on the weekends, they go out and have fun in the local community to blow off steam. But for black soldiers in the South, this was practically impossible given the realities on the ground.

PETTIGREW: It was intense - intense segregation and dangerous. I mean, lynching was still going on in the South. That was common practice. We forget how bad it was. Unless you lived through it, you wouldn't imagine it.

ROSIN: Just objectively, he says, if you compare life in the North to life in the South, there was no question about which one was worse for African-Americans.

PETTIGREW: Oh yeah, very clear.

ROSIN: So off goes Stouffer with his army of researchers, some white and also some black because he knows that African-American soldiers won't say certain things to a white researcher. And they fan out visiting bases in both the North and the South.

PETTIGREW: Pressed them with all sorts of questions about their daily lives. How do you like the Army? How are they treating you? What have you thought of the local black community? If you could go to any Army camp you wanted to, would you rather stay here or would you rather go to some other camp?

ROSIN: And what Stouffer discovered was a great surprise. The government's assumption that African-American soldiers stationed in the South would have radically-lower morale because life in the South was objectively worse, it wasn't correct.

PETTIGREW: What Stouffer showed was that wasn't true. They were about the same or even - in some items, black troops in the South had higher morale than those in the North.

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ROSIN: How could that possibly be? Well, according to Stouffer, it's like this - it's not that life in the South was in any way better for African-Americans. It's that people - no matter who they are, what race or nationality - are always, always compulsively and unconsciously comparing themselves to the people around them, particularly people they see as like themselves and then making evaluations about their own experience through that frame of reference.

So when African-American soldiers in the North left their base and traveled through the world outside their door, what they saw were other African-Americans who were clearly doing better than they were.

PETTIGREW: Industry was really opening up, and a lot of black workers were getting jobs better than they had ever had before and getting good pay. And that pay was better than what the soldiers were getting, black and white, in northern camps.

ROSIN: Likewise, when soldiers in the South traveled through the world outside their door, they saw themselves as, relatively anyway, blessed.

PETTIGREW: They could see for themselves that people were not doing as well as they. In fact, they would be looked up to.

ROSIN: Stouffer called this the theory of relative deprivation. And in fact, later it became the basis for an entire area of study in social psychology. The idea is it's not your objective situation that determines your happiness. It's this invisible frame of reference that you carry in your head, a frame of reference that you don't even know consciously that you're using. But you are using it, and it filters your experience of the world and how you're feeling.

PETTIGREW: She most people tend to think of absolute deprivation - if you're really poor or you don't have enough money and you're in bad trouble and so forth. And absolute deprivation, of course, is important. But in most of our research, we can show that relative deprivation is even more important.

ROSIN: More important to how you actually experience your life. Think about it - your friends, your level of success, your relationships, your family, your wealth. You are always comparing yourself to the people around you. So if you want to understand your life and how you experience it, you need to identify and understand your frame of reference.

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ROSIN: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Hanna Rosin.

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Alix Spiegel. INVISIBILIA is a show about all of the invisible things that shape human behavior - our assumptions, beliefs, emotions.

ROSIN: And today, we're looking at frames of reference, these invisible things we carry in our heads and how they affect us. And the reason is because...

SPIEGEL: I just went frame of reference crazy.

ROSIN: It's true.

SPIEGEL: I started, I couldn't stop. And we have the fruit of that today. I tell two stories.

ROSIN: One is about a woman named Kim who is given a glimpse into what she's been missing all her life and then is unable to see it again. Then we have the awesome Hasan Minhaj from "The Daily Show" talking to Alix about his struggle to figure out which frame of reference is best - his or his dad's.

SPIEGEL: Also, we have mangoes. By the way, I dragged Hanna with me on these adventures. But you're mostly going to hear from me. So...

ROSIN: Stick around.

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ROSIN: All right, Alix, so for this first story you're telling, we went out and we met this woman named Kim.

SPIEGEL: Yeah. And the thing about Kim is that she lived most of her life - 54 years - totally unaware that there were things in the world that she could not see.

KIM: This was the whole problem. It was, like, I had no clue what the problem was.

SPIEGEL: All Kim knew was that over and over and over again, the world didn't respond the way that she expected. People would do things and say things that seemed completely unrelated to what was actually going on. It happened all the time.

KIM: I was at summer camp, and we had sailboats. And there were two girls trying to put up the sail on the sailboat. And I'm always really good at doing this kind of stuff. And I look at them, and I could see what their problem was.

So I remember walking up to them, and I wanted to help them, said something like oh, I can do that for you or I'll show you how to do that. And they were mad at me.

SPIEGEL: All of a sudden, the girls started screaming at her, telling her to go away.

KIM: And it was so strange. It was like why would they be mad when I'm trying to help them? That makes absolutely no sense. I don't understand that.

SPIEGEL: When this happened in 1966, Kim was 12 years old. Over 40 years later, after a researcher spent 30 minutes pressing a fancy magnet to the top of her head, Kim would finally experience firsthand the critical element of this scene that she had missed at the time. The subtle emotions.

KIM: I didn't realize that the overall context was that these people are having a relationship. I didn't see things that way. What I would see is the physical aspect of it. There are two people here. They're on a boat. The boat needs to have the sail go up before they can sail. Therefore, they need help with the sail. It wasn't these two people are talking. They're enjoying each other's company. Part of what they're doing is getting ready to sail.

SPIEGEL: Kim's brain is not great at seeing emotion. When she looks out at the world, she physically sees all the things that most people see. There are the tables, the planes, the trees, the people moving back and forth. But the feelings, particularly the subtle ones, are invisible. She doesn't see how they move through us and the world and can't see all the emotional systems that shape our lives, though for most of her life she didn't realize that.

KIM: This is the interesting thing. We believe our senses. So I didn't know I was missing anything.

SPIEGEL: You just thought that, like, what you see here right before you is the entire world?

KIM: Absolutely. That seems like it. So if I'm seeing people talking and it simply looks like people are talking, why should I think that they might be feeling angry or sad or, you know, anything if I'm not sensing that?

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SPIEGEL: This is the story of how Kim was given a window by that magnet into the world that she couldn't see and how that changed her. Now, it was a small window - an only-90-minutes-long window. But it turns out that 90 minutes is more than enough time to unsettle a life because all you need to do to unsettle a life is expose it to a new frame of reference.

KIM: Wow, it's just what I've been missing.

SPIEGEL: So to begin at the beginning, Kim grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country with middle-class parents and four younger brothers. And talking to her, you get the sense that growing up she could see some emotions in other people. But her read was kind of primitive.

KIM: Well, I would know basically, you know, happy-smiling, sad-crying, angry-loud voice. And maybe I could pick up if somebody was confused or puzzled about something.

SPIEGEL: Basically, though internally Kim experienced the exact same things that any of us do, the anger and love and frustration - she had no way to interpret her emotions in part because her understanding of emotion in the world around her was so limited.

KIM: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: Now, obviously, the world that we currently live in demands a high amount of emotional dexterity. Emotionally, you need to be fluent and flexible, able to read the world around you and manage how you feel. And if you're not that way, things can get painful quickly. So it's not really a surprise that things got painful for Kim.

KIM: It would be, you know, taunting and name calling, and then it would progress to, you know, pushing and kicking and, you know, physical acts.

SPIEGEL: Quick warning here - if you're triggered by stories about bullying, you might want to skip this next section.

ROSIN: What was your darkest moment?

KIM: Oh boy. Yeah, the worst thing that ever happened was - I was at summer camp, and it was one of these camps where they were kind of, you know, maybe upper-middle-class kids. They were, clique-ish. And I don't know what I did. I have no idea. But they actually bound and gagged me and took me out of the cabin at night in the rain, and you know, put me outside, you know, and it was just awful.

SPIEGEL: I'm so sorry.

KIM: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's so hard when you have no idea why people treat you like this. It's just really, really painful. And I had no idea. I thought they were my friends. I didn't know they weren't my friends. I didn't know that I was doing something they didn't like.

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ROSIN: For a long time, this kind of bullying was part of Kim's day-to-day life.

SPIEGEL: From the other kids, Kim understood that there was something wrong with her, but she had no idea what it was. She continued to believe that she was seeing all the world, and so she couldn't fathom that her responses weren't the most appropriate and logical. And so on a certain level, she began to dismiss the people around her.

KIM: I thought, well, these people are crazy, you know? What I do is makes a whole lot more sense.

SPIEGEL: And since Kim is a very bright person, she started using her enormous intellect to make her life easier. It started at summer camp.

KIM: I decided I was going to try to be one of the cool kids. And what I tried - my strategy - was to try to be bad. So I swore, I put snakes in the camp counselor's sleeping bag. And it seemed to work. I didn't get bullied. And that was actually a really important experience because it gave me hope that, well, maybe if I do something differently, there might be a different result.

SPIEGEL: After ninth grade, Kim went to a new school, developed new strategies which also worked out well. Then there was college - also good - and medical school. In much of her life, Kim was able to pass, function more or less as people who could see the subtle play of emotions did.

In fact, it wasn't until later, after she graduated from medical school and established a practice, that her inability to read all the emotions became a big issue again. It surfaced in the place that she least expected.

KIM: Medical assistants. I would go through medical assistants left and right, you know? It was awful. One year I went through seven medical assistants.

SPIEGEL: But again, Kim decided to think her way out of the problem. She tried being clearer, hired a therapist to talk to the workers at her practice. And then one day, while she was talking to her brother, she happened on a new and promising approach.

KIM: I called him at work and he said oh, I was just talking to my secretary about her weekend. And I said, you were what? Why would you do that? And he said, I always do that - probably talk to her for about 10 minutes every day. And I said, really? I would've never considered that as an option.

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SPIEGEL: So off Kim set to incorporate small talk into her daily routine. But that didn't fix the problem either. Her practice continued to suffer. The constant upheaval was a huge problem.

KIM: I was just getting - what is going on?

SPIEGEL: And then one day in 2008, someone close to her was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. So Kim decided to do some reading on the topic and picked up a book.

KIM: Oh, my God. This is the way I think. This is scary.

SPIEGEL: She immediately went online, found a test which measured Asperger's and clicked through the items.

KIM: I'm good at social chit chat - disagree. People often tell me that I keep going on and on about the same thing - agree. I like to collect information about categories of things - agree. I find it difficult to work out people's intentions - agree. I'm a good diplomat - disagree.

SPIEGEL: Staring into the screen, it suddenly dawned on Kim that she could have Asperger's. The thought had never occurred to her before. Remember, she grew up in the 1960s.

KIM: That diagnosis wasn't even available when I was going to school.

SPIEGEL: And this thought, that she had Asperger's, it terrified her. Kim was a successful person, a working doctor.

KIM: Why stir the pot at this point? My life is pretty good.

SPIEGEL: So she decided to keep it a secret. In fact, to this day, Kim has never told any of her patients or neighbors or business associates about her Asperger's, which is why we are not using her full name in the story. Still, because Kim was struggling with her employees, she wanted to find out more about how Asperger's worked. So she started attending an Asperger's support group near her home, and it was during one of the sessions there that she heard about the thing that would change her life.

KIM: They were saying there are some research studies being done, and there's one currently at Beth Israel Deaconess. So I thought, well, this might be interesting. Maybe I'll learn something.

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SPIEGEL: OK. So can you just say your name and what you do?

LINDSAY OBERMAN: My name is Dr. Lindsay Oberman. And I am the director of the Neuroplasticity and Autism Spectrum Disorder Program.

SPIEGEL: Dr. Lindsay Oberman is an assistant professor at Brown University now, but back in 2008 she was a post-doc at Harvard, part of a team conducting research on the brains of people with Asperger's. The idea was to investigate how a procedure called TMS affected this population.

OBERMAN: So TMS stands for transcranial magnetic stimulation.

SPIEGEL: Basically, in TMS you take this very fancy, high-powered magnet, hold it to the scalp and send pulses through the skull. These invisible magnetic fields, which can be directed at certain brain cells and get them to activate, light up and work differently for a very short period of time, maybe 15 to 40 minutes. Now, at the moment, TMS is still in an experimental phase. It's approved and used clinically for severe depression in adults, but that is it. With Asperger's, it is really not ready for prime time. In fact, the goal of the study Kim showed up for in May of 2008 was very modest. Lindsay wanted to see if shooting the focused magnetic pulses could change the way that people like Kim process language, their ability to pick up subtle shifts in inflection and tone of voice. And so in May of 2008, before Kim was placed under the magnet she was given a battery of assessment tests so that they could compare before and after the magnet.

KIM: One task was they would show sentences on a computer and you would read the sentence, and they would record it while you were reading it. Is this a hold up?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't drive a car. I drive a pickup truck.

KIM: Did they make up?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This box is too heavy to pick up.

SPIEGEL: Kim remembers reading the sentences, reading them just as she had read so many sentences before.

KIM: I was reading them just kind of as a sentence. You read the sentence, and this is the way it is.

SPIEGEL: And then came the magnet, a small device, maybe 10 inches long, pressed into her scalp shooting invisible magnetic fields in rhythmic bursts through her skull.

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SPIEGEL: For 54 years, Kim had understood the world in a certain way and had found her own path through it. She was a woman who knew how to put up a sail on a sailboat, a woman of competence and intelligence. She sat under the magnet for 30 minutes, the muscles in her face jumping with each click.

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SPIEGEL: And then...

KIM: We're given the exact same test. I just started reading sentences. Is this a hold up? Did they make up?

SPIEGEL: But suddenly the sentences were completely different.

KIM: I read the sentence, is this a hold up, which I had read before just as words. Is this a hold up? And there's a question at the end so you raise your voice at the end of the sentence. And then all of a sudden it's like, is this a hold up? So there was this sense of oh, my gosh, this would really be fearful if somebody was thinking they were being held up.

SPIEGEL: For the very first time, Kim felt the emotion in the words on the page.

KIM: What's happening? Oh, this is really wild. I actually understand what's happening. I can feel it. I can hear it in my voice. And wow, is this what I've been missing, you know?

SPIEGEL: Did you like reading it one way more than reading it the other way?

KIM: Oh, yeah. You know, this is one of the things that was so remarkable. It's like, oh, my gosh, this is so much more alive. It's so much more real. It's deeper. It's more meaningful. You know, it's like black and white to color. It was a huge difference. And I saw it right away. I was just completely astounded at the whole thing. It's like, wow.

SPIEGEL: Because the effects of TMS are so short lived, Kim's ability to see words this way only lasted for another 30 minutes. By the time she drove home an hour later, it was gone. But in a certain way, that didn't matter. Her life was changed. Kim had been given a whole new frame of reference.

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ROSIN: When INVISIBILIA comes back, Kim's story continues.

ROSIN: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: OK, Alix, I once read this science-fiction story. And essentially, it was about these children who lived in a cave. They lived in total darkness, right? And then somebody came in from the outside and began to tell them there was this thing called light, beautiful and glowing, out there in the world that you have never experienced, which to me actually - it feels like kind of a cruel thing to do.

SPIEGEL: Yeah. And that's basically Kim's situation, except for somebody showed her the light and then took it away.

ROSIN: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: And we will actually get to that.

ROSIN: So now tell us what happened to her.

SPIEGEL: Well, Kim left Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital the same person that she had gone in. Her brain, with all of its strengths and weaknesses, was exactly the same. It had no more skills than when she started. But Kim was different because she understood something new.

KIM: And at first it was exhilarating.

SPIEGEL: She went home that afternoon and sat down on the same couch in the same living room.

KIM: Thinking about it and, you know, trying to decide what it meant.

SPIEGEL: And then it hit her.

KIM: Oh boy.

SPIEGEL: Her whole life, she was not the person that she thought she was.

KIM: One of the things that came up was that I realized that I had been compensating for everything that I had done when I was young by telling myself that I was better than other people, was smarter, and, you know, the stuff they were doing was really stupid. And all of a sudden, that whole thing kind of came crashing down because what was really clear here is that the ways that I thought I was better, I was not necessarily better. I was definitely different. And I definitely had some issues with the way I processed things that were significantly impacting my life that I didn't really know about.

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SPIEGEL: Of course, Kim had accepted intellectually that she had Asperger's. But what that actually meant had never been so clear to her.

KIM: I'm screwed. And what happened was I started getting really depressed. I said to myself this is hopeless. I miss all this stuff, and there's nothing I can do about it. Oh my gosh. There was a lot of grief, a lot of sadness.

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SPIEGEL: And then came the second-guessing. At home after a long day of work, she would lie in her bed reviewing the day - her interactions with her medical assistants...

KIM: Uh-oh, did I hear that correctly?

SPIEGEL: ...Her conversations with her patients...

KIM: Did I do that right? Did I do that wrong?

SPIEGEL: ...At the grocery.

KIM: Uh-oh, how did I say that?

SPIEGEL: It was endless.

KIM: Uh-oh.

SPIEGEL: She wrote a letter to the researchers telling them how grateful she was to have been in the study but also how she was struggling with depression.

Did you find yourself longing for that sensation of being able to see again?

KIM: Oh yeah. Oh, absolutely.

SPIEGEL: In fact, Kim reached out to the researchers to let her do more TMS. She knew the effects would be short term, but she still wanted it, even offered to pay for it. But they couldn't make it work.

KIM: Which is why I went back for more studies.

SPIEGEL: In August of 2010, Kim went back to Beth Israel for another TMS experiment, and the effect of this one was even more dramatic. Like the first, the experiment was about language, only this time the researchers had Kim watch a series of short video vignettes with actors playing different parts. Kim vividly remembers watching the first one.

KIM: There was a guy sitting at a computer, and a woman walked up and said hi to him. And they exchanged pleasantries, and then he said oh, John returned your DVDs. And she said OK, great. And then he said do you want to check them? And she said oh, OK. So she picks up the first DVD and opens it, and the camera shows that there's nothing in there. And then she closes it and puts it down. And then she picks up the second one and opens it, and it's empty again. And she closes it and puts it down. And then the guy says are they OK? And she goes yup, they're OK. And then the guy says would you lend him your DVDs again? And she goes sure, I would lend them again. So I'm looking at this and I'm thinking oh my gosh, I can't believe she'd actually be willing to lend the DVDs again after they were returned empty. Wow, she's really a generous person.

SPIEGEL: When the videos were finished, again the magnet was pressed into Kim's scalp.

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SPIEGEL: For 30 minutes, there was a sharp metal click beating in her ear.

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KIM: OK, now we watch the same video again. So she walks up, they say hi. She opens the first video. It's empty. She's angry. She slams it down. She opens the second one. She's angry. She slams it down. He says to her are they OK? And she says in a very sarcastic tone of voice yes, they're OK. He asks would you lend them again? And she says in a very sarcastic tone of voice sure, I would lend them again, clearly meaning no way would I lend this guy any videos again.

SPIEGEL: Wow.

KIM: Everything that was intended in this went completely over my head. And now I saw it - the body expression, the facial expression and the tone of voice and that whole interaction completely missed the meaning of the whole thing until after the TMS. And then I saw the whole thing clearly. This is what life could be like.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean when you say this is what life could be like?

KIM: I could actually understand conversation. I could understand people rather than be completely oblivious to all of the social signals that are flying around. Wouldn't that be nice?

SPIEGEL: Really?

KIM: Yeah. It's so hard to have misunderstandings with people.

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SPIEGEL: Of course, within an hour, Kim's ability to see emotion had evaporated. It was gone. And realistically, in all probability, Kim will not get to live a life where she is able to see the social signals that fly around her. Which - for me, anyway - raises this question - is it really good to get a window into a world that you can never actually inhabit? Is it worth being able to see to this other side if you never have access to it? Like...

KIM: I can answer that. I can answer that question. Is it worth having seen it? It would be worth seeing it for one minute. It would be worth seeing one interaction. That's how big it was because you see the way the world works. You see the way people interact. You understand all the subtleties of conversation that happen on a day-to-day basis. It's like wow, that's amazing.

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SPIEGEL: Hey, Hanna...

ROSIN: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: ...Do you think that if you were in Kim's situation, you would want to have seen what she saw?

ROSIN: I mean, if it were me, I think I would make the same choice Kim made. But if it was someone I love - a child of mine - my first instinct would be to protect them from it.

SPIEGEL: Why?

ROSIN: Because another thing we value is self-acceptance, you know? You don't want someone to spend their whole life grasping for an ideal version of themselves and not the person who they are.

SPIEGEL: Yeah. I was thinking the exact same thing.

ROSIN: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: I think the way that it effected Kim though was that seeing this other world, getting this new frame of reference, I think part of what it gave her was self-awareness, you know, and kind of the grace of self-awareness. She was suddenly able to see more clearly what she was and what she wasn't, and I think that really helped her.

ROSIN: Right.

SPIEGEL: But there's no guarantee that other people are going to experience TMS the same way that Kim did.

KIM: It could be. It could be that you would get a glimpse of this, and you couldn't have it and it would be completely heartbreaking and you couldn't get over it. But that's not what happened to me. It could happen. I'm not saying it couldn't, but that's not what happened to me.

SPIEGEL: The thing is Kim might really be an outlier, not just in terms of the silver lining she's found but in terms of her physical response to TMS. Lindsay Oberman says that in that second study, the one with the videos, only some participants had reactions similar to Kim - so few that Lindsay and her co-authors couldn't actually publish the work. But not being able to see the emotional world, that is a really big thing. And people - particularly parents of children on the spectrum - are anxious to try anything. So as word of these experiments gets out, Lindsay says, medical offices offering TMS treatments are cropping up, charging huge amounts of money for treatments that are totally unproven. And she's worried.

OBERMAN: If there's a clinic that's charging large sums of money, I don't feel comfortable saying that there is data to support that at this point. And a bigger concern in my mind is especially in a child whose brain is still developing, I don't feel comfortable recommending stimulating a part of the brain that may have adverse consequences down the line that we're not aware of.

SPIEGEL: Other researchers I spoke to said the same thing - that we should continue the research. But right now the evidence is unclear, and we need to be really cautious because there is potential for serious harm. As for Kim, she says the pain and self-doubt that she felt after the first experiment has receded. And she has more ease now than she did before she glimpsed emotion. This is in part because she understands herself better, sure, but also because after going through the experiments, she sees the world differently than she did before. It's a more understandable and kinder place.

She says she thinks a lot about one of the videos she was shown during the second experiment. In the video, two employees were saying mean things to a fellow employee named Frank. And Kim says the first time she watched it before the TMS, she couldn't answer any of the questions that the researchers were asking about it. But after, she understood not just the video but also one of the big mysteries that had dominated much of her life.

KIM: It never made any sense to me as to why people would be mean to somebody else. Why would you be mean to somebody? And what I saw is that when the two employees were there and were talking together and then were giving Frank a hard time, the primary thing was not that they were trying to be mean to Frank. The primary thing is that they were bonding. Those two people were actually building a bond between the two of them. And it was simply the means to do it was to be nasty to Frank. And then I was like oh, maybe that's what these kids were doing when they were bullying me. The primary thing was that they were bonding. The secondary thing was that I was being bullied.

SPIEGEL: It's much easier to live in a world which makes sense, a world where people are mean not just for fun, but because they, like everyone else, want to belong and feel safe. That's the world that Kim lives in now. But the point of this story is not that Kim can't see and we can. The truth is we can't see what we can't see either. Like Kim said, we believe our senses. But our senses lie - or not lie exactly. It's just that there are things that are outside the focus of our attention. And so we often live out our lives inside frames that we don't realize that we have.

But the nice thing about frames is if you can just somehow through herk or by jerk, figure out what frame you're using, you can shift it. That's what happened to Kim. When she was 54 years old, a couple of researchers pressed a magnet to her head, shot a magnetic field through her skull. And now she knows a lot more about the life that she's living.

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ROSIN: INVISIBILIA will be back in a moment.

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin. INVISIBILIA is a show about all the invisible things that shape human behavior. And today, we're looking at frames of reference.

SPIEGEL: Yeah, which is something that I've been thinking about a lot - like, a lot, a lot, a lot because of the way that I was raised by my mom. And then I encountered this comedy bit by Hasan Minhaj, who is a contributor to "The Daily Show." It was him talking about his dad, and it sounded so incredibly familiar. So Hanna and I decided to call him up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Do you see Hasan is here?

HASAN MINHAJ: Hey, guys.

SPIEGEL: Hi.

MINHAJ: Hey.

SPIEGEL: See, in his comedy, Hasan talks a lot about what it's like to be the child of somebody who doesn't come from America and so finds American preoccupations and customs not so compelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MINHAJ: Like birthdays, birthdays aren't really their thing. Let's just be real, they're not. And I feel like brown fathers feel like, look, I brought you to America. Happy birthday. No more birthdays.

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: Starbucks, Wi-Fi, freeways, that's it. No more birthdays. Go be president, no excuses. Those are the rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Now, I too grew up with a parent who found many American preoccupations, including birthdays, uncompelling.

Should I tell - should I start by talking about, like, where I came from in my own life and why it was that I felt like I needed to talk to Hasan?

ROSIN: Yeah, because I bet Hasan will relate.

SPIEGEL: OK. So Hasan, so like...

MINHAJ: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: ...Basically part of why...

The short version of what I explained to Hasan is that I was raised by a woman whose family escaped from the Holocaust. The way my mom talked about it, you got the sense that her entire childhood was just one long parade of hollow-eyed survivors with tattoos on their arms moving into the bedroom that she shared with her sisters. And I am really close to my mom. I'm not just saying that. She is my heart. But I will say that as her kid, the way this family history with historical trauma affected me was that it didn't really matter what kind of hardship you put in front of her. Mom, I don't like practicing violin six hours a day. Mom, I'm sad I don't get to see children my age. Her basic response was essentially, are you a lamp made of skin?

During the Holocaust, the Nazis pulled out teeth for gold fillings and were rumored to have used Jewish skin to make furniture. That was basically where my mom's frame of reference came from. So if you were not a lamp made of skin, it was very hard to get her to understand the gravity of your situation. Her response was something along the lines of your lips are moving and there are words coming out, and I honestly cannot understand why. Once you are a lamp made of skin, we will sit down together on the couch and we will talk about your many difficulties, which brings me back to Hasan.

His dad came to the U.S. after a very violent time in India. And so even though the things that Hasan and I had to deal with growing up in this country were very, very different and aren't comparable at all, we're similar in the sense that there are tons of things about American life that look one way to me and Hasan and a completely different way to our parents.

MINHAJ: Like, I'm not going to tell my dad even when I was in college that I'm, like - I'm going to a party. He - 'cause he would think that I would, you know, do drugs, get a girl pregnant and join a gang all in one night. Like, he legitimately would think that. So why would I tell dad that information?

SPIEGEL: And for Hasan, one of the big things that's affected his life that doesn't at all register with his father in the same way is racism. Like most people of color in the U.S., Hasan has always had to deal with a lot of racism. And the particular kind of racism that he experiences as a brown and Muslim person in this country is something that he talks about a lot in his comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MINHAJ: Well, the first time I fell in love with a girl was in the first grade, to this girl named Janice. And I went up to her in the playground, and I was like, Janice, I love you. And she was like, you're the color of poop.

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: That's memory number one with a girl.

SPIEGEL: Stuff like that happened all the time. He says a lot of it was smaller insults, microaggressions, like the girl in college who said that she wouldn't go out with him, but he was handsome for an Indian. But some of it was bigger, like the time Hasan, the only brown kid trying out for basketball at his school, put his nice new Nike Foamposite sneakers in his locker so they wouldn't get messed up.

MINHAJ: Some of the guys from the JV team took my nice sneakers out of my locker, peed in them, put them back in my locker. And then when everybody was waiting in the parking lot to come get picked up by our parents. I was wearing my nice sneakers. And I thought they were wet because of the sweat from my socks because we had just, like, played basketball for two hours.

One of the guys comes up to me is like hey, man, I really like those sneakers. Where'd you get them? I was, like, oh, man, like, one of the most popular kids is talking to me. Oh, Tommy, I got them at Nike outlet. Oh, really? I think you got them from the urinal. Everyone just starts, like, dying. All the older guys - ninth, 10th graders, 11th graders - are, like, dying. I'm like, what? What do you mean? Oh, I peed in your shoes, man.

And then, all of a sudden, you know, my white - my dad's white Nissan Stanza pulls up. I'm super embarrassed, not only on identity levels - like, I'm the only brown kid at my school, great. My, like, FOB of a father's picking me up in, of course, like, a family sedan. All right, get in there - but I'm wearing shoes that have been urinated in. Walk into that car, we drive home. We get back home, I take off my brand-new Nike Foamposites. I put them in the dumpster, walk inside with my dad.

SPIEGEL: Did you tell your dad?

MINHAJ: I didn't tell my dad about that until I got older.

SPIEGEL: Didn't tell him because Hasan's dad just wasn't that receptive an audience.

MINHAJ: My dad would just be like, why are you complaining? (Laughter) I mean, like, he'll start laughing.

SPIEGEL: And it wasn't that Hasan's dad was being cruel. It's that in a real way the problems that Hasan was experiencing simply didn't register with his dad as problems. See, Hasan's dad grew up in India in the wake of partition, which was a terrible time in that country. More than a million people were killed, between 12 and 14 million displaced. That was when his dad's frame of reference was set.

MINHAJ: Riots, fighting, people's businesses getting burned down, you know, dying because of stuff like that.

MINHAJ: Things kind of were really, really hard during that window.

SPIEGEL: Basically because Hasan's dad grew up among the survivors of civil war, Hasan says his dad just didn't have that much room for the racism Hasan was dealing with.

MINHAJ: Boohoo, a girl wouldn't go out with you. And yeah, you've been called a camel jockey a few times in your life - like, your life isn't that bad.

SPIEGEL: And it's not like Hasan's father was just being hard on his son. He applied that frame of reference to himself, too.

MINHAJ: So 9/11 happens, right? I'm a sophomore in high school. And one night we're all eating dinner, and I just hear, like - like, a fump (ph) fump. OK. Then the phone rings. My dad picks it up, and my dad's like what, huh, what? This is, like, a couple weeks after 9/11 - huh, what? I'm like oh God, like, it's probably, like, I don't know, one of my friends, they're calling.

And I'm running - I run to the phone. I pick it up, and it's - I can hear on the other end, it's, like, just a group of guys. And they're like hey, where's Osama? Tell us where Osama is. And my dad's like what? What's going on? And my dad's like I don't know what you're talking about and hangs up. And after that happened, my dad just went to, like, go grab the mail, and then he was like Hasan, come outside. I go outside, and they had smashed in the windows to our car.

And I was, like, furious. I was so pissed, and my dad just walked in to the house. He grabbed a bunch of those big manila mailing things, and he just - like, he just taped up the windows and - the windows to the car. And he, like, just didn't really, like, say anything about it really.

SPIEGEL: Did you get the sense that he was basically, like, not that big a deal?

MINHAJ: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: So that's the voice that's been in Hasan's head all his life.

MINHAJ: Hasan, be grateful. Your life is so much better than so many other people. Be grateful. So much better than Sahill - Sahill's my cousin who lives back in India. Be grateful - drone strikes in Pakistan (imitating explosion) that could be your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: And so how did you deal with that in your own head, like, when you did experience microaggressions?

MINHAJ: Yeah, it's tough because...

SPIEGEL: I mean, does that, like, would they just roll off of you because you're like eh, or did they - did it still hurt, and were you experiencing, like, a cognitive dissonance where you're like one frame, another frame, one frame, another frame, you know what I mean?

MINHAJ: Yeah, I struggle with it. I'm being honest with you...

SPIEGEL: Yeah.

MINHAJ: I struggle with both of these things because it's like I still experience problems.

SPIEGEL: In fact, a lot of Hasan's work - most of his one-man show, for instance, is about how racism has messed with him, left him feeling like he wasn't good enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONE-MAN SHOW, "HOMECOMING KING")

MINHAJ: In the third grade, there was this assignment where Ms. Anderson was like hey, write want you want to be when you grow up. Some kids were like I want to be an astronaut. Other kids were like I want to be NBA player. I was like I want to be white.

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: And she was like honey, what do you mean? I was like I want this part of my skin to be all of my skin.

(LAUGHTER)

SPIEGEL: In his comedy, Hasan clearly feels the need to call out and confront racism in this country, both the blatant and the more subtle forms of it, to throw stereotypes back at white America that show the entitled way whites move through the world, ways most of us don't even see.

MINHAJ: I have this sort of joke - but I kind of mean it - where it's like I'm fighting for a world honestly where my kids and children can have the same confidence white people have when they dance.

(LAUGHTER)

SPIEGEL: What?

MINHAJ: If you've ever seen - no, I'm serious. They're not on rhythm. They're kind of making it up as they go along. But the sheer confidence - of course I should be dancing in the middle of the dance floor. And what is rhythm? What does it really matter? And when I watch white people do that and I go that's why you guys were able to run the world. That's what colonialism is. That's how 12 people from Britain came over to India and were like it's our country. We're going to just run it. That's what that is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: So that's what Hassan is talking about publicly. Still, privately, there is that voice in Hasan's head, the one from his father which whispers that some of the stuff that he's talking about, some of the stuff that he is calling out...

MINHAJ: Boohoo, a girl wouldn't go out with you, the windows to your Camry got smash in and yeah, you've been called a camel jockey a few times in your life.

SPIEGEL: That's not real hardship.

MINHAJ: Hasan, be grateful your life is so much better than so many other people. Drone strikes in Pakistan (imitating explosion) - that could be your life.

SPIEGEL: Basically, Hasan is living with two dramatically different frames of reference, one which says that we live in a world where you should pause and confront the racism of the girl who tells you that you're handsome for an Indian or someone who calls you a camel jockey because those things cause serious harm and are elements of a larger system of discrimination. And then there's the other frame, which says given the horror that can and does happen in this world, that in fact happened to your own family, harms like those are not worth your time. The world is not perfect, and it never will be perfect, so don't expect it to be. Just keep going. You're lucky you're even alive.

Now, obviously, we're just talking about Hasan's experience here. And there is a huge amount of systemic racism in this country that it's impossible to keep going through, in many cases involving life and death - the criminal justice system, the system of education, police shootings. But you can see Hasan on a day-to-day level grappling with these two dominant frames in his life, trying to make sense of which is the right way to think.

MINHAJ: Like, sometimes I feel like I'm - like, sometimes I get sad. But I, like, talk myself out of it or I'm like no, no, no, no, like, this is not a real thing. Like, do you know what I mean? Like...

SPIEGEL: Oh yeah, no, no, no, no...

MINHAJ: Depression is a luxury for the wealthy.

SPIEGEL: Oh...

MINHAJ: Like, no, no, no, no, we don't have time for, like, depression.

SPIEGEL: Oh, so you don't even - wow, you're like it's like that frame of reference is so internalised with you that you don't even think that depression is a real thing?

MINHAJ: Kind of, yeah, where I'm just kind of like is it - like, or is it a thing where I'm being so honest where, like, gratitude and prayer and just, like, frame of reference can change that.

SPIEGEL: Which brings me back to my own struggles with frame of reference and the are you a lamp made of skin historical trauma frame I got from my mom. In some real ways, I have adopted this frame, and, as I told Hasan, I honestly feel like having it hovering inside my head helps me focus on what by most measures is the insane privilege that is my life and dismiss things that cause me pain. But I will say that I have been thinking recently that it's a frame that does have some weaknesses.

That kind of frame of reference makes the world an easier place for me.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: But on the other hand, I'm conflicted with that because I also feel like if you want to make progress in the world - like, what if Martin Luther King had been like, well, I'm not a lamp made of skin so I'll sit in the back of the bus. Do you know I mean?

MINHAJ: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: It's like I feel like the smaller frame of reference is necessary in order to kind of advance socially.

MINHAJ: Exactly.

SPIEGEL: But it also makes you less happy. Like...

MINHAJ: I think about this all - you have no idea how much I think about this.

SPIEGEL: Yeah, no, I could tell that you thought about this.

MINHAJ: Yeah, yeah.

SPIEGEL: And so, like, so the question that I really truly have for you is what's the right frame of reference?

MINHAJ: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: Now, the truth is that I don't think that Hasan is any closer to answering this question than I am. But with Hasan you do get the sense that as he gets older, his father's frame is asserting itself more and more. He says he's been thinking a lot about when he has kids.

MINHAJ: What if, like, my kids come up to me and they're like, hey, Dad, I think I have ADD, I also may suffer from bipolarism and sometimes I think I might be clinically depressed. I'll be honest - as a kid that grew up here who totally gets all of that stuff, I might be like, what are you talking about?

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: Do you know what I mean? Like, come on. Like, I let you go to the movies. I let you get sneakers. I let you talk to girls. Like, you are taking it way too far. Like, like...

SPIEGEL: I love how you're negating the entire premise of our show right now.

MINHAJ: I know. But at the same time maybe a little bit of struggle is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes and, like - but that - but isn't that the world we're fighting for, to remove all of those aggressions?

SPIEGEL: I know, you're fighting - that's the thing. It's like you're fighting to remove those things. But I think the thing that you got from your father is that having this kind of broader frame of reference makes the road a lot smoother.

MINHAJ: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: At the end of our interview, Hasan told me that recently his sister went home to visit their parents, and she took this video of his father.

MINHAJ: My dad is just, like, sitting in the living room. The TV isn't on, but you can, like, hear the low hum of the air conditioning. He's sitting there barefoot in his pajamas in a T-shirt. And there's mango in a bowl. And he's, like, twiddling his toes, and he's eating mango and he's so happy and...

(LAUGHTER)

MINHAJ: And Isha sent it to me. And she was, like, look how happy Dad is. And I'm like, yo, this is life, though. Like, this is what it's all about. Like, I want to be this happy, just, like, twiddling my toes, eating mango in the living room.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: So if you had to choose now...

MINHAJ: Yeah.

SPIEGEL: ...One frame of reference to live out the rest of your life with, like, would you choose your dad's frame of reference or would you choose kind of, like, the more narrow frame of reference?

MINHAJ: I would 100 percent choose my dad's. I 100 percent choose mangoes in the living room - 100 percent.

SPIEGEL: Of course, you don't have to choose one frame of reference or the other. It's not 100 percent mango or zero. We're always, always jumping between different frames. Each has its merits and its limits, and anybody who tells you that they know the right frame is selling something. There is no right frame. There are millions of frames flying through the air at all times. Without quite knowing what we're doing, we grab one, hold it to our face and then grab another. But I can certainly appreciate why Hasan, if forced, would choose his dad's.

Why?

MINHAJ: It makes life a little bit more bearable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Everybody, picture Hasan's dad alone in his living room and having a dance party.

ROSIN: Mangoes are everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel. And me, Hanna Rosin, with Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: Our senior editor is Ann Goodenkaugh (ph). Our executive producer is Jeff Rogers.

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is produced by Yoa Shaw (ph) and Abby Wendle with help from Leona Simons (ph), Matilde Piard, Megan Kane (ph), Mickey Capper (ph), Linda Nyakundia, Maria Paus-Guiterrez (ph)...

SPIEGEL: Andy Huether (ph), Rachel Brown (ph), Mia Duvmasava (ph), Vivian Fairbank (ph), Meredith Rizzo, Nancy Shute and our vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.

ROSIN: And a huge, huge thank you to Kat Chow from Code Switch who really helped us this week. Thank you so much.

SPIEGEL: And now for our moment of non-zen - did you cry with the IT guy?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I did.

SPIEGEL: Oh, my God, that's, like...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I tried not to, but I think it also helped.

(LAUGHTER)

SPIEGEL: I have never cried with an IT man.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Really?

SPIEGEL: I have never cried with an IT professional.

Join us next week for more...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: INVISIBILIA - how - that's how you say it? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.