Sunday, June 1, 2008

What Dictionaries and Optical Illusions Say About Our Brains

Cognitive scientist Mark Changizi does not bother with how the brain accomplishes a task, but rather why it performs the function in the first place.

By Nikhil Swaminathan

Mark Changizi

THEORETICAL NEUROBIOLOGIST: In his work, Mark Changizi attempts to determine why our brain works the way it does.

Although many neuroscientists are trying to figure out how the brain works, Mark Changizi is bent on determining why it works that way. In the past, the assistant professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has demonstrated that the shapes of letters in 100 writing systems reflect common ones seen in nature: Take the letter "A"—it looks like a mountain, he says. And "Y" might remind one of a tree with branches. He also showed that across different languages most characters take three strokes to write out. That's because, he says, three is the highest quantity a person's brain can perceive without resorting to counting. But Changizi's theories aren't limited to writing. He also believes that primates developed the ability to see in color so that they could figure out if peers were sending emotional cues. He hatched that theory by comparing the light wavelengths given off by the facial skin of someone blushing to that of a person not flushed. The prolific Changizi recently published two papers: one that sets out to explain how our lexical systems evolved and another that suggests how the brain's visual system is adapted to anticipate the future a fraction of a second before we actually see it. (See related slideshow here.) Changizi spoke to about his newest research; what his forthcoming book, The Vision R(evolution): How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision, has to do with superheroes; and what kind of scientist he is.

What's the goal of your research?
My goal is to understand the principles underlying the design of the brain or visual system or cultural artifact, like language or writing systems. I'm not as interested in the mechanisms per se. People like me make the point that you can't even study those mechanisms without having an idea what those mechanisms are trying to compute. So you have to have some opinion about what the design or function of those mechanisms are for to even do that. So, I am focusing on the function from a teleological [purposive] point of view. Of course it's unpacked with natural selection or cultural evolution.

Are you characterizing the functions of certain systems, so that other researchers can work on how a system performs its tasks?
It's certainly a consequence of my work that someone else will be in a better position to pose mechanisms when they know the big constraint of: "What is it that my mechanisms need to be computing?" But, that's not why I do it. I'm excited about the selection pressures undergoing why we see in color: What is color for? What is it optimized for? Only 1 percent of me is interested in the fact that it's implemented in the particular way it's implemented in some part of the brain. ... [My work] often makes some predictions about specific aspects of the mechanisms, but once that information is there, there could be infinitely many mechanisms that could carry out that function.

One of your more recent papers deals with the Oxford English Dictionary as an economically organized collection of the words in the English language? What is it about its organization that makes it so optimal?
If you gave definitions of all the words on the basis of some small set of atomic words, then you would have two levels of words: the bottom level, [a] small set of atomic words (between 10 and 50) and the other, roughly 100,000. That would be a very costly dictionary in terms of the size that's required. The signature of an optimally organized lexicon is: you instead take that small set of words and you use them to find a slightly larger set of slightly more complicated words, which are in turn used to build a slightly larger set of still more complicated words and so on. When you do that seven times, or so, that will then allow you to utilize the minimum amount of definition space to find the target words that you are really interested in defining in the first place.

What type of words serve as the bottom rung, or atomic words, in the lexicon?
The ones that come out from WordNet [a lexical database of the English language developed at Princeton that ranks words from the most basic to the most complex] are words like: abstraction, act, entity, event, group, phenomenon, possession, etcetera.

How does this manner of organization reflect a mechanism in our brain?
My interpretation of this result is that culture has over time evolved the meanings of the words in our lexicon so as to minimize the total size of definitions. And the reason that was selected for was because that way we could all fit more words in the head and have a richer vocabulary.

Does that imply an underlying drive toward efficiency or conciseness?
Sometimes when you speak about evolution, you mistakenly say that evolution is striving for developing a wing. But, it's blind cultural evolution. Over time, meanings of words are going to change. The structure of the lexicon is passed on, generation to generation, there'll be selection pressure changing it in certain ways. Sometimes it will change in ways that are hurtful, making it harder for people to remember. Those will tend to change back over time. So, it's blind cultural selection with no directionality per se.

If the dictionary study involves cultural evolution as its driver, then the new work on the visual system involves natural selection–based evolution. Why is it that we need to "perceive the present," as you put it, or see into the future?
Animals who move or are in a world that moves around them—as long as there are things moving somehow relative to you—will be selected to have perceptions that are true. We have about a tenth of a second delay between the time light hits the retina and the time of resultant perception, which is considerable given that you move 10 centimeters [four inches] in that amount of time even if you're only walking one meter [3.3 feet] per second. That means that if you didn't compensate for this neural delay, anything you perceive to be within 10 centimeters of passing…. [It] would have just passed you by the time you perceive it. You'd always be seeing the world as it was a tenth of a second earlier and seeing what the world looks like 10 centimeters behind where you in fact are--if you hadn't run into whatever it is you're looking for.

So, in the new work, you detail various optical illusions. (See related slideshow here.) Do these illusions result from all the errors in our visual system that need to be compensated for?
In this work, it's ones dealing only with forward motion, which is, I think, one of the main kinds of motion that we're good at dealing with. Even when you're standing still or rotating, for example, that's going to be a different kind of optic flow. Potentially, we're able to correct for those, too. But, all of these illusions turn out to be explainable from forward motion correlates. We're doing compensation all over the place. We play video games where there are made-up rules of optical flow that our visual systems can figure out on the fly.

In the new work, you were able to sort optical illusions into categories based on four visual features that were being misperceived. What particular features are those?
There are four different domains of misperception: The first is illusions of size. The second is illusions of speed. The third is luminance, or contrast. The last is illusions of perceived distance. Now, there are different ways of affecting those kinds of misperceptions—the key features that are causing those illusions. For example, size differences within your visual field could cause misperceptions or illusions of speed.

So, does this work fit in with your forthcoming book, The Vision R(evolution)?
The book is about four stories about four of the big areas of vision: The first is motion, which is this perceiving the present stuff; binocular vision, which concerns the evolution of forward-facing eyes; color and luminance, which is like the skin work; and object recognition—this is a little bit more of a stretch—but it connects to the evolution of writing and reading. The four areas all have an evolutionary side to them. Furthermore, they all have a superhero angle to them. You can describe the perceiving the present stuff as future-seeing. People have proposed superheroes that see the future and, in a weak sense, we do, too. For the evolution of forward-facing eyes, I am arguing that it is for a kind of x-ray vision. It actually allows us to see through stuff—like when you hold up a finger vertically and you see through it instead of beyond it. For animals that are large and living in forested environments, there should be selection pressure for forward-facing eyes, because you can actually see more of your environment. For color vision, the cones that we have in our eyes—that [other] mammals don't—are evolved to see the oxygenation modulations in the blood, because we want to sense the emotions in others. We really have external-sensing equipment that…[is]…empathic in nature—mind reading and emotion-reading, like the annoying character in Star Trek, the empath. A bit of a stretch of the theme is spirit-reading, our ability to read the thoughts of the dead. Object recognition (reading and writing) has allowed us to read the thoughts of the dead. So, it's four different stories connected by these kinds of themes.

Interesting. So, putting all this together, what do you consider your field? Is it cognitive science?

I would call it theoretical neurobiology in vision. But, it doesn't get at the fact that I am more evolutionary-directed, rather than computational modeling-directed—so I think evolutionary, theoretical neurobiologist would be slightly more representative.

Original here

Mutation Spells Bad News for Breast Cancer Patients

Breast cancer patients with a mutation in both copies of the NQO1 gene have a 20% lower survival rate 5 years after treatment than do patients without the mutation, according to a new study of more than 2000 Finnish women. Those with the mutation were also four times less likely to respond to a common type of chemotherapy.

NQO1 encodes an enzyme that protects cells from oxidative stress, damage to the cell and its DNA caused by reactive byproducts of metabolism. The NQO1 enzyme also helps to stabilize p53, sometimes called the "guardian angel" protein for its crucial role in preventing tumors. Because NQO1 protects a cell's DNA and its anticancer proteins, mutations that compromise the NQO1 enzyme are pernicious. One mutation, called NQO1*2, increases the risk of cancer or cancer relapse, especially for leukemia.

A group of researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland thought NQO1 could also be a promising predictor of survival for women with breast cancer. The team followed the cases of 1005 women who visited the Helsinki University Hospital for breast cancer treatment between 1997 and 2004. They tested the women for the NQO1*2 mutation and compared their survival rates over an average of nearly 6 years of follow-up visits. Only 65% of women who carried two faulty copies of the gene were alive 5 years after treatment, compared with 85% and 87% survival for women with one and two good copies, the team reports today in Nature Genetics. The mutation also increased the chance that the cancer would spread. What's more, the mutation seemed to make the breast tumors resistant to a common form of chemotherapy, epirubicin. Women with two copies of the NQO1*2 mutation had only a 17% survival rate 5 years after the therapy, compared with a 75% survival rate for women with at least one good copy of the gene. For radiation or hormone therapy, the NQO1*2 mutation seemed to make no difference.

To confirm their results, the researchers studied a second group of 1162 women treated at two other Finnish hospitals. Again, they found reduced survival: Over 10 years, 46% of women with two copies of NQO1*2 survived, compared with 75% of women with at least one normal NQO1 gene. As in the previous group, the effect was most pronounced among patients who received chemotherapy rather than radiation--but most women in the second group had received an older kind of chemotherapy, so the researchers couldn't confirm the effect of the NQO1*2 mutation on the now-common epirubicin therapy.

Nevertheless, "the results are pretty dramatic," says Carl Blomqvist, a cancer clinician and an author of the study. "The immediate thing to be done," he adds, is to launch a new clinical trial designed not just to detect the association between NQO1* and prognosis, but to really test the predictive power of NQO1*2 on cancer prognosis in women randomly assigned to epirubicin and other therapies. If the connection holds, it could give doctors another piece of information to help them choose the right treatment for a patient.

"It's an important finding," says David Ross, a toxicologist at the University of Colorado, Denver. He, too, emphasizes the need for a new clinical trial to confirm the connection between NQO1*2 and prognosis, and he adds that the cause of the effect remains unclear. "There still need to be some t's crossed and i's dotted," he says.

Original here

Pie in the sky: The world's first edible high-rise

Toronto scientist Gordon Graff has created plans for a 58-floor concept building - the SkyFarm - which would grow crops in the heart of the city and could provide enough food for 35,000 people every day

The potential of city-based farming could be vastly expanded if we extend upwards as well as using ground-level plots.

Of course, one major problem with growing produce on our roofs is the quantities of soil needed, which would add unfeasible amounts of weight. However, hydroponic technology – using nutrient-enriched water instead of soil – could be the solution.

Toronto scientist Gordon Graff has created plans for a 58-floor concept building – the SkyFarm – which would grow crops in the heart of the city and could provide enough food for 35,000 people every day.

Crops would be irrigated by water recycled through the building's hydroponic system and, with no soil, many diseases are ruled out – meaning no need for chemical pesticides.

Rumours abound of a similar skyscraper farm being developed in Las Vegas. It is said that the 30-storey structure would be not just about agriculture, but would house pigs too – though some have suggested the vertical pork farm could be a hoax. Punchlines on a postcard, please.

Original here

The Dutch Onion:

Vital statistics

Girls are becoming as good as boys at mathematics, and are still better at reading

TRADITION has it that boys are good at counting and girls are good at reading. So much so that Mattel once produced a talking Barbie doll whose stock of phrases included “Math class is tough!”

Although much is made of differences between the brains of adult males and females, the sources of these differences are a matter of controversy. Some people put forward cultural explanations and note, for example, that when girls are taught separately from boys they often do better in subjects such as maths than if classes are mixed. Others claim that the differences are rooted in biology, are there from birth, and exist because girls' and boys' brains have evolved to handle information in different ways.

Luigi Guiso of the European University Institute in Florence and his colleagues have just published the results of a study which suggests that culture explains most of the difference in maths, at least. In this week's Science, they show that the gap in mathematics scores between boys and girls virtually disappears in countries with high levels of sexual equality, though the reading gap remains.

Dr Guiso took data from the 2003 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. Some 276,000 15-year-olds from 40 countries sat the same maths and reading tests. The researchers compared the results, by country, with each other and with a number of different measures of social sexual equality. One measure was the World Economic Forum's gender-gap index, which reflects economic and political opportunities, education and well-being for women. Another was based on an index of cultural attitudes towards women. A third was the rate of female economic activity in a country, and the fourth measure looked at women's political participation.

On average, girls' maths scores were, as expected, lower than those of boys. However, the gap was largest in countries with the least equality between the sexes (by any score), such as Turkey. It vanished in countries such as Norway and Sweden, where the sexes are more or less on a par with one another. The researchers also did some additional statistical checks to ensure the correlation was material, and not generated by another, third variable that is correlated with sexual equality, such as GDP per person. They say their data therefore show that improvements in maths scores are related not to economic development, but directly to improvements in the social position of women.

The one mathematical gap that did not disappear was the differences between girls and boys in geometry. This seems to have no relation to sexual equality, and may allow men to cling on to their famed claim to be better at navigating than women are. However, the gap in reading scores not only remained, but got bigger as the sexes became more equal. Average reading scores were higher for girls than for boys in all countries. But in more equal societies, not only were the girls as good at maths as the boys, their advantage in reading had increased.

This suggests an interesting paradox. At first sight, girls' rise to mathematical equality suggests they should be invading maths-heavy professions such as engineering—and that if they are not, the implication might be that prejudice is keeping them out. However, as David Ricardo observed almost 200 years ago, economic optimisation is about comparative advantage. The rise in female reading scores alongside their maths scores suggests that female comparative advantage in this area has not changed. According to Paola Sapienza, a professor of finance at Northwestern University in Illinois who is one of the paper's authors, that is just what has happened. Other studies of gifted girls, she says, show that even though the girls had the ability, fewer than expected ended up reading maths and sciences at university. Instead, they went on to be become successful in areas such as law.

In other words, girls may acquire an absolute advantage over boys as a result of equal treatment. This is something that society, more broadly, has not yet taken on board. Mattel may wish to take note that among Teen Talk Barbie's 270 phrases concerning shopping, parties and clothes, at least one might usefully have been, “Dostoevsky rocks!”

Original here

How to Survive A Disaster

Earthquake survivors try to salvage what they can from their destroyed houses in the Ronghua Township of Shifang, China.
China Photos / Getty

When a plane crashes or the earth shakes, we tend to view the survivors as the lucky ones. Had they been in the next seat or the apartment across the street, they would have perished. We marvel at the whimsy of the devastation.

The recent earthquake in China and the cyclone in Burma, not to mention the battery of tornadoes and wildfires ripping through the U.S. this season, remind us that disasters are part of the human condition. We are more or less vulnerable to them, depending where we live.

But survival is not just a product of luck. We can do far more than we think to improve our odds of preventing and surviving even the most horrendous of catastrophes. It's a matter of preparation--bolting down your water heater before an earthquake or actually reading the in-flight safety card before takeoff--but also of mental conditioning. Each of us has what I call a "disaster personality," a state of being that takes over in a crisis. It is at the core of who we are. The fact is, we can refine that personality and teach our brains to work more quickly, maybe even more wisely.

Humans are programmed with basic survival skills. When frightened, we get a shot of performance-enhancing hormones, and the blood pumps to our limbs to help us outrun whatever enemy we face. But in modern times, we're hardly aware of such natural skills, and most of us do little to understand or develop them.

We could, for example, become far better at judging threats before catastrophe strikes. We have technological advantages that our ancestors lacked, and we know where disasters are likely to occur. And yet we flirt shamelessly with risk. We construct city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines--as if nature will be cowed by our audacity and leave us be. And we rely on a sprawling network of faraway suppliers for necessities like warmth and food. If the power cuts off, many of us still don't know where the stairs are in our skyscrapers, and we would have trouble surviving for a week without Wal-Mart. Hurricane season starts June 1, and forecasters predict a worse-than-average summer. But for many of us, preparation means little more than crossing our fingers and hoping to live.

Yet the knowledge is out there. Risk experts understand how we could overcome our blind spots and more intelligently hedge our bets. In laboratories and on shooting ranges, there are people who study what happens to bodies and minds under extreme duress. Military researchers conduct elaborate experiments to try to predict who will melt down in a crisis and who will thrive. Police, soldiers, race-car drivers and helicopter pilots train to anticipate the strange behaviors they will encounter at the worst of times. Regular people can learn from that knowledge, since, after all, we will be the first on the scene of any disaster.

Of course, no one can promise a plan of escape. But that doesn't mean we should live in willful ignorance. As Hunter S. Thompson said, "Call on God, but row away from the rocks."

Over the years, I have interviewed survivors of unimaginable tragedies. Most say that during their ordeals, almost nothing felt, sounded or looked the way they would have expected. Reality was in some ways better, in other ways worse. They say there are things they wish they had known, things they want you to know. Here, then, are three of their stories, accompanied by some of the hard wisdom of loss and luck:

Panic Can Be Your Friend

When disaster strikes, a troubling human response can inflate the death toll: people freeze up. They shut down, becoming suddenly limp and still. That's what happened to some people on Sept. 28, 1994, when the M.V. Estonia went down in the Baltic Sea, the worst sea disaster in modern European history.

The huge automobile ferry had left its home port in Tallinn, Estonia, on a routine 15-hour trip to Stockholm. Although the weather had been stormy all night, the crew did not expect serious problems. A band was playing in the Baltic Bar, and the 10-deck vessel churned through the inky waters as it had for 14 years.

Kent Härstedt, now a member of Sweden's Parliament, was then a 29-year-old passenger. That night he was hanging out in one of the ship's bars, with about 50 other passengers. "There was karaoke music," he recalls. "Everybody was laughing and singing." But just after 1 a.m., the Estonia suddenly listed starboard 30°, hurling passengers, vending machines and flowerpots across its passageways. In the bar, almost everyone fell violently against the side of the boat. Härstedt managed to grab on to the iron bar railing and hold on, hanging above everyone else.

"In just one second, everything went from a loud, happy, wonderful moment to total silence. Every brain, I guess, was working like a computer trying to realize what had happened," he says. Then came the screaming and crying. People had been badly hurt in the fall, and the tilt of the ship made it extremely difficult to move.

Härstedt began to strategize, tapping into some of the survival skills he had learned in the military. "I started to react very differently from normal. I started to say, 'O.K., there is option one, option two. Decide. Act.' I didn't say, 'Oh, the boat is sinking.' I didn't even think about the wider perspective." Like many survivors, Härstedt experienced the illusion of centrality, a coping mechanism in which the brain fixates on the individual experience. "I just saw my very small world."

But as Härstedt made his way into the corridor, he noticed something strange about some of the other passengers. They weren't doing what he was doing. "Some people didn't seem to realize what had happened. They were just sitting there," he says. Not just one or two people, but entire groups seemed to be immobilized. They were conscious, but they were not reacting.

Contrary to popular expectations, this is what happens in many disasters. Crowds generally become quiet and docile. Panic is rare. The bigger problem is that people do too little, too slowly. They sometimes shut down completely, falling into a stupor.

On the Estonia, Härstedt climbed up the stairwell, fighting against gravity. Out on the deck, the ship's lights were on, and the moon was shining. The full range of human capacities was on display. Incredibly, one man stood to the side, smoking a cigarette, Härstedt remembers. Most people strained to hold on to the rolling ship and, at the same time, to look for life jackets and lifeboats. British passenger Paul Barney remembers groups of people standing still like statues. "I kept saying to myself, 'Why don't they try to get out of here?'" he later told the Observer.

Later, when interviewed by the police, some survivors said they understood this behavior. At some point, they too had felt an overwhelming urge to stop moving. They only snapped out of the stupor, they said, by thinking of their loved ones, especially their children--a common thread in the stories of survivors of all kinds of disasters.

At 1:50 a.m., just 30 minutes after its first Mayday call, the Estonia vanished, sinking upside down into the sea. Moments before, Härstedt had jumped off the ship. He climbed onto a life raft and held on for five hours, until finally being rescued. All told, only 137 of the 989 people on board survived the disaster. Most of the victims were entombed in the Estonia while they slept. They had no chance to save themselves. Investigators would conclude that the ship sank because the bow door to the car deck had come unlocked and the sea had come gushing into the ship.

Firefighters, police trainers--even stockbrokers--have told me similar stories of seeing people freeze under extreme stress. Animals go into the same state when they are trapped, evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. has found. Playing dead can discourage predators from attacking. In the case of the Estonia and other disasters, the freezing response may have been a natural and horrific mistake. Our brains search, under extreme stress, for an appropriate survival response and sometimes choose the wrong one, like deer that freeze in the headlights of a car.

But the more encouraging point is that the brain is plastic. It can be trained to respond more appropriately. Less fear makes paralysis less likely. A rat with damage to the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain that handles fear, will not freeze at all--even if it encounters a cat. If we can reduce our own fear even a little bit, we might be able to do better.

Fire drills, particularly if they are mandatory and unexpected, can dramatically reduce fear, should the worst come to pass. Just knowing where the stairs are gives your brain an advantage. Likewise, research into plane crashes has found that people who read the safety briefing cards are more likely to survive. These rituals that we consider an utter waste of time actually give our brains blueprints in the unlikely event that we need them.

We can also help each other do better. A loud sound will cause animals to snap out of their stupor. Likewise, many flight attendants are now trained to scream at passengers in burning planes, "Get out! Get out! Go!" People respond well to leadership in a disaster, and then they can do remarkable things.

We All Have Our Role to Play

Even in the most chaotic moments, our social relationships remain largely intact. That cohesion can have positive and negative consequences, but it helps to know what to expect.

On May 28, 1977, one of the deadliest fires in the U.S. broke out at a place called the Beverly Hills Supper Club, a labyrinth of dining rooms, ballrooms, fountains and gardens located on a bluff 5 miles (8 km) south of Cincinnati. Darla McCollister was there. She got married that evening at the gazebo in the garden and then, as her party began to move inside for dinner, a waitress informed her that there was a small fire in the building. It had begun as an electrical fire in the Zebra Room, adjacent to the bride's dressing room. Before the night was out, the flames would tear through the Beverly Hills, led by a roiling advance of smoke. There were nearly 3,000 people packed into the sprawling club on that Saturday night. All told, the fire would kill 167 of them.

The disaster delivered many brutal lessons. Some were obvious--and tragic: the club had no sprinkler or audible fire-alarm systems. But the fire also complicated official expectations for crowd behavior: in the middle of a crisis, the basic tenets of civilization actually hold. People move in groups whenever possible. They tend to look out for one another, and they maintain hierarchies. "People die the same way they live," says disaster sociologist Lee Clarke, "with friends, loved ones and colleagues, in communities."

At the Beverly Hills, servers warned their tables to leave. Hostesses evacuated people that they had seated but bypassed other sections (that weren't "theirs"). Cooks and busboys, perhaps accustomed to physical work, rushed to fight the fire. In general, male employees were slightly more likely to help than female employees, maybe because society expects women to be saved and men to do the saving.

And what of the guests? Most remained guests to the end. Some even continued celebrating, in defiance of the smoke seeping into the rooms. One man ordered a rum and Coke to go. When the first reporter arrived at the fire, he saw guests sipping their cocktails in the driveway, laughing about whether they would get to leave without paying their bills.

As the smoke intensified, Wayne Dammert, a banquet captain at the club, stumbled into a hallway jammed with a hundred guests. The lights flickered off and on, and the smoke started to get heavy. But what he remembers most about that crowded hallway is the silence. "Man, there wasn't a sound in there. Not a scream, nothing," he says. Standing there in the dark, the crowd was waiting to be led.

The Beverly Hills employees had received no emergency training, but they performed magnificently. The exits were few and hard to find, but Dammert directed the crowd out through a service hallway into the kitchen. "My thought was that I'm responsible for these people," he says. "I think most of the employees felt that way." McCollister, still in her wedding dress, ushered her guests outside. "I was pushing people out the door, kind of like cattle, to show them where to go," she recalls. She felt responsible: "This is my party. They were there because of me."

Norris Johnson and William Feinberg, then sociology professors at the University of Cincinnati, managed to get access to the police interviews with hundreds of survivors--a rare and valuable database. "We were just overwhelmed with what was there," says Feinberg, now retired. People were remarkably loyal to their identities. An estimated 60% of the employees tried to help in some way--either by directing guests to safety or fighting the fire. By comparison, only 17% of the guests helped. But even among the guests, identity shaped behavior. The doctors who had been dining at the club acted as doctors, administering cpr and dressing wounds like battlefield medics. Nurses did the same thing. There was even one hospital administrator there who--naturally--began to organize the doctors and nurses.

The sociologists expected to see evidence of selfish behavior. But they did not. "People kept talking about the orderliness of it all," says Feinberg. "People used what they had learned in grade-school fire drills. 'Stay in line. Don't push. We'll all get out.' People were queuing up! It was just absolutely incredible."

All of us, but especially people in charge--of a city, a theater, a business--should recognize that people can be trusted to do their best at the worst of times. They will do even better if they are encouraged to play a significant role in their own survival before anything goes wrong. In New York City, despite the pleas of safety engineers, meaningful fire drills are still not mandatory in skyscrapers. Among other concerns, the city's Real Estate Board was worried that mandatory drills could lead to injuries that could lead to lawsuits. A lawsuit, then, is more frightening than a catastrophe, which is a shame. Because if a real disaster should come to pass, people will rise to the expectations set by their CEO or headwaiter, and they will follow their leader almost anywhere.

How One Person Made a Difference

In every disaster, buried under the rubble is evidence that we can do better. Much of that work is physical--building stronger buildings in safer places, for example. But the work is also psychological. The more control people feel they have over their predicament, the better their performance. When people believe that survival is negotiable, they can be wonderfully creative. All it takes is the audacity to imagine that our behavior matters.

When the planes struck the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Rick Rescorla embodied that spirit of survival. The head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter at the World Trade Center, Rescorla believed that regular people were capable of great achievements, with a bit of leadership. He got Morgan Stanley employees to take responsibility for their survival--which happened almost nowhere else that day in the Trade Center.

Rescorla learned many of the tricks of survival in the military. He was one of those thick-necked soldier types who spend the second halves of their lives patrolling the perimeters of marble lobbies the way they once patrolled a battlefield. Born in England, he joined the U.S. military because he wanted to fight the communists in Vietnam. When he got there, he earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart in battles memorialized in the 1992 book by Lieut. General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young.

He eventually moved to New Jersey and settled into the life of a security executive, but Rescorla still acted, in some ways, like a man at war. His unit, Morgan Stanley, occupied 22 floors of Tower 2 and several floors in a nearby building. After the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, Rescorla worried about a terrorist attack on the Trade Center. In 1990, he and an old war buddy wrote a report to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the Trade Center site, insisting on the need for more security in the parking garage. Their recommendations, which would have been expensive, were ignored, according to James B. Stewart's biography of Rescorla, Heart of a Soldier. (The Port Authority did not respond to my requests for comment.)

Three years later, Ramzi Yousef drove a truck full of explosives into the underground parking garage of the World Trade Center, just as Rescorla had predicted. Afterward, Rescorla had the credibility he needed. Combined with his muscular personality, it was enough to change the culture of Morgan Stanley.

Rescorla implicitly understood that he could turn office workers into survivors. He respected the ability of regular people to do better. He understood the danger of lethargy, the importance of aggressively pushing through the initial stupor and getting to action. He had watched employees wind down the staircase in 1993, and he knew it took too long.

Rescorla felt it was foolish to rely on first responders to save his employees. His company was the largest tenant in the Trade Center, a village nestled in the clouds. Morgan Stanley's employees would need to take care of one another. He ordered them not to listen to any instructions from the Port Authority in a real emergency. In his eyes, it had lost all legitimacy after it failed to respond to his 1990 warnings. And so Rescorla started running the entire company through his own frequent, surprise fire drills. He trained employees to meet in the hallway between the stairwells and go down the stairs, two by two, to the 44th floor.

The radicalism of Rescorla's drills cannot be overstated. Remember, Morgan Stanley is an investment bank. Millionaire, high-performance bankers on the 73rd floor did not appreciate the interruption. Each drill, which pulled brokers off their phones and away from their computers, cost the company money. But Rescorla did it anyway. His military training had taught him a simple rule of human nature: the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to repeatedly run it through rehearsals beforehand.

After the first few drills, Rescorla chastised employees for moving too slowly in the stairwell. He started timing them with a stopwatch, and they got faster. He also lectured employees about some of the basics of fire emergencies: Because roof rescues are rare and extremely dangerous, people should always go down.

On the morning of 9/11, Rescorla heard an explosion and saw Tower 1 burning from his office window. A Port Authority official came over the P.A. system and urged people to stay at their desks. But Rescorla grabbed his bullhorn, walkie-talkie and cell phone and began systematically ordering Morgan Stanley employees to get out. They performed beautifully.

They already knew what to do, even the 250 visitors taking a stockbroker training class. They had already been shown the nearest stairway. "Knowing where to go was the most important thing. Because your brain--at least mine--just shut down. When that happens, you need to know what to do next," says Bill McMahon, a Morgan Stanley executive. "One thing you don't ever want to do is to have to think in a disaster."

On 9/11, some of the dead might well have survived if they had received Rescorla's warnings to always go down rather than up. But in the absence of other information, some people remembered that victims had been evacuated from the roof in 1993. So they used the last minutes of their lives to climb to the top of the towers--only to find the doors locked.

As Rescorla stood directing people down the stairwell on the 44th floor, the second plane hit--this time striking about 38 floors above his head. The building lunged violently, and some people were thrown to the floor. "Stop," Rescorla ordered through the bullhorn. "Be still. Be silent. Be calm." In response, "No one spoke or moved," Stewart writes. "It was as if Rescorla had cast a spell."

Rescorla had once led soldiers through the night in the Vietcong-controlled Central Highlands of Vietnam. He knew the brain responded poorly to fear--but he also knew it could be distracted. Back then, he had calmed his men by singing Cornish songs from his youth. Now, in the crowded stairwell, Rescorla sang into the bullhorn. "Men of Cornwall stand ye steady. It cannot be ever said ye for the battle were not ready. Stand and never yield!"

Between songs, Rescorla called his wife. "Stop crying," he said. "I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I've never been happier. You made my life." Moments later, he had successfully evacuated the vast majority of Morgan Stanley employees. Then he turned around. He was last seen on the 10th floor, heading upward, shortly before the tower collapsed. His remains have never been found.

Rescorla taught Morgan Stanley employees to save themselves. It's a lesson that has become, somehow, rare and precious. When the tower collapsed, only 13 Morgan Stanley colleagues--including Rescorla and four of his security officers--were inside. The other 2,687 were safe.

To learn more about survival skills in a disaster, go to

Ripley, a senior writer at TIME, covers homeland security and risk. This article is adapted from The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why. © 2008 by Amanda Ripley. To be published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc. On sale June 10, 2008.

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A Motorcycle You Can Wear

This motorized exoskeleton concept looks like the lovechild of Ironman and a Segway—but is it the future of transportation?

Deus Ex Machina: Photo by Jake Loniak

The tripod is a fine and stable construct for photography and navigation, but how well will it work for motorcycles? We're not sure,
but one student at California's Art Center Pasadena is challenging singletrack motorcycles and typical three-wheelers with an anthropomorphic, Yamaha-branded three wheeler concept called the Deus Ex Machina.

The forward-looking personal conveyance is a mobile exoskeleton propelled by in-wheel electric motors—or, more succinctly, a trike you can wear.

The machine's motors get their juice from a hybrid power pack of doped Nanophosphate batteries and ultracapacitors. It's straight from the imagination of Jake Loniak, who foresees acceleration of zero to sixty in three seconds and a top speed of 75 mph. It also has seven artificial vertebrae, 36 pneumatically activated "muscles" and an attached helmet, just the thought of which gives us a phantom neck ache.

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What Happened to Ricky

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Tom and Betty West committed their mentally disabled son to a state institution. His name was Richard, and he was three years old. It was 1959. The massive complex was remote and family ties not encouraged. The state eventually moved Richard to a different facility without informing the Wests of the location. Four decades passed without a family member laying eyes on Richard.

[See more photos]
Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images for The Wall Street Journal

As they entered their 80s, the Wests thought increasingly about Richard, the fifth of their eight children. How was he? Where did he live? Mr. West wanted to make sure that, following his death, some of his pension flowed to Richard.

State officials rejected Mr. West's request for information, calling Richard's whereabouts private. The Wests hired an attorney who ran into the same roadblocks. "At that point, I thought there is nothing more I could do," says Mr. West, a retired dam builder who is 87.

The Wests belong to a generation of parents who decades ago relinquished their disabled children, usually at the urging of physicians or other authorities. From the 1930s into the 1960s, tens of thousands of these children entered state facilities, which offered services that local communities lacked. Many never saw their families again.

"Fifty years ago, families were often advised to place their child in an institution, and basically told that, for the good of the child and family, to forget that the person existed," says Charlie Lakin, project director of the Research and Training Center on Community Living at the University of Minnesota.

Back in the '60s, an Oregon family put their mentally disabled child in a public institution, and he eventually became a ward of the state. Recently, the family tracked him to a small group home and hope to retie lost bonds. (May 31)

Half a century later, that old policy is still haunting families across America. Middle-aged siblings want to find their absent younger brother or sister before it is too late. Aging parents wish they knew what became of their child. Cousins and nieces wonder about relatives known only by name and family lore.

Yet even as greater acceptance and inclusion greet today's mentally disabled children, many of yesterday's remain lost. Privacy laws can prevent families from finding their loved ones. In some cases, facilities have closed, scattering residents into group homes and apartments without family notification. About 40% of residents of large state institutions have no family contact, surveys have shown.

Efforts to help restore lost connections are surfacing. In 2005, Oregon passed legislation and adopted a procedure to make it easier for relatives to track down people who were institutionalized. A dozen other states are studying its approach.

Last summer, Arc, a national advocacy group for the developmentally disabled, created a registry where people can list who they are trying to find. About 290 families have registered, from nearly every state. But a match can be made only if both sides register. Of the 86 disabled adults who have registered, none have been matched to registered families. Among those searching is a 50-year-old woman who learned only in adulthood about the existence of her developmentally disabled twin sister, says Arc.

'Brother Was in Fairview'

One evening in 2005, a television news channel in Portland interviewed a man named Jeff Daly about the discovery of his developmentally disabled sister, Molly, who had been living at Oregon's Fairview home.

Watching TV that night was Jeff West, the youngest sibling of Richard West. Born after Richard left their family home, Jeff West had never met his brother. But he knew all about him, including the name of the first institution Richard had entered. Turning to his wife as they watched that interview, Jeff West said: "My brother was in Fairview."

Those seeking to locate developmentally disabled relatives can pursue two paths.
Families, and those separated from them, can register online with TheArcLink's National FindFamily Registry, at, entering information into a simple electronic form that won't be shared without permission. Arc will contact the family if it thinks it has found a missing relative. The success of the registry depends on the volume of families who use it. While no direct matches have been made, the Arc has put family members in touch with others who have been able to track down a relative.
Families can also contact the state agency providing services to the developmentally disabled, which can be found on the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Service's Web site, Each state has different policies, and it often takes several calls to get information.
More assistance may be on the way. Some states are studying Molly's Bill in Oregon, under which relatives can request information from the Department of Human Services. If the state determines that a lost family member is under its care, the request is forwarded to the individual, guardian or caregiver, and the decision is made whether a reunion is appropriate. Grounds for rejection may include a history of family abuse.

--Clare Ansberry

At the time she became pregnant with their fifth child in 1955, Betty and Tom West lived in a three-bedroom house in The Dalles, Ore. The pregnancy went smoothly, but the delivery didn't. Richard was blue at birth and immediately put on oxygen, then sent home with assurances that he was fine.

He rarely cried. But as months passed, he didn't roll over or crawl. He showed little emotion or recognition. If Mrs. West walked out of the room, he didn't protest. His older brothers played around him. "He seemed like he was in his own little world," recalls his older brother Steve.

Mrs. West read to him and repeated basic words, hoping he would catch on. Once, she thought he said "Mama," but he never said it again. When she started giving him solid food, he choked. At age two, he weighed 17 pounds. "I knew there was something wrong, but I couldn't pinpoint it," she says.

At monthly checkups, she relayed her concerns to her doctor, who said Richard was fine. As months passed without progress, she insisted something was wrong. Tired of her questions, the doctor told her not to come back, she says.

Second Opinion

Mrs. West found a new physician who examined Richard and concluded he was severely mentally retarded. The physician explained that Richard might learn to walk but would never talk. He would always have the mentality of a three-year-old and need 24-hour care. "It was a relief knowing it wasn't my imagination" or fault, says Mrs. West.

Soon pregnant again, Mrs. West became overwhelmed at the thought of caring for a newborn and a mentally disabled toddler, along with four older kids. The community offered no programs to help Richard. Having come from North Dakota, the Wests had no family nearby. "I didn't know what to do," says Mrs. West.

She asked her doctor. Gently, he told Mrs. West it would be better for Richard and everyone else if he was institutionalized. "You have to think of the other kids," she remembers the physician telling her.

She was numb. It went against everything the young couple believed. They had built a close family. They had come from close families.

In the end, they felt they had no other option. After Richard received an official diagnosis of "idiot" and "marked mental retardation," the Wests reluctantly agreed to send him 130 miles away to Oregon Fairview Home near Salem. A sprawling complex of dormitories and agricultural operations, Fairview was crowded with a wave of baby boomers with developmental disabilities. At mealtime, nurses lined children in high chairs against the wall, feeding the younger ones and taping forks into the hands of older children to encourage use of utensils.

Black-and-White Film

An old black-and-white film called "In Our Care" describes Fairview, showing a porch crowded with children clapping and rolling a ball. "This child spends most of her time tearing paper into shreds," the narrator says.

The day Richard left for Fairview, Mrs. West packed his clothes and dressed him in his best outfit -- a white blazer with a crest on the pocket and dark shorts. She and her husband told the other children Richard was going to a place where he could get special care. "We kind of knew he had a problem that our mother just couldn't take care of," says the oldest, Tom Jr., who was 11 at the time.

At the front office, an administrator recommended that Mr. and Mrs. West kiss Richard goodbye and leave quickly. "It was a terribly difficult day," says Betty West.

To visit Richard, the Wests had to make appointments. They tried to see him at least once in the summer, bringing along the other children. Richard didn't seem to recognize them but held their hands as they played Ring around the Rosie. His younger sister Barbara West remembers the smell of antiseptic and wondering why her older brother slept in a crib when she didn't.

One afternoon, when Richard was about 8 years old, his parents were walking hand-in-hand with him down the sidewalk. An older woman approached and held her hands out. Richard wriggled free and ran into the woman's outstretched arms. He hugged her, showing affection he had never shown his family. Betty remembers crying and telling her husband it was time to let go.

'Let Him Be'

"He has someone who loves him here. She makes him happy. We need to let him be," she recalls saying.

They continued to send him clothing but never went back to visit.

"He didn't know us," says Mrs. West.

"That was the only thing that made it bearable," says her husband.

In the West home, Richard became a powerful memory. The youngest child, Jeff, saw various photographs of the brother he'd never met -- Richard on the floor with his older brothers, Richard at the pool with their mother, Richard dressed up the day he went to Fairview. His parents had told Jeff why Richard didn't live at home. "They never shied away from talking about him," says Jeff.

No Forwarding Address

None of the children pressed their parents to find out how Richard was doing, although privately they wondered. "Anytime the family was together at Christmas or Thanksgiving, I would think how we used to play around him on the floor," says his older brother Bob.

In the 1980s, the state informed the Wests that Richard was being moved a couple hundred miles east to another state facility. A few years later, the Wests received a letter saying Richard was being placed in a smaller residence. The letter didn't say where. The Wests felt they lacked standing to ask because their son was a ward of the state.

He had, in fact, been transferred to a group home in Baker City, about 300 miles away. There, workers wondered about Richard's family. "Do they know he exists? Do they care?" says caregiver Tracy Hylton. "Many families don't want to have contact, and when there isn't any contact, we have to assume that is the case."

The turning point came the evening that Jeff West saw the television interview with Mr. Daly, the Oregon man who had found his long-lost mentally disabled sister. Suddenly, Jeff West was struck with the desire to find Richard.

Other siblings, however, were apprehensive. "Do you really want to do that?" brother Larry remembers saying. "Are you going to bring up things that are hurtful?"

Debby Peery, the second-youngest, wondered what their responsibility might be and how others would react.

"I was a little nervous about what the caretakers would think of us suddenly showing up after 40 years," she says. "But I was also excited."

All worried about their parents. "I didn't know how much guilt they carried," says Jeff West. At that point, Jeff didn't know his parents had recently and unsuccessfully tried to find Richard so that he could receive Mr. West's pension.

When asked about tracking down his disabled son, the elderly Mr. West responded, "Go for it."

40 Years Later

A flurry of phone calls followed. Jeff West talked to Mr. Daly, who gave him phone numbers of agencies with group homes. One was in Baker City. Jeff West provided his parents' Social Security numbers and Richard's date of birth to verify he was family. The woman at the group home said Richard was there.

Weeks later, the family met with Richard for the first time in 40 years. His caregivers, Ms. Hylton and Carrie Baird, drove Richard to the home of a sibling. They worried whether the West family would take Richard away from his group home, where he was comfortable and loved. "It would have been hard for us if he left," says Ms. Hylton.

Likewise, Mr. and Mrs. West felt anxious, not knowing whether Richard would want to see them or be angry. "I didn't know how he would take to us," says Mr. West.

Richard walked in, holding a Sponge Bob Square pants book with buttons that played songs. His parents sat on one couch. He sat on another, next to Ms. Hylton and Ms. Baird, holding their hands. He looked around the room, his face registering no apparent emotion. Mrs. West held back the urge to hold him. "I would have loved to given him a hug," she says. "But they said don't touch him because he won't like it."

Dates at McDonald's

Over lunch and through the afternoon, the Wests listened to Ms. Hylton and Ms. Baird describe how Richard loves music, does his own laundry, washes dishes, mows the lawn and sets the table. He has a job refilling ink cartridges. And a girlfriend: On dates to McDonalds they eat apple pie. Always known to his family as Ricky, he now preferred to be called Richard.

The Wests told stories about Richard's younger years and their struggles to help him. Richard grew restless and pressed a button on his book that is his signal to leave. He walked outside and got in the van.

Mr. and Mrs. West thanked Ms. Hylton and Ms. Baird for taking good care of Richard. The Wests say it eased their minds to see Richard healthy and seemingly content.

A few months after visiting Richard, Jeff West received Richard's signed permission to look at his records at Oregon's Department of Human Services office. Going through them helped the family piece together the unknown part of Richard's life. Some was reassuring. Some wasn't.

At Fairview, Richard learned things his parents never thought possible. By 12, he could dress, feed himself, catch a ball, fold pajamas and fish. He had friends and foster grandparents who took him out for ice cream. At 16, Richard taught himself to whistle. He loved Volkswagens and was sometimes found sitting in one in the Fairview parking lot.

Then there were glimpses of what they envisioned institutional life would be like. Over the years, Richard would run away and get in trouble for hitting. He was often put on Thorazine to sedate him.

Like Oliver Twist

Most troubling were the annual photographs of him behind a board saying, "Richard Alan West, Case 5727." In the photos, his face is thin and expressionless. The images reminded his parents of orphans begging for gruel in Oliver Twist. "That doesn't look like a very nice life," says Mr. West.

The records also contained references to the times that the Wests visited Richard. The documents said Richard had become visibly upset and withdrawn following their departure -- suggesting that he had known them better than they had realized. "These were things we didn't know," says Mr. West.

Now, Richard receives regular calls, letters, McDonald's gift certificates and visits from his family. Last summer, the family drove four cars to Richard's home. This summer, the Wests are hoping to have Richard home for a family reunion.

Mrs. West sends Richard towels and sweatshirts embroidered with his name. When getting dressed in the morning, Richard selects the same shirts repeatedly -- the ones his mother sent. "He knows it came from his family, and it means something," says Ms. Hylton.

Write to Clare Ansberry at

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