Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Follow Your Heart

For years, I’ve wanted to be on public radio. As a kid, we used to hear the voices of Garrison Keillor and Ira Glass and even Carl Kasell, while our parents drove us around in the stationwagon. As I grew older, I came to respect radio as a particularly unique medium for explaining things to people; a skill, like writing, that I wished to develop.

I’ve had a few desultory attempts, but I finally had a good excuse to get my act together. Public broadcasting people are sponsoring a Public Radio Talent Quest and I’ve decided to submit an entry. My idea was to make a radio show about science that matters.

Here’s my first attempt. (You can listen and vote for me on the contest’s website.)

For those who don’t love the magic of radio, a transcript follows:

It’s 1958 and you’re sitting on a table with your shirt off. You signed up for an experiment on vitamins improving vision and now someone’s plunging a needle into your arm. Ow! Since when do vitamins require needles anyway?

[music: Waltz (Better Than Fine) - Fiona Apple]

Now the man is gone and you’re waiting for the experiment to start. There’s another kid here too. You both look pretty bored. Then the other kid starts goofing off. Doodling, making paper airplanes, that sort of thing. And then you feel it.

[TAP tap tap…]

Your hands begin to shake. Your heart starts to pound. Your face begins to feel flushed.

[…tap tap TAP.]

Boy, goofing off sure looks like fun. So you join in.

So that shot in your arm? The thing is, it’s actually adrenaline. Hand-shaking, heart-pounding, face-flushing adrenaline.

Half the kids in the experiment were told the shot might make their hearts race. And those kids? They sat quietly, even while the other kid in the room with them goofed off. But the rest? The ones, like you, who weren’t told? They joined right in.

One kid started throwing wads of paper at passersby. Another grabbed a piece of equipment off the wall and used it as a hula-hoop. They just felt so good, they later explained.

We think of our feelings as unerring: follow your heart, do what makes you happy — that sort of thing. But what the adrenaline experiment showed is that it’s not so simple. Feelings don’t come with nice, clean explanations. Our brain makes a guess. And sometimes it guesses wrong.

We’re not the slaves of our emotions. For the kids in the experiment, just knowing why they were feeling a certain way was enough to change their response.

Following your heart can be fun. But it’s also nice to know that you don’t have to.

You should follow me on twitter here.

May 14, 2007


  • for content; - for mechanics.

Talking way too fast. “Hula Hoop” becomes “huloop” and the phrasing is: long pause followed by whirlwind delivery.

They probably only get to hear it once and you must hear it several times and you know what you’re saying while it should come as a series of surprises to the listener - who shouldn’t be forced to ever do a “what’d he say?”.



posted by William Loughborough on May 14, 2007 #

Reads well and would sound great too … just slow down man ;-)

Have a shot of rum – or whatever your poison of choice is – and then speak really slowly too see the difference. Other than that, nice work.

posted by Rob Sawkins on May 14, 2007 #

I did a couple slower versions, but this sounded better. A lot of that is probably the hard two minute limit.

posted by Aaron Swartz on May 14, 2007 #

I think it’s partly that you have very quick words, punctuated by long pauses. It makes the whole thing sound less fluid than it could. Like each short sentence is supposed to stand on its own. I think you could stick to the time limit, and still slow down your speaking, and have it turn out alright.

Also, I wouldn’t completely cut the bit of piano background in the beginning. Just fade it and leave it going quietly behind you for a while. Having it cut off adds to the abrupt feeling.

Generally pretty good though, certainly for a first try. :)

posted by Jacob Rus on May 15, 2007 #

The short sentences work great in text, but less well when read aloud. Your writing style has probably been been honed by years of checking your site stats daily, but a writing style that engages readers and maximizes hits is much different than a good speaking style.

Similarly, many of the constructions only work well visually. For example:

“Then the other kid starts goofing off. Doodling, making paper airplanes, that sort of thing.”

Here you’re using a sentence ending with a verb, a period, and then a list of examples. Perfect for web copy, sounds really awkward when read aloud.

Also, your intonation tends to get worse at the end of sentences. Speaking in longer sentences would also help to ameliorate this, although granted you’d have to fix this anyway.

Good overall design though. The informative bits do a good job at setting up the central insight at the end.

posted by Alex Krupp on May 15, 2007 #

I don’t know if it was too fast or slow. I think you have to talk to a professional about that. There’s lots of different styles. I thought it worked really well.

The structure and delivery reminded me a lot of Ira Glass…was that conscious? He advocates an anecdote with dramatic tension, plus a moment of reflection, and you delivered that almost exactly in 180 seconds. Not easy.

posted by Neil Kandalgaonkar on May 15, 2007 #

Yeah; that piece by Glass was a major inspiration. I saw that and said “let’s do that, but for science.” I don’t know if people caught it, but I even did a little homage to Glass.

posted by Aaron Swartz on May 15, 2007 #

Nicely done.

At first listen the pace made me miss a few unarticulated words, but having read the transcript and then listened again, the piece came together.

Have to agree with the others; the endings of the sentences might need even more stretching and nuances. (But this is from someone who doesn’t have an accent at all, heh.)

posted by Tommi on May 15, 2007 #

You do sound a lot like Ira Glass. I read a very similar study on epinephrin. The study was performed on grownups, and used a waiting room accomplice to induce the subject into a fight or a positive interaction. Tough to squeeze a dramatic arc into 2 minutes.

posted by Jon on May 15, 2007 #

Was the experiment actually done? If so, does it have a ‘title’ or reference?

posted by David Magda on May 15, 2007 #

Yes: Cognitive, Social, and Physiological Determinants of Emotional State (Schachter and Singer, 1962). It’s a classic.

posted by Aaron Swartz on May 16, 2007 #

What the first few commentors don’t realize is that he’s trying to sound like Ira Glass.

“Then the other kid starts goofing off. Doodling, making paper airplanes, that sort of thing.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if these exact words were in a This American Life at some point.

A very good imitation, Aaron. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch exactly what the experiment was the first time.

posted by David M. on May 19, 2007 #

I liked this piece (and its message) very much.

At one point Aaron says “your heart starts to pant”. As a literary figure of speech it could work but nonetheless it made me prick up my ears.

posted by FrF on May 20, 2007 #

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