Nautilus

Sound and Touch Collide

Tony Ro’s research on the brain’s mixing of sound and touch began, appropriately enough, at a mixer. It was the spring of 2000 in Houston, Texas, where he had recently launched his first laboratory at Rice University. The mixer was for new faculty at the school, to help them get to know each other. Ro struck up a conversation with Sherrilyn Roush, a 34-year-old philosopher, who told him all about her work on the reliability and fallibility of science. And Ro told her about his studies on how the human brain merges the torrent of sensory information we see, hear, and feel.

“I said to him, ‘Well, you should study my brain!’ ” Roush recalls, laughing. “And then I immediately thought to myself, oh shit, he probably gets this at every party.” Ro gamely asked her why her brain was so unusual. She explained that she had had a stroke a couple of months earlier, and ever since had felt numb on the left side of her body. “And then he said, ‘Actually, I should study your brain.’ ”

Over the next couple of years Roush went to Ro’s laboratory several times for a variety of behavioral tests and brain scans. In one experiment, she sat with her hands resting on the arms of a chair, donning rings of electrodes on each of her middle fingers. Throughout the experiment, the rings would deliver a small electric current to her right hand, left hand, both hands, or neither hand, and Roush would tell the researchers when she felt a faint shock. Ro puzzled over that data for a long time. “She kept reporting she was feeling things even when we weren’t delivering any touch stimuli,” he says. “I couldn’t figure it out.”

Five years went by before Ro thought of a possible, if weird explanation. During the experiment, a 500-millisecond

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