Around eighteen months ago I was strapped for cash. I’d been working nights at C—— University’s physics, engineering and astronomy library and had access to the bulletin boards on the university’s intranet. Late one night I was trawling the site when I came across an ad to get paid for taking part in some brain experiments over in the psychology and brain imaging centre. The three month summer break was coming up and I’d have some extra time so why not? I’d recently taken an interest in neuroscience so I fired off an email to the Lab Manager.
One week later I was walking through the doors of C—-C, the university’s brain unit, and down several sets of stairs underground where the MRI scanner was housed in a concrete tomb, around which the rest of the building had been constructed. The MRI technician ran through the safety procedures and, as instructed, I removed anything metal from my person.
‘So this is basically safe,’ I said to her.
‘Oh yeah. I’ve had like seventeen of them.’
This seemed like a lot of MRI’s to have.
The study itself involved being inserted into the scanner for two hours and just relaxing. This was perfect for me. They were checking differences between the brain activity in a “normal” person and sufferers of schizophrenia. There would be heavy banging sounds from the gradient coils but I was given ear plugs for these and I could watch a DVD or even fall asleep. I selected Planet Earth from the choices and went into the room that housed the scanner, an intimidatingly large tube of metal with a narrow bed in the centre which could be moved in and out of the machine on a set of small runners. The technician was behind a thick glass partition and spoke to me through a headset, telling me when the machine was being switched on and when the bangs were about to begin. But in truth it was fine. It wasn’t as claustrophobic as I’d thought because a mirror above my head was reflecting the TV screen behind the machine so I wasn’t even aware I was in an enclosed space. As the enormous magnets in the machine were switched on the spinning nuclei of all the hydrogen atoms in my body aligned on their axes into a state of quantum coherence. The technician pulsed radio waves through my skull into my brain, forcing the aligned nuclei to exist in the spooky quantum state of superposition where they spin both left and right simultaneously, as expressed in terms of probabilities until observation takes place. As all this happened inside my head I watched happy penguins skimming on their bellies across the ice of Antarctica, and then fell asleep.
When it was all over I asked the Lab Manager if there were any more experiments I could take part in.
‘I haven’t got any at the moment,’ she said but they’re often looking for people to help in TMS experiments.’
‘Transcranial magnetic stimulation. It’s a handheld machine they use to stimulate your brain, far less intimidating than an MRI machine. There’s a database you go on. I can ask them to contact you if you want.’
‘That’d be great,’ I said.
My first day of experimentation with TMS was a simple study to test the effect of blood glucose on cognitive tasks. I had to refrain from eating for a few hours and then conduct some memory tests whilst receiving tCDS, transcranial direct-current stimulation. I sat in a chair whilst the TMS Lab Manager went through the safety procedures. I had to complete a couple of lengthy questionnaires to check it was safe – Have you ever had an adverse reaction to TMS or tCDS? Have you ever had a seizure? Are you claustrophobic? Do you have any metal in your head? Have you had a stroke? Are you taking psychiatric or neuroactive medications? And other unsettling questions. I answered no to them all and we could continue. The Lab Manager inked some dots on to my face and scalp and explained that whilst I was taking part in the cognitive tasks she would be firing an electric current directly into my brain. I said that would be fine. Before we started she needed to do some tests. Standing behind my chair she held up a grey rod about a foot long with a C-shaped tube on one end. She counted down from three and fired a current in. Nothing happened.
‘Tell me if you feel anything,’ she said.
She fired again but this time my left arm twitched without me doing anything. I felt something run from my neck to the end of my middle finger. It was strange. Something had entered my brain and without permission had taken over my motor faculties. But more than that, along with the shock I was hit instantaneously with a catastrophic sensation of insignificance, as if I’d just had unlocked the fact that we are really nothing but electrical signals flowing down puny muscles and meat on the surface of a tiny rock in a vast cold universe that has no purpose. In the grand scheme of things we are nothing. But mostly it was tingly
‘I felt that,’ I said, smiling to let her know everything was A ok.
She marked the area of my scalp where the current had been applied. She repeated this a few times, increasing and decreasing the strength of the current and moving the rod to different areas of my skull until she was happy, and then we conducted the experiment. It was an odd experience and maybe after it took place I had a gentle headache but this might also have been a phantom pain born of paranoia. In theory I shouldn’t have a headache. But it was just two hours of work and the money was pretty good. It’d pay for a meal out with my girlfriend, Amy.
‘Are there any other studies coming up?’ I said, later.
‘There’s a PhD student looking at phosphenes. I can hook you up with him.’
I didn’t know what a phosphene was. ‘That’d be great,’ I said.
TO BE CONTINUED…