My Brain Experiments and the Phosphene – A Halloween Blog (Part 3/3)


A few nights later the headaches still hadn’t eased, the sense of dizziness remained. I decided I wouldn’t be helping out with the brain experiments at the university any more. I’d started taking long walks because I was becoming restless at night. That same feeling of something being close wouldn’t go away. But despite this I was compelled to walk at night. I felt consistently uneasy and to curb the headaches I was taking painkillers all day and they were making me zoned out. I thought about contacting Carl and telling him what I was experiencing but knew it was pointless. The dull pain and fried feeling were nothing to do with the experiment. They were to do with whatever it was I was now convinced had followed me out of that room. Carl could do nothing for that. I researched phosphenes but nothing like what I was going through was to be found anywhere in the literature. I wondered if I had somehow psychokinetically brought something from some other place and even though I knew how patently ridiculous that was, the feeling wouldn’t go away.

My sleep had changed. I could no longer remember my dreams and I was falling so deeply into sleep that when I woke up it was almost as if I’d drifted so far away I hadn’t been in my body at all. This might have been due in part to the volume of painkillers I was taking. I was also losing weight quickly. Despite these deep sleeps I was exhausted in the days. By the time I finished my day job and then my shifts in the library at midnight I was drifting across the road, trying to keep my eyes open on the drive home. And all the while the pervading sense of a presence being near.

Christmas came and went but the festivities did little to rouse me from the malaise that had descended. I was cranky and was snapping at people in work and at home. My girlfriend said she was worried about me but I’d just respond by shrugging or mumbling something under my breath.

The university would email me from time to time to take part in more experiments but I didn’t respond. I noticed the messages from Carl had dried up entirely. In the weeks and months after the experiment he’d been dropping me the occasional line to check I was ok. I never replied to him.

Then, one night, at the end of January, I was out walking. It was well past two in the morning and it was sleeting. I’d taken to walking for two or three hours at this point, waiting until Amy had gone to bed so she didn’t realise I was staying out so late. Sometimes she’d wake up when I got back and sometimes she would ask the time and I’d tell her it was half twelve or one o’clock and to go back to sleep. That night I felt like I could walk forever. My route usually took me around the housing estates because I felt too unnerved to wander off onto the trails and nature reserves that surround my house. But that night something was different.entrance-to-canal The presence, which was now so familiar that I hardly even noticed it was pushing me towards the canal that ran behind the abandoned mental hospital. Along either side of the canal grew tall tress, that leaned over the water like a cathedral archway and as I moved beneath them the light from the streets was soon absorbed and I was near complete darkness. Almost immediately the presence drew close to me, behind my back and it pressed something like a hand to the back of my neck. Pain shot through me and down my face in the exact way it had all those months ago in the lab. It buckled me at the knees and I fell, almost into the dark waters of the canal.

I heard a breathing now, behind me, shallow and trembling. Where the presence had made contact with my neck I felt a coldness and a flowing, as if I were bleeding. I put my hand there but it came away dry. But there was a sensation on my hand, of a vapour moving across it, out of my neck. Something was flowing out of me. I could feel it. The best way to describe it is was as if my body had a kind of meta-webbing right the way through it, something beyond science but which will essential to my existence as Rhys Thomas, all the way down to my fingers and toes, and that meta-webbing was being drawn out of my through the back of my neck. The feeling was, truthfully, awful. It was so far removed any experience to which I can relate that it couldn’t be said to have been painful, but something beyond that, like the feeling when a dentist is trying to pull out your teeth, but right through my body. I was paralysed by it. canal-dark

The breathing behind me grew louder as whatever it was gathered strength directly from me. A survival instinct kicked in. I had to do something. With all the effort I could muster, I managed to break the grip it had on me. Quickly, I turned, and as I did I saw the shape, dark, with a grey border, like the phosphene I’d seen in the experiment but bigger. The diamond shape was human-shaped now, but more massive, and it was floating, its feet pointing downwards. It had long arms that reached out to me ask if it were begging. Its head, tilted to one side had a darkness in the lower half, a gaping mouth. It was there for a second. It reached out its hand and pressed it slowly against my face, firing that electrical pain down it. It’s not real, I kept telling myself; it’s not real. My brain created it, my brain created it. The world blazed white and then the darkness came back, and the presence was gone.

The next morning I suddenly felt better. It felt like spring had arrived early. For the first time in months there was a warmth in the sunlight. I stopped going for walks at night. I wasn’t tired all the time. The memory of that night by the canal faded quickly, as if it wasn’t real but hallucinatory. I attributed the lifting of the pall to the change of weather – I figured I’d just been grouchy and achy because I was working hard and it had been a long, cold, wet winter. My migraines had disappeared so I spent the next month kicking my co-codamol reliance that had developed since the experiment.

A few weeks after that I received an email from the TMS Lab Manager at the university. She was asking about Carl, asking if I could go to her office. Suicides in universities are more common that you realise but not widely publicised for obvious reasons. Carl had thrown himself from the top floor of the psychology building, down the stairwell, hanging himself with a length of hosepipe. The Lab Manager only told me this after probing about what had happened with my experiment in the basement. I told her nothing had happened, other than it was stopped it early because of the pain. When she told me the date Carl had died I knew at once it was the same night I’d been at the canal but I of course did not mention this. Up until I was told of the suicide I had all but erased that night from my memory.

Apparently they discovered in Carl’s office a hand scrawled journal filled with incoherent babble about something following him. The TMS Lab Manager showed me the journal. The handwriting was neat at the start, the first page being dated the 13th October, the same date as the experiment in the basement hence the Lab Manager’s request to see me, but got messier later on. There was a lot of stuff about wave particle duality in quantum theory and matter emerging from nothing and then disappearing again. But the thoughts were not ordered or coherent. It looked like the ramblings of someone going insane. By the end it was dark lines of black ink scratched deep into the page and there, in the scrawl of the final entry, a vaguely witch-shaped form, a coherent darkness against the darker chaos. I handed the journal back to the Lab Manger and looked out the window of the 5th floor, across the university buildings at the golden leaves sweeping across the lawns of the war memorial gardens and said I couldn’t help. Things come into existence, then they go away again into the fabric and it’s only our minds that create any meaning.





My Brain Experiments and the Phosphene – A Halloween Blog (Part 2/3)

Statue.jpgThe year was drawing on. The leaves on the trees were changing colour and falling. I turned up to meet the PhD student, who we’ll call Carl though that wasn’t his real name, one evening after work. The sun was setting earlier and the golden leaves were being blown by a strong wind across the street. Carl met me in reception. Tall, thin and blond, with a ragged knitted jumper, skinny faded black jeans with turn ups, and Doc Martin boots he looked like an arts student from the 90s. He shook my hand and smiled nervously.

My last experiment had taken place on the fifth floor of the psychology building but this one, he said, would be in the basement. He led me down a dark stone stairwell with metal handrails and along a dimly lit corridor to a poky little office with desks and chairs from the 1960s. There were some beaten up old books on a wooden shelf and a couple of threadbare chairs.

We went through the safety questionnaire again and then he explained what was going to happen.

‘Ok. You’ve have tCDS but this experiment involves TMS, transcranial magnetic stimulation. I’ll be stimulating small regions of your brain through magnetic field generation. The coil in the device will produce electrical currents that we’ll fire into your brain. Are you afraid of the dark?’

This question caught me off guard. ‘No.’ Like anybody I’m afraid of the dark if I’m scared but generally it’s okay.

‘This experiment will take place in darkness.’ I hadn’t expected that. ‘The hope is that when I apply the current you’ll be able to see a phosphene.’

‘I don’t know what a phosphene is,’ I said. sky

‘A phosphene is a shape, or a form, that appears before you. It’s not real but it will seem real. Your brain creates it. It might take the form of a circle or light or a shape. Everybody has different ones.’

‘Like a patronus,’ I said, trying to lighten the mood, that had suddenly become serious.

‘No, they’re not like patronuses,’ he said, po-faced. ‘If you look behind you, you will see a chin strap and some vices that we’ll use to keep your head steady when the experiment is taking place.’

When I told people about my last experiment where my arms had twitched involuntarily they said I was crazy and now I was starting to see what they meant. But I was here, deep underground, and I would feel stupid if I dropped out now. Plus, I wanted to the money. Carl strapped me in, with my chin in a small bucket so that I was facing the wall. The vices clamped on to my temples. Then, the same as last time, he applied the current with the machine and parts of my body twitched without my knowing: my arm, my foot shot out, my leg vibrated. I told him I was in no discomfort, and this was true, but I did think the twitching was stronger this time.

‘I’m going to switch off the lights now,’ he said, from the corner of the room. And he killed the lights. I heard him approach me in the darkness, not saying anything. I felt his presence behind me and by this time was extremely disturbed.

‘I’m going to apply the current,’ he said. ‘If you see a form then let me know.’

The grey rod collected its electricity and fired it through my skull into my brain. In the darkness it shocked me.

‘Are you ok?’ said Carl.

‘I’m fine. I was just surprised.’

‘Ok we’ll try again.’

Leaves on Lawn.jpgThe second shock was as strong as the first. It felt like a flash. Something sparked up in front of me. Didn’t it? I couldn’t be sure but it felt like I’d seen a darkness against the greater darkness of the room. It was like an elongated diamond, spread lengthways with a vaguely silver outline. The shape of it wasn’t geometrical though, it wasn’t simple. The edge of it rippled, like it was being blown by a phantom wind. I didn’t say anything to Carl. I couldn’t be sure I’d seen it or if it was just my mind playing tricks. The next shock was stronger than the first two. It was so strong it felt like a condensed scream accompanied it. The form was there again and this time it was more defined. I started.

‘Ok?’ said Carl.

‘I think I saw something. I don’t know. How do you know if you really see it?’

‘You should just know,’ said Carl. ‘Did that one hurt?’

‘It did, a little. I think. I don’t know. I’m happy to try again,’ I said. I was fascinated now. I wanted to keep going.

‘We’ll try again,’ he said.

I waited for the next spark, holding my breath. When it came a shocking pain cracked down my face, like a lightning strike, splitting either side of my nose and carrying on in two distinct lines to my jaw. More shocks ran down my arms. I jolted violently in my seat and at the same time caught a glimpse of the floating diamond shape. In that microsecond it looked like it was turning, and that there was the idea, at the top, of a head, face. I created it with my brain, I told myself to stay clam. It’s…not…real.

‘Ok I think we’re going to have to stop the experiment,’ said Carl.blurry-leaves

I heard him run back across the room to the light switch. As the light flooded the room everything seemed normal again. Carl hurriedly released me from the head grip and asked again if I was ok.

‘I’m fine,’ I said, though in truth I felt a little frazzled. I didn’t want to tell him this because I might want to do more experiments in the future and one of the safety questions was, Have you ever had an adverse reaction to TMS. But I did tell him about the pain in my face.

‘There are nerves in the face,’ he acknowledged. ‘If I hit them it won’t do any lasting damage. Maybe the current was too strong.’

‘That’s fine,’ I said.


By the time I got out of the building it was dark and rain was spitting in the wind. I walked down to my car along the now empty street. I felt-light headed, like I was drunk, but I was bound to feel like this after a disturbing experience like the one I’d just had. The sensation of something following me could also be explained away by me being a little out of it. Whenever I turned around nothing was there save the autumn leaves blowing in the wind.

The light was eerie, not quite the right brightness, too bright around the streetlights, too dark in all the other places. I got into my car and checked my mirror. I stared for several minutes, convinced that something was there, lurking. I could feel it. But I was being stupid. It wasn’t real. I started the car and went home.



My Brain Experiments and the Phosphene – A Halloween Blog (Part 1/3)


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.dsc_0116

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.

‘I didn’t.’

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. halloween-vortex


‘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.