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.