Posts Tagged ‘scientists’

My First fMRI – some musings

April 17th, 2012

DUUUUUUUDES! I went tubing. That is what I will call going in MRI machines from now on. I did it for a research study at Northwestern and it (please read this as Chris Farley from Tommy Boy) … was AWEsome! I actually hope I didn’t ruin any data by being totally stoked. The whole experience and rest of the day felt like a body-high mushroom trip. My mind was reeling, aware that other people could possibly see that reeling and then I was gonna get a picture of that reeling. So many thoughts about thoughts!!! Drug free mind expansion paid for by science? Yes please!

It started with an email sent to me by the illustrious Lacy Katherine Campbell about a research study. I almost did not contact them cuz see, I’m a sinner and have an IUD. Ladies! Don’t let this tool of controlling birth (thunder crash) steer you away from the MRIs. Doctors will tell you if the machine is too powerful. So, I filled out the forms and a few days later was on my way to fMRI city.

Morning of the study, after a small anxiety dream about being buried alive, I bolted out of bed like it was the first day of school. What should I wear? Were the scientists going to like me? Would I come off too excited? I got there with time to spare, and got into this sexy number…


The woman running the study seemed as excited as I was, which was so great. She gave me the experiment rundown, of which I heard nothing but “at the end, you get a picture of your brain.”

Seriously though, the study was regarding Pain and Race, and the ramifications of this study could really improve people’s lives. There’s some very sobering and frightening societal shit regarding pain. Example, black people and other minorities being denied pain care because they are “just looking for drugs”, or poorer neighborhood pharmacies not being stocked with pain meds for the same reason. Y’know, infuriating BS. I intend to write more extensively about it with an actual scientist but this post is just about my experience “tubing”. So for now, onto the pithy and giddy…

I’m pretty sure I’m not claustrophobic. Besides an uncomfortable overnight train from Paris to Germany, that theory had not really been tested. I couldn’t help but remember that when I did try on a Snoopy mascot costume (during a gig at Fashion Week a few yrs ago) I couldn’t do it… not a proud moment. But, I was not going to let a little discomfort stop me from getting a sweet pic of my brain.

So, I followed a guy (also running the study) into the magic tube room, got on the bed plank and was hooked up with ear plugs, a hairnet, foam blocks to keep my head in place, a videogame like controller (to track my answers), and a mask. My study handler called it Iron Man’s. I preferred to stick with what comforts me, Batman. Even if aesthetically he was correct.

I definitely didn’t think the physical stress of tubing would take so much energy. But a LOT of the time was spent thinking, “don’t freak out!” It took a lot of brainpower to keep my body still inside of a corndog and be ok with it.

Oddly, the thing that freaked me out the most, sensory wise, were the earplugs. Everything else I could explain away as “for science” but the earplugs made me feel far away and not in control of one of the senses I thought I would be in control of. Every thought from here on out was sort of split. For example…

The Mask:
1984. Rat Mask! I can’t move! Or,
I am Batman and I must wear this for science.

The Ear Plugs:
I can’t hear things! Where are my new scientist friends, can they hear me? Or,
You will lose your hearing without them. This is for science.

The Breathing:
I’m scared! Breathe fast! I don’t know why! Or,
Breathe slowly to feel good and not pass out. This is for science.

I had to make these mental switches with every new element that was introduced, and it worked, I had a freaking blast! I know there’s a life lesson in there somewhere. Science rules!!!

Now add the mental/social stress of thinking about pain and race like… Oh god, am I racist? Oh god, the whole fucking world is racist and we’re all going to die in horrible natural disasters and/or war that we could have avoided, I love everyone too much to die!!! Thoughts like that were not conducive to remaining calm in a tube.

So I concentrated on the tasks at hand. Tasks like pressing buttons while looking at pictures or watching a line. That I could do. In fact, the whole time in the machine all I wanted was slow consistent stimulation. I could have played Pong in there for hours. On the reverse, at one point the research computer screen flashed up on my video screen while they were doing sciencey things. I thought about asking them if I could update my facebook status. I didn’t ask because the mere thought of actually doing it made me want to hit the escape hatch. Think of all that entailed, talking, revising and editing what to say, thinking about things outside of my head and immediate vicinity. AHHH NO!

A few normal relaxation techniques didn’t seem to work. For example concentrating on where my toes, feet, arms, etc. were was not what I wanted to do, at all. I wanted to be completely in my head. Dissociated from spatial recognition. A slab on a slab. Unaware of looking in at my slab. The thing that made this really hard was the mask contraption. You could see through the mask up into a series of mirrors that showed you the video screen you were supposed to focus on. There were two problems here. Because the mirrors/video were shaking, a sense of movement or transport was created. Usually I fall asleep in humming small traveling spaces, but imagination was not my friend here. I kept thinking spaceship… Challenger! Race car… Explosion! The other problem was, I could see the outside of the machine… the machine that had me inside of it. That cognitively placed me inside of a tube, inside of a room, inside of a hospital, that could collapse on me at anytime. No thank you. Additionally, I could see a backwards “Warning” label on an arm of the projector. Generally unnerving because it said warning, and specifically because it meant everything I was seeing was actually flipped. I could not deal with that dissonance. So I had to ignore it.

I guess ignoring was one of my relaxation techniques. Haha! Gulp. That means nothing I’m sure, right? Also, rubbing the sheets with my fingertips, concentrating on the simple tasks and just breathing. I was ok realizing myself in the machine if I didn’t relate it to the outside world. Touching the bed ok. Pinching myself, not ok. Which sounds weird but if I was just touching or thinking about myself (pinching) it was me inside. If I rubbed the bed I was on the environment, not scarily inside of it. Hmmm. I dunno people I was high on science.

Oh yeah, it got real existential up in there. Who am I physically, morally? Why does my body react differently then my intellect? Where am I in space? What is a body? I got cocky the second time in the tube and stretched my arm to test how far I could move… WAY less then I thought! Told myself to swallow that thought. Tried another stupid thing. I could see a light that I thought was the opening, so I looked down and HOLY CRAP, not the outside! Oh god, no more testing those boundaries. I’ll go back to ignoring normal signals from my body.

They had me close my eyes in the first study to take the MRI scan of my brain. That was lovely. Just me in a sensory deprivation cave, a black hole sort of shifting diagonally in my mind. I didn’t want to not be in the MRI machine! I just wanted to remain calm.

From all the “freak out” statements, it may sound like I did not enjoy this. Au contraire, I loved being so aware of everything that my body was feeling and how in control I could be of my thoughts and fears. Also, knowing someone was recording that and was about to filter very specific information from all that, well that was fascinating. Like looking into the stars or standing on a mountain. Awesome, for reals. I felt super plugged in and connected to inner space, awed by how much there is inside us and how it echoes the outside universe. The awareness was exhilarating and I can’t wait to go tubing again.

And now here is my brain…

my brain

I feel so naked.

Hey Science! Make it rain…

money from science

Thanks to the people running the study at Northwestern. These folks were all very cool and electric (and younger than I’d imagined). I wanted to go for a whiskey with all of them, but it was like noon and they have science thesis things to do so, I’ll call them later.