In my bid to continue saying yes to those opportunities that don’t arise on a daily basis; when my friend Magda, a Neuroscientist (her actual title is much longer and fancier, but this makes more sense to me), asked for volunteers in her study, I knew exactly what to do; not to think about it and just say yes.
A few short days later and I and my friend John, who – when I told him about it -wanted to have a go too, were on our way to London to have our brains scanned for science.
I was a little apprehensive before for a number of reasons. 1) What if I did it wrong and messed up Magda’s results? 2) What if something went wrong inside the scanner..? 3) What if it turned out there was actually something pretty scary lurking inside my brain?
We had a good easy journey into London and made it to the hospital in plenty of time for our appointment so it was a good start, but seeing as we had time to spare, we sat in the hospital’s Costa and scared ourselves talking about horrible hospital procedures and what’s involved with laser eye surgery – so by the time Magda could come and meet us, we suddenly weren’t as keen to go inside and have our experiments.
But we did, and like a gentleman, John allowed me to go first…the words guinea pig come to mind.
Magda told us how the machine is on all day every day and each scan costs £500 – so it’s vital it’s used properly. It’s loud and when booted up is even louder. The machine was in a large open room – which I didn’t like – it made it feel like more could go wrong and made me feel more alone too when the door was shut; even though I knew the guys were just on the other side of the glass and they could talk to me through the earphones which were – literally – strapped to my head.
I had terrible trouble getting the earphones to stay in place which took up a lot of time – every time I went to lay down, they’d move and fall out of place. But we got there in the end, at which point I was able to lie down properly and have my head wedged in so it wouldn’t move and skew the scan. A cage was then placed over my face which was not a pleasant experience I can tell you, but it had a mirror attached that I needed to be able to see the monitor screen for the experiment. Once the cage was on my face, the bed was lifted and then I began to go backwards into the machine.
I had to fight against every flight reaction in my body, I wanted to scream, kick out, run away – everything about it felt wrong and I knew I needed to get out of there. But I fought it. I concentrated on my breathing and after a short while the screen came on and Magda played this video for me:
I was so grateful for that. I never thought I had a worry of small spaces before and I still don’t think I really do, it was just an exceptional circumstance. Inside I realised that if anything went wrong whilst I was inside it – I was done for, I was strapped and trapped inside this tiny space and I hadn’t even started the experiment yet. I calmed myself and concentrated on the screen and ‘Where the hell is Matt?’.
I had an even longer time inside the scanner as one of the earphones that took so long to get in – now wasn’t working, so I had to lay there listening to the word ‘fish’ over and over again as Magda and her team tried and tested to get both earphones working again. They refused to wrk at the same time and even swapped over which would work and which wouldn’t. But we weren’t going to stop just because I couldn’t hear the instructions properly.
An alarm began to go off at which point I thought someone was going to rush in and get me out of this thing – but when no one did, I realised (and prayed that) it was just the scanner doing its thing. We got started and so for the next 20 or so minutes I stayed as still as I could as the experiment got underway.
I had two buttons, one for each to hand. The screen would show me a picture of an everyday object and a made-up word would be said through the earphones. I had to decide whether that made-up word was correct for that object in that made-up language. For example, I’d be shown a picture of a snail and the word ‘glinn’ would come through the earphones. If I thought this word was correct for the snail I would press the right-hand button, if I thought it wasn’t I would press the left. The screen would flash up with Correct or Incorrect and have the right word below “Correct. This is glinn” “Incorrect This is glinn”.
There were around five or six objects in each round, during which I had to try and learn as quickly as possible what each item was called in this made-up language to decipher whether the word being said was correct or incorrect.
A round of this was alternated with a round of images and English words coming through the earphones, I had to match them up. Easy. You see a car, the word ‘moon’ comes through the earphones, you press the left-hand button for Incorrect. You see a doll, the word doll comes through the earphones, you press the right-hand button for Correct. You see a leaf, the word ‘leaf’ comes through the earphones you press the left-hand button for Incorrect…hold on. Damn it! Yeah I got leaf wrong.
These tasks alternated for the 20 minutes during which I was in agony and doing everything I could to not move because of it. A pain started, small at first, in the ear holding the earphone that wan’t even working, gradually the pain to spread and moved down my ear and into my neck and I could have sworn that it was making me twitch. I was convinced I was ruining these results for Magda. I was so relieved when the tasks finished and Magda said she was coming to get me out – it felt like a lifetime before she got to me but I’m sure it was in less than 30 seconds.
Coming out of that tiny space was one of the best feelings, I felt free! The first thing Magda said to me was ‘your brain looks pretty healthy.’
‘Pretty healthy??’ I said, ‘What does pretty healthy mean? What should I be worried about?’ But she assured me there was nothing wrong that she could see with my brain – it was just a figure of speech. Phew!
Then she took me through to the other room and showed me my brain. I was speechless. It was so weird and my mind could not quite compute what it was seeing. That was my brain on screen. But whilst I marvelled at that, Magda went off with John and got him ready for his turn.
I was then taken through to another room by one of the other scientists and shown a series of images that I had seen whilst in the scanner. I had to try and remember what the made-up language names were for each of the items. I did rather well at this even if I do say so, only got a couple wrong if that. However if you should me them now, no chance. Off the top of my head I can remember
Snail – glinn
Door – tam
Frog – zank
Crown – toaf
Swing – kes
That’s it though. But for a made-up language I still think that’s good.
Once John was in the machine and starting off with some super-hero movie trailers before the experiment, Magda sat me down and talked me through my brain. Again my mind couldn’t comprehend that that was an image of what was inside my skull right there on the screen. I was still alive, I had no cuts or scars from any procedures – yet there in front of me was my brain. I could even see my vocal chords.
I had no cysts, a long line of…something (akin to the life line on a hand), and three bits to the part which I’m sure she called ‘Broca’s Area’ – after some man called Broca – when most people only have two. But she couldn’t tell me what that meant (I’m still hoping for a late blooming super power to emerge). There’s a tree of life at the back of the brain which from all accounts does the same thing as the rest of the brain but a smaller version – and my worries of twitching my way through the experiment were unfounded, the scan was fine. I am sure I have got all of that information about the brain wrong – and to Magda I apologise profusely.
When John had finished, Magda took me back through to the scanner and let me try my own experiment involving a 10p piece. Holding it with all my might in my hand I stepped toward the centre of the machine and felt the 10p trying to pull itself through my hand to reach the scanner. It was such an odd sensation and worried that I would accidentally let it go and end up destroying the machine – I came away and made John try it too!
The experiment (Magda’s, not the 10p one) is aimed at learning more about the brain’s function with short term memory and will hopefully lead to a discovery in helping stroke victims recover quicker.
It was a crazy experience and one that I am glad I had the chance to do as a bit of fun – rather than needing to have done as it is one scary-ass test – and once again showed myself that I can do anything and overcome my fears if I set my mind to it.
I wonder what my next don’t get that chance every day experience will be. Who knows but hopefully I’ll be ready to say yes when it comes around.
I’d love to hear about the don’t get that chance every day experiences you’ve had recently or what you’ve got coming up, any inspiration of future ideas would be welcomed too!
Until next time.