The next night I met Rick Davis, the talkative and opinionated Ph.D. fellow who ran the MRI lab.
An MRI is a cylindrical beast that swallows patients headfirst, leaving their legs and hospital-issued booties dangling uselessly. Being inside feels like lying in an unplugged tanning bed. The machine uses an electromagnetic field to produce 3-D images of bodily tissues, in this case, my brain. Areas of the brain that are being used show up red while dormant areas appear blue. These measurements would serve as baseline values to compare with my future performance.
Beginning at midnight, I was tested in the machine for an hour, then I was off for an hour, repeating the cycle until 8 a.m. My task, called a 2-back, involved recalling series of random letters. It was exceedingly boring. “Boring is good!” said Rick. “The better to tease out individual differences.” Then, bizarrely, I was supposed to concentrate on a series of emotional images interspersed with innocuous ones. A pretty flower, a burning car wreck, pretty flower, man missing the skin on half his face, flower, body bag, flower, first-person close-up of a snake striking. It was the snake that made me the most uncomfortable, I think because it looked like it was about to bite me. Not a fan of snakes.
I wasn’t allowed caffeine for the duration of the study, as it might throw off my sleep schedule. By 6 a.m. I was exhausted.
“Right now you’re the most tired you’ll be all night, just a few hours before you’d normally get up,” Rick said, smirking. “So, if you can beat the accuracy of your first testing session, we’ll give you an extra hundred dollars.”
My Pavlovian responses kicked in, and I perked up. “Seriously?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Don’t worry, almost everyone wins the extra money.” He smiled even more broadly. Almost everyone? Now I had to win it. It was obvious Rick was manipulating me, but I was too tired to care. And a hundred dollars would feed me for two weeks. I was actually shaking with excitement during the last set of 2-backs. A hundred dollars!
I won the money easily. But the real reward still waited. The first rays of morning were streaming through the blinds as I packed up to go home.
“Do you want to see your brain?” Rick asked. There, on the computer screen, were the familiar images from all the hospital shows, a series of psychedelic cauliflower shapes. Except they were mine. “That’s your frontal lobe,” said Rick, pointing to the red area at the top of the picture. “And this image is from when you were trying to win the money.” It was almost all red and orange, with only a few dark spots. “You had almost twice the activation of your previous tests,” said Rick. At last, proof that I really did think. Descartes would be proud.
As I rode my bike home, I thought this wasn’t such a bad way to earn money. It was certainly more enlightening than office work.