Brain-O-Matic

By PAGAN KENNEDY  |  February 7, 2007

Before I quite realize what I’m doing, I hear myself say, “I’ll do it.” My hand shoots up in the air, seemingly of its own accord. My heart seems to beat everywhere, my hands, my feet, my face. Why hasn’t anyone else — any of the experts — volunteered? Now, I am teetering toward the front of the room. Shirley Fecteau, another Harvard researcher, guides me to a chair.

She and Fregni place the sponge-covered electrodes on the top of my head, in the two spots where I might grow bunny ears if I were a character in a fairy tale. This position, which targets the prefrontal cortex, is used to treat depressed patients. Someone wraps an Ace bandage around my head so tightly that I begin to feel headachy. I have lots of hair, so the bandage begins to slide upward. Someone pushes it back in place and I can feel fingers on my scalp, checking the position of the electrodes. Clearly, the Ace bandage alone won’t do the job. Fecteau finds a giant elastic band and stretches it vertically around my head so it cuts into my cheeks. For the rest of the experiment, it squashes my windpipe, like an especially tight birthday-party-hat strap.

Fregni shows the control box to the audience, a black brick with a meter and a few knobs on its face. The wire from that box dangles along my arm and up beyond the line of my vision — to my head. That’s when it hits me: they really are going to send electricity through my skull. Fregni turns the switch. The sponge on the left side of my scalp begins to prickle, the way poison ivy will after you scratch it. The elastic band makes me gasp for breath. The Ace bandage strangles my forehead. The room flashes as members of the audience take photos, and I try not to think about how I must look with all the elastic pinching my face and my hair sticking every which way. Rather than enjoying an elevated mood, I feel mortified sitting here on display in mental-patient drag.

Fregni keeps me hooked up for only five minutes, long enough to demonstrate the equipment but not long enough to have much clinical effect. Then he frees me. I shuffle back to my chair, still trying to smooth my wet hair back into place. And now, as if by delayed reaction, euphoria overwhelms me. I feel all fluttery, as if I’d just stepped off a roller coaster. Maybe the electrodes gave me the high. Or maybe I was just elated to leave the stage. It’s hard to say.

In the midst of my intoxication, a thought comes to me: I’ve touched my own brain. Before this moment, I had always thought of my brain as imperious and remote, like a queen who issued commands from a red-velvet room high up in a tower. “Worry ceaselessly!” my brain might decree, and I would have no choice but to obey. But now, I have tried to turn the tables.

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