How To Hack Your Head
A buyer's guide to recreational brain scanning.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. fMRI is the holy grail of brain imaging. Traditional MRI scans let you see three-dimensional portraits of brain anatomy, but fMRI goes further: It gives you amazingly precise images of which groups of neurons are firing at any given time inside your head—which areas are furiously working and which are slacking off. fMRI machines use powerful magnets and complex mathematical analysis to detect subtle changes in blood flow to specific parts of the brain, ultimately representing brain activity in color-coded images that look something like Doppler weather reports. You'll need an expert to interpret these images, unless you're harboring a grad degree in neuroscience.
Although the experience of having your fMRI images interpreted is truly amazing—the fear centers of your brain light up when you think a disturbing thought, and your language centers kick into gear as you read a sentence—the scanning process itself is extremely uncomfortable. You have to remain completely motionless inside a tiny tube for up to an hour.The machine itself makes an excruciating noise that sounds as if a truck is backing up in your brain.
The hitch with fMRI technology is that you're not likely to install one in the basement: They retail for a couple million dollars. Your best bet is probably to sign up as a test subject at your local university and then plead with the researchers for some special snapshots of your brain to show the folks back home.
The benefits of an fMRI scan depend on the experiment, and the results are closer to clues and hunches than Empirical Scientific Facts. But they can be tantalizing. When I spent time in the scanner, we looked at my brain doing a number of language-related tasks: reading other people's text, reading passages from my own book, and then composing actual sentences. What we found was that the moments where I was the most focused on writing were also the moments where there was the least activity in my brain. (For instance, even though my eyes were open, there was far less activity in the areas that process visual information.)
Seeing these images made me think that hitting states of intense creativity or focus is all about shutting the brain down, rather than revving it up. In the political scans that the New York Times wrote about, the researchers found early evidence that Democrats respond to images of violence (whether in the service of Democratic or Republican candidates) with markedly increased activity in the amygdala, a central player in the brain's emotion and fear circuitry. Republican brains showed little amygdala activity. What that means is very much up for grabs, but it's a fascinating place to start speculating.
Pros: Short of neurosurgery, the closest you'll get to seeing the inside of your brain.
Cons: Claustrophobics need not apply; data difficult to interpret without dozens of other brains to compare yours to.
What You'll Learn: The sky's the limit. It all depends on what you scan your brain doing: thinking of loved ones, watching political ads, dreaming. And you'll need a good guide.
Cost: Free if you're lucky; otherwise, $2 million.