My Brain Is a Walnut
Inside an fMRI machine.
The tasks aren't overly difficult, but the faces grow tiresome to watch. After 300 of them in 40 minutes, my eyes feel heavy. Egner's voice bursts through the intercom. "Are we falling asleep?" he asks. I wonder if he knows this from watching my brain or from experience with other research subjects. The lights go on and Egner helps me out of the machine. The noise settles back into the steady and much softer zeeew-kip.
When I leave the room, I'm unsettled to find four researchers behind the control-room glass. I'd thought I was alone, but people I don't know have been watching my mind at work, perhaps remarking on its effectiveness. A few minutes later, Egner hands me a flimsy sheet, like an X-ray, with a birds-eye view of 20 horizontal layers of my brain. Functional images don't come the way they're shown in magazines and journals, with reds and yellows splattered across the brain to show where the most neural activity occurred. The colors are added later by the researchers. In this starker rendering, my brain looks like a walnut in its shell. I ask Egner how I did. He explains to me that individual results can't be interpreted. "As for your function," he said, "there's not much to look at." If the choice is between that and gross abnormality, I guess I'll take it.
Eric Jaffe is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.