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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Monday, January 30, 2006

I've Been Scanned

This was an interesting weekend. My 15 year old daughter and I went for our fourth and final visit to Stanford to partake in a mother-daughter research study on emotions. I'd read about it somewhere last year, and it seemed both interesting and a fairly painless way for her to earn some money. The other 3 visits, spread over the past six months, consisted mostly of interviews, lengthy questionnaires and some computer tasks, but this final visit was something different.

We'd both agreed to have our brains scanned by MRI and I was more than a little nervous about what I'd signed up for. I can be claustrophobic sometimes, and I was worried about being strapped down for an hour in a tube the size of a coffin. They were talking about "bite plates" and molding some putty to the roof of my mouth so I couldn't move my head. My palms were popping sweat. (she didn't seem phased, though, so I tried to act calm)

First they showed us a pile of various "prizes" and told us each to pick three. She picked some mod-groovy plastic pouches, a pedicure kit, and a glass picture frame that she could paint herself. O boy! I chose some glitter glue pens (thinking of the 11 yr old at home), some cute bath products in a plastic Chinese takeout box, and a gel-filled eye mask (the only thing I really wanted). Then we had to fill out a questionnaire about exactly how excited we were about our prizes, presumably to figure out how motivated we were. (when I first mentioned "prizes," my daughter and I said simultaneously, "Like Coldplay tickets?")

She went first. They made her remove her ear-cartilage piercing, and gave her some rubber soled booties and some big foam headphones. She climbed up on the little mattress, declined a blanket, got fitted for the Bite Bar (aughhh!) and they slid her into the tube. I went with the testers back into the control room and we talked to her via the Intercome. She had to keep saying "Uh huh" to indicate she was okay and wanted to proceed. She had a little rubber squeeze ball that she could squeeze to say she wanted to stop, and that didn't happen. The noise of the Magnet was deafening. It sounded like she was being jackhammered to death. They sent me to another room to read a book and dip into a drawerful of odd snacks. (sour cream and onion Pringles, butterscotch candies, and veggie sticks)

Then it was my turn. I got onto the mattress and immediately asked for a blanket. It was freezing. Then they fitted me with foam earplugs (for some reason, they don't give headphones to adults) and the dreaded putty Bite thing. It wasn't so bad. It was more like a little shelf to rest my top teeth on. They made me make sure I could still swallow and talk. Thank goodness, I could. Then they fitted the mirrored computer screen that I knew would be my salvation. With this thing directly in front of my eyes, I wouldn't be able to focus on the ceiling of the tube only inches above me. I would feel just a little less confined. They slid me in, they made me say, "Uh huh" and it began.

First they scanned me "at rest" while I watched clips from The Lion King. Which I hadn't watched in about ten years. It made me profoundly grateful that I no longer had Disney-aged children. (except for Pirates of the Caribbean, of course, which I don't mind at all) Then they showed a clip from some film about a man whose teenaged daughter is dying of cancer. I feigned indifference. The words came up on the screen: Imagine yourself in this situation. No, thank you.
It pressed on: Really get into the feeling. Oh, all right. In the name of science. So I imagined each of my daughters lying in that bed, and the waterworks commenced. Tears poured out of my eyes and dribbled into my ears and the electric earplugs. I worried about electrocution. When they seemed satisfied that I was sufficiently "sad," they scanned my brain. Rat-a-tat-tat. Then they asked me to push a button (on a box attached to my hand) that indicated my emotion at the time. VERY sad face, mildly sad face, mildly happy face, big happy face. I pushed very sad.

Then they told me to think about a happy memory from high school. The happiest memory I could think of. This turned out to be fairly easy. I imagined myself at Roosevelt Stadium in New Jersey. I was with my best friend and we were first in line at the gate. We had a huge cooler filled with our favorite foods: lemonade, sandwiches, homemade cookies. We had been there for hours, since early morning. Then the gates opened and we surged forward in a slow-motion, ecstatic run across the grass, each of us lugging a handle of the cooler. We unfurled our blanket on a perfect expanse of Astroturf. We had scored a great spot. (the computer screen said, Really get into the feeling. I imagined scores of adorable 70's style boys with feathered hair walking by and smiling at us. I imagined a perfect afternoon of sun, food, frisbees, card games, waiting for the sun to go down and the concert to begin. Then the stadium lights flared on and I had to stifle my urge to scream. So what band was it? The Eagles? Dan Fogelberg? How about a double header! They came out on stage. The opening notes of "Take it Easy" and the adrenaline overflowed. Cathy and I pulled out the denim shirt we'd been embroidering by hand for months. We balled it up and tossed it on stage. Dan Fogelberg caught it and unfolded it, in front of seven thousand people. "That's beautiful!" he said. A quartet of faces appeared on the screen. How are you feeling now? Big smiley face.

The last task was a series of rapid-response pushbutton tasks while the Magnet hammered away for a nonstop ten minutes. I had to push the button every time I saw a star, but it had to be at the same split second. A millisecond off, and I lost points. If I didn't have at least 80 points, I wouldn't get the gel mask! Oh dear! I fumbled a few times, but tried to keep my focus. In the end, I had 84 points and so got to take all three of my prizes home. My daughter had scored 94. The wonders of the young brain!

We were also awarded both horizontal and vertical photographs of our brains. I couldn't help comparing. Did mine really look more shriveled up, with less gray matter, or was I imagining things?


Blogger Allison said...

Susan, I love this post! The humor, the experience with your daughter, the scary paraphernalia, and the complete letting go to memory. Vivid, wonderful, funny. Big smiley face!

Tuesday, January 31, 2006 1:10:00 PM

Blogger Michael said...


I'm going to try again. Your description of being in the tube gave me a near anxiety attack.

Now, will this post or not. Odds?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006 10:41:00 AM

Blogger Susan said...

Michael, sorry about the anxiety attack (but it makes me feel that I was able to describe it authentically) and VERY happy to see your posted comment!!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006 11:59:00 AM


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