I was a test subject for a real, no-foolin’ neuroscience study with electrodes strapped to my head and everything. It was surprisingly pleasant—until they started showing me pictures of severed feet.
Alan Leggitt, a friend of mine and a PhD candidate, has spent the last few years studying, training, organizing, and occasionally having monkey poop thrown at him to better understand the human brain. When I learned that I could see what he does, participate in a study, and there would be no poop involved, I jumped at the chance. Alan’s project is called EmoWorm, which is short for Emotion & Working Memory. He’s hoping that one day his work can help people with PTSD. For now, he’s seeing how pictures that evoke strong negative feelings affect memory. I’ve been told ahead of time that, as part of the study, I’ll be looking at pictures that I’ll find gory and extremely unpleasant. Braced, I walk into the Gazzaley Lab, and Alan comes out to greet me.
He looks so innocent, doesn’t he?
The act stays in place as he walks me through the legal details. I can leave at any time, and, “This isn’t the Stanford Prison Experiment.” Good to know. I’ll be paid for my time even if I leave early. (Suckers!) And, he says, if I feel overwhelmed, sick, or panicked by the pictures I see, I not only can but should stop the experiment, since a panicked reaction isn’t the kind of data he wants. He’ll be watching me through a video camera. It isn’t recording. It’s just a way to monitor me without him in the room breathing down my neck.
He tells me that what I’ll be doing, after I fill out a brief personality questionnaire, is getting a swim-cap full of electrodes stuck to my head. Some of the time, during the experiment, I’ll be simply closing my eyes and letting my mind wander. At other times I’ll be passively looking at pictures. Mostly, though, I’ll be seeing a colored square, then a pause or a picture, and then another colored square. My job is to judge whether or not the square before and after the picture are the same color. This will prove surprisingly hard to do, but I don’t know that yet.
I fill out my questionnaire while Alan goes to get the equipment. The questionnaire is 120 items long. Each item is a declarative statement about me that I have to either agree with or disagree with on a scale from one to five. (Sighing, Alan requests, “Please use whole numbers. Don’t put 4 1/2. Yeah, people do that.”) After a while, I get the idea that the questionnaire is trying to trip me up. It repeats questions, phrasing them slightly differently each time. It asks me if I sympathize with people (I don’t), if I find it easy to understand other people’s feelings (No), and if I often understand how other people feel (I said no!).
I hear two people coming down the hallway outside. One of them, a young guy, is saying, “Oh, this is sick! They strap all this stuff to your head and then they show you . . . oh.” Two fresh-faced young people in business-casual clothing stop talking when they see me sitting in the room they were walking towards. I wave, and they keep going down the hallway.
By the time I finish the questionnaire, Alan is back. And guess what he has.
Fortunately, that is for the electrode cap on my head. The swim cap goes on, but to ensure that there’s a good connection between my head and each of the 64 electrodes, he has to inject gel into holes in the cap. He measures me up (57 centimeters around the brain pan), and starts squirting the gel between the cap and my scalp. It’s actually quite pleasant, like getting a head massage, except instead of getting it from a masseuse, you get it from a friendly scientist who tells you that most of the fresh-faced young people in the hallways just talk about Game of Thrones.
After the brain-monitoring cap is fully gelled and collected, and I get a couple of electrodes stuck to my face and two more stuck just below my ears, we turn our attention to a computer monitor in front of us, which displays a bunch of colored lines. Alan tells me to blink. The lines zoom up and down once. He tells me to clench my jaw. The lines go crazy. He tells me to close my eyes. When I open them again I can see “alpha waves,” which are slight little wiggles that only happen when your eyes are closed or you’re really bored. He’s not happy with the alpha waves (and neither am I, because they’re too small to photograph) so he futzes with the equipment a little. What happens if I think really hard. Will it show up on the monitor? He tells me I’d have much better luck just clenching my jaw. Take that, power of the human mind
Finally, the experiment begins. Alan turns off the lights and leaves. I look at the computer monitor. It flashes a colored square, then goes dark except for a small white cross, which I am supposed to focus on between images, then flashes the next colored square. Are the squares the same color? Right away, I do much worse than I expected. It tells me I’m incorrect quite a lot. How hard is it to remember a color? It’s more than my mind can handle.
I catch myself taking my eyes off the white cross in between squares, because looking at darkness of the monitor helps me keep the color in my head. Throughout the experiment I find myself doing this, and keep having to remind myself that I’m trying to do the experiment, not “win” it. Which is good, because I would not win. If there’s one thing this experiment teaches me, it’s that I might be slightly colorblind. I’m unfoolable when it comes to spotting magenta, but there apparently are two shades of green that I cannot for the life of me tell apart.
As for the images, there’s no way to make light of them. The instructions in front of each of the sets of photographs, whether I’m passively watching them or trying to match the squares before and after them, ask me to try not to blink or flinch. I don’t really feel the need to, but I can see why the instructions are there. The disturbing photos look to be autopsies, medical photos, and crime scene photos. While I have seen photos like them, the photos one after another, even interspersed with innocuous photos like lamps or fans or people walking around, are a real education in all the horrible things that can happen to a human body.
While most of the pictures are unpleasant, I find myself least able to ignore the ones where something ambiguous is happening. I wouldn’t say I’m viscerally shocked, but I can’t help thinking things like, “Is that guy dead? Are there two bodies or three? Is that brain or bone or pus or what?” I wonder if I would prefer having more time to study them.
While I can’t tell, I’m fairly certain that I am worse at remembering the colors after the gory photos than after the neutral ones. Sometimes, though, I wonder if what I’m seeing is neutral. Is a cracked, dirty doll head neutral? Is a cat with a dead mouse neutral? If that is a mask, I think, then that photo was neutral. If that was someone’s peeled-off face skin, then it wasn’t. Which was it? I don’t know.
After the last matching session, Alan comes back in. It’s time to remove the cap and take the electrodes off my face. I’m ready to get up, but he stops me. “You’ve got some great marks on your face from the electrodes, and your hair is pretty gelled up.” He snaps a photo.
(I call this one “She Ain’t Pretty No More.”)
This is a lab that regularly does EEG tests, so they are well-equipped to deal with this. They have a bathroom with a special sink for washing hair, a supply of towels, and a hair dryer. Since I’ve never owned a hair dryer, this is the most confusing part of the experiment. It takes me two minutes to figure out how to turn it on. It has three switches, and each one has to be in a precise position to get it to work. I will spontaneously combust before that hair dryer does.
I decide to let my hair air dry, and come back out to what turns out to be the most grueling part of the experiment. I was right to wonder about whether certain pictures are positive, negative, or neutral. Alan explains that it only matters what I think of the pictures, so I have to go through and rate each one on how positive or negative it is, and how “exciting” I think it is. He takes pains to say that rating a picture as “exciting” only means I am having a emotional response, not that I think it’s good. No one will think I’m a pervert if I rate a picture of a gangrenous foot as “exciting.”
If I could change one part of the experiment, it would be this part. The problem isn’t going through a lot of pictures. The problem is going through them and then not being able to go through them again, or being able to select a few (without shuffling through all the rest) and re-do them. My choices at the beginning don’t match up with my choices towards the end. I’m fairly sure I rank an elderly woman who may be emaciated or may only be thin, and may be upset or may only be squinting into the sun, the same way I rank a decapitated head, or a person being hanged. I also seem to be reserving the top marks, which means that by the end nothing has earned the top ranking in “excitement,” either positive or negative. (There were few positive pictures to be had. The only photos that made me feel good were of picturesque buildings, happy dogs, and food.)
The flip-through does answer one question: It turns out that I would not prefer getting a good look at the ambiguous pictures. Though one or two photos have a kind of horrible fascination, there are few that fully make sense to me even when I stare at them for a while. The one exception is a picture that I had thought, when I first saw it, was of skinned knees. When I say I thought the photo was of “skinned knees,” I don’t mean slightly scraped knees—I mean dismembered knees that had had their skins removed and been thrown in a box. (That was not an impossible image, judging from some of the images in the shuffle.) When I get a better look at it, I realize that it was actually of two boiled lobsters in a container full of ice. The curved tails had looked like knees to me. The association lingers, so even after getting a better look at it, I give it a slightly negative rating with some emotional “excitement.”
The experiment is over. Alan comes in one more time to check that I have all my stuff, to pay me for the experiment, and, I think, to make absolutely sure that I’m doing okay. He thanks me. I thank him. I walk out, and decide that I will concentrate on the food pictures that I saw. It helps that I’m hungry, and that I have sweet, sweet lab research money in my pocket.
Ah, the rewards of science.