I presume I am likely to be neurotic, so surprise myself when I am not. I anticipate the loss of nerve and am surprised when it is still there. When I visited a prison earlier this year, my biggest worry was my worry. As the metal gates clanged behind me, would I become like a yellow Richard Attenborough in a wartime submarine movie? Nothing happened, I wondered if my nonchalance was playing a trick on me.
When I went for an fMRI brain scan last week I was again worried that I seem unworried. This was a voluntary procedure. I have been wanting to see my brain, the cause of all my troubles, for a long time. On a train from Tunbridge Wells, the deal was sealed with a a traveling neuroscientist. Even when I was walking down the disinfected corridors of the scanning facilities in cardboard trousers, I had no butterflies.
When would the panic set in?
It was all so fascinating that my curiosity left no room for worry.
On every wall, galleries of temporal and parietal lobes, rainbow coloured neural connections, and occasional brain stems. This is the National Portrait Gallery as I would like to see it, none of those humdrum noses and painted lips, just the brains of the notable, pondering how each fold helped them forward plan for war or poetry.
I filled out all the forms, as usual an accumulation of “no”s ticked due to my fortunately mundane medical history.
I had a quick go at the tests I would have to do and worried that my scan would mainly reveal how lacklustre I was at words and number games.
Once on the machine, my skull was sandwiched into place, the panic button placed in one hand, the mind quiz button in the other. The final encasement was lowered over my face, now would be the time for my panic, during this Man in the Iron Mask moment. Slid into the body of the marvelous contraption, my lilac surgical ballet shoes sticking out, I felt rather comfortable. Alone in the room, the isolation was calming. I was relieved, my worries of possible claustrophobia were unwarranted. I had been warned that the noise of moving magnets was almost deafening, but even this was enchanting, the sense of process and progress clicking into place and out of place as I was ready for my close ups.
Parietal Lobe, are you ready? Ventricles, do not be too vain. Amygdala, do not be coy.
The tests involved concentration, not my strongest suit. A letter flashed up eight times, as it faded I would have to say a word beginning with it. My mind cramps when i play scrabble, what if it turns out I don’t know enough words?
My self-awareness is always at the forefront, so when one of my Bs was “breast”, my homunculus Freud warned me to be careful of later choices for fear I may be pronounced a fiend. The first word that came into my word for my third T was “tantric”. Homunculus Freud looked panicked, the best I could do was Timotei (I must have been thinking about Brian Cox).
After the games, I had to relax with my eyes closed. I am not very good at that and I think that they noticed I was occupying my time by attempting to replay The Long good Friday in my mind, scene by scene.
I was then removed from the innards and saw my brain for the first time. There was the bundle that interprets the world and causes me to shout an unruly inanimate objects as if they were sentient and malicious. I worried that I had fewer folds than my friend, less of a cortex canvas spread before me, but he is much smarter than me, so it was to be expected. My untrained eye was not drawn to any shadows hinting at growing sickness within. I had been asked if I was worried at what the scan might reveal, but whatever it might have or could tell me of impending illness would be there already. The act of observation would make only a positive difference, even if it might be a melancholy one.
I wondered what might happen if they scanned my brain and found it was only a near empty sack containing some liquid and at that point, I would stop existing.
“I am afraid you have no brain. This was fine before as you were unaware of this, but now you know, all awareness will vanish”, and with that, the me-ness of me ceased to exist.
Now, these scans will be projected behind me night after night in Edinburgh, and I will have to wait for that foreboding night when a neuroscientist approaches me at the bar and says, “I was looking at that scan, and I fear there is something that went unnoticed…”
My brain based, with diversions, Edinburgh show, is HERE
I will then be taking my brain on tour to England, Ireland and Wales – locations and tickets HERE