The MRI experience

Imagine a 50 foot tall wasp humming selections from Laurie Anderson’s album Big Science while operating a jackhammer as rhythm accompaniment. That’s kind of what an MRI sounds like.

Jonathan tried to prepare me for the experience, as did others. But it’s nearly impossible to fully impart what such a visceral experience is like.

After swearing that I had no shrapnel, rods or tattooed eyeliner (?), I was told to strip, put on my gown and wait. Shortly thereafter I was ushered into the MRI room. I need to buy stock in General Electric, because that company makes all these diagnostic machines. It was smaller than I’d expected, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

I’d been given the choice of either the radio or plain old earplugs. I figured chances were good that I’d get stuck listening to Cristina Aguilera and 30 second spots for Ovaltine on Hot 97 if I went with the radio option. So I chose the earplugs and my own thoughts. I was given a little ball to squeeze as an “alarm” if I needed them to stop. In a way, being handed this device made me even more nervous. What were these people about to do to me?

Zoom. Whirrrr. In I slid. The technicians hurredly left the room. One of them crackled into being over the intercom, “We’re just going to do a short one to start.” Pause, fiddle. “Here we go.”

A series of three low buzzes, less than a second each, sounded. I came to think of those as the “Okay, it’s show time, folks!” intro sequence, as they featured before each new round of buzzing and banging that accompanied the creation of each new image, which typically took about 3-4 minutes.

I really was not ready for what happened next. I can’t explain it, but when the loud noises and vibrations started, I suddenly felt awful. My heart rate shot up and I started to mildly hyperventilate. This lasted only for about 15 seconds or so, but it was bad. It passed, probably because I just tried to focus on the rhythm of this sequence’s particular banging and bring my breathing in line with it. I also did not want to screw it up and have to start all over again.

After about 10-15 minutes of sitting through repeated rounds of banging, buzzing and whirring, I got used to it and was able to relax a little. I thought a lot about how powerful sound is. I remembered once reading a chapter in the book Pranks (page 72-74), an interview with an artist named Monte Cazazza who did a lot of, um, interesting things with ultra-low and ultra-high frequency sound. In it, he describes an experiment he did on himself using ultra-low frequency sound. He basically made himself ill:

“You felt bad. If low frequency sounds get to a certain level, the molecules in your organs start rubbing together, and your cell walls could eventually break down and turn to mush. At lesser levels you’d lose control of your bowels…People don’t realize how much sound physiologically affects them — it can make people sick, and it does in their jobs. It’s dangerous to work in a really noisy environment. Of course, some frequencies bother you more than others.”

Another thing I remembered during the cacophony was a former girlfriend of Jonathan’s who claimed she’d once had a spontaneous, totally hands-free climax at a Led Zeppelin concert. Having inexplicably burst into tears myself at more than one classical concert, I was inclined to believe that story.

The power of sound to affect us physically and psychologically has not escaped the private sector. Nor has it gone unnoticed by the military. That second link is a particularly fascinating read and worth the time.

With all this on my mind, the time flew by. As I was slid back out I asked one of the technicians if people ever experience a lot of anxiety during the procedure. Actually, the term I wanted to use was get totally freaked out. She nodded. “Oh, yeah. We have people we can’t do this with.”

On my way out they gave me a CD with the images, since that’s what the doctor ordered. They will not mail one, so I have to mail or bring it in myself. I am tempted to open them up in Photoshop. But I don’t want to break the seal. I’m sure he’ll show them to me while I’m there anyway.