I’ve been having some bouts of pretty sharp nerve pain lately, and so I went to see a neurologist who had me get an MRI. I’ve had several MRIs done in my life. I’m lousy at keeping track of my medical history — perhaps because I don’t like to think about it — but I think the first was back in the ’80s. A lot of people hate the noise of MRI machines, but I found it to be a fascinating experience. The way the sounds resonated in the chamber and interfered with each other created a rich white (or pink?) noise that I was able to play with in my mind. The first stage of the scan was a series of pulses, dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah, and I was able to hear it almost as a chorus of voices. I imagined the word “cat” and I heard the voices chanting “cat cat cat,” I imagined “bug” and they chanted “bug bug bug,” and so on. All the necessary overtones were there in the sound I was hearing, so my brain was able to select just the ones I chose to let me hear what I wanted to hear. I moved on to making it “talk” in-a-stac-ca-to-man-ner-one-syl-la-ble-at-a-time. But then it switched to a much faster pulsing and the harmonics blended even more intricately, and I literally heard music, the chorus now singing a rather lively melody. I still remember the tune, a couple of decades later. As for lyrics, I just made the chorus sing numbers in ascending order until it was over. I got up to several hundred at least.
So in the years that followed, I always hoped I’d get to have an MRI again someday. Eventually, maybe close to a decade ago, I got the chance, but it was an open-sided machine, the kind that’s for people who get claustrophobic in the closed tubes. I actually found the open machine scarier to be in, because I was between these two massive blocks with just a few columns holding up the one on top, and I was afraid of getting crushed between them. A cylinder is a much sturdier-feeling thing to be inside. Anyway, the open machine wouldn’t have the same resonances, so I was glad when it turned out that it didn’t give adequate resolution anyway and I needed to get another one in a conventional machine.
However, that machine didn’t give me the same “chorus” that the original one did — just a lot of loud banging. There wasn’t enough harmonic information bouncing around in there, or the pacing wasn’t right, or something. I figured maybe the machine’s design was different and it was producing different sounds. But I’ve had, I think, two more MRIs since then, including the one last week, and at least one of them was in a different machine. (I think the one last week was the same machine I was scanned in after the open machine didn’t work.) And I still haven’t been able to experience the same “chorus” effect I got that first time.
Which is disappointing enough in itself, but I’m also bothered by not knowing the reason why. Is it that newer machines don’t produce the same sound patterns? Is it that the earplugs they use block out the harmonics? (But surely I would’ve had earplugs the first time, right?) Maybe the difference is in me. I’m older now and I’ve most likely lost some of my higher-frequency hearing, so maybe I’m not getting enough overtone information to let my brain synthesize the perception of phonetic speech. Or maybe it’s just that my imagination isn’t as flexible as it was in my teens. That doesn’t seem likely; given what I do for a living, I think my imagination still gets plenty of exercise. But maybe the mind gets more rigid in other ways. I hope that’s not it. I figure either a design change in the MRIs or a change in my hearing is the reason.
So anyway, every time I’ve gotten an MRI before (after the first), I’ve looked forward to it in the hopes of hearing the singing again. But this time, I realized it’s just not going to happen anymore. And I’ve decided I don’t like MRIs anymore. They’re just really dang loud, and they’re confining, and you have to lie totally still for a long time, and oh, they’re really loud. Plus it made my whole body tremble a bit unnervingly. I thought it was just the vibration, but the technician I mentioned it to afterward indicated that it was the magnetic field making my innards vibrate like that. I’m not sure that’s correct; as I understand it, the effects it induces in the body are on a molecular level. Still, it wasn’t very pleasant. Not intensely unpleasant, but not much fun. So hopefully I won’t need another MRI for a while.
Of course, I don’t want to discourage anyone from getting an MRI if it’s medically advisable. There are much worse experiences that can be had, many of which can be prevented by getting an MRI. It’s just that my first MRI was actually enjoyable, and I’m disappointed that that was apparently the exception to the rule.
One thing the experience drove home, as I mentioned to the technician, was that you never hear the MRI machine on House making all that loud noise. She agreed with me and said that show’s depiction of MRI scans is very unrealistic — the doctors personally supervising the scans, getting instantaneous results, getting images that don’t even look like MRI, etc. I guess her experience when watching House (and probably most other medical shows) is like my experience when watching most space-based sci-fi shows or movies.