Scientist turns Lab Rat

Yesterday for the very first time I took a break from doing experiments myself to go be experimented on. I was convinced to donate my head (while still attached, thankfully) to a friend’s ERP study who needed volunteers to measure EEG’s (Oh the acronyms). I vaguely knew that an ERP was an Event Related Potential and an EEG is electroencephalography…so they are just going to measure my brain waves. I didn’t know what for (I still don’t).

Why had I never been a study participant before? All were surprised, since I work across the street from (what I hear) is a very nice facility that always likes to pay students for temporary head donations. Maybe it was because my field of study couldn’t be more different, and I’m naturally wary of what I don’t understand. I’m not a brain researcher…in fact I know nothing about the brain besides what I learned in Physiology 101 years ago in college. Everyone’s answer to that is always, “but your boyfriend…!” Yes, he is getting his PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, and yes that sounds as scary as I feel about it. I struggle to understand it every day. Participating in this study was a step, I hoped, in that direction. I still see the brain as that black box: stuff goes in, some other stuff comes out. Or vice versa maybe. But branching out was sort of fun, and now I can say I actually know what goes on inside my little black box. Oh yes, I was told I had “nice brain waves.”

ImageFrom the start I felt like I was in some sort of 80’s science fiction movie, where you put on a helmet connected to a bunch of wires that allows you to have mind control. The “helmet” in this case was more cap-like, and there was a lot of gel that went in my hair to make my head more electro-impulse conducting friendly. I was told yellow was my color (my cap was yellow) but I’m sure they were just trying to be nice as my ears disappeared beneath it and they proceeded to tape my glasses to my face.

At least it didn’t matter if I knew anything about the brain, the experts took care of all the wires coming now coming out of my head and all I had to do was press a button when I saw things on a screen in front of me (I’m getting paid for this!?). The idea that what I am thinking can be recorded is just crazy, I felt like a telepath who is broadcasting my brain waves to the world, and to think that something somewhere is recording them, to be used to advance scientific knowledge is so alien to me. But aliens are awesome.

While I was doing the study, or more like halfway through it, I was reminded how science can be…how fickle, how frustrating, how sometimes things just don’t go as planned. It’s nice to know it happens in other fields besides mine! You put all your effort into one experiment and then BAM it blows up, sometimes literally. Or it could be as simple as hearing the words at the very end…”I guess I forgot to push record.” Ahh well, that’s why we do it a bunch of times.

As I embark on the path to my PhD, I know I will constantly have to remind myself of this fact: that it’s not the end of the world when something doesn’t work out, you just have to keep pushing. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun and well, someone else would have done it already. That’s the price of investigating things no one has ever studied before, unfamiliar territory is unpaved and therefore rocky. Good thing I always liked to hike.


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