The man who greeted me at the basement door to the fMRI lab was a tall, toned, sandy-haired, dreamy-eyed neuroscientist. He had me fill out a release form and then told me to remove any metal I might have on my body.
He watched me take my belt off and empty my pockets, then opened an inner-door and led me into an inner room. In front of us stood the fMRI: a flat white plastic platform with no pillow, covered in a cotton sheets and aimed into a circular hole in a gargantuan, jet-engine-shaped plastic tube. The walls were a tranquil deep-sea-blue.
Neuroscientist walked over to a desk in the corner and came back with two orange foam earplugs.
“Do you know how to put these in?”
I did, and thought he might be impressed with my expert technique as I rolled them between my fingers and inserted them into my ears. He offered me oversized plastic over-the-head headphones
“Put these on.”
Anything for you, Mr. Neuroscientist.
I saw his lips mouth, “Can you hear me?”
I could no longer hear him. “Not really,” I said, my voice faltering as I realized the irony of my response. How was I supposed to answer? No, I can’t really hear you but I can read lips?
He grinned, put his thumbs up, took the headphones off my head, and directed me to lie down on the platform. Close-up, I could see that the low-thread-count white sheets clung onto a few strands of brown hair from the last subject, but I tried not to pay attention to this. I laid my head on the plastic headrest. Neuroscientist had me lift my legs as he placed a triangular piece of foam beneath them. He taped a wired plastic remote with two buttons by my right side, and reached over my body and fiddled with my shorts, threading the wired emergency button through a belt loop. He gently pressed my hand against my left thigh so I could feel where this button was. He put the headphones back on my head and secured a gray plastic cage over my face.
He mouthed, “Close your eyes.” And I did.
The inner-mechanics of the machine hummed through the platform as I was inserted into the fMRI. I opened my eyes and found myself looking into an angled mirror. In the bottom half of my vision, I could see my legs and feet stretching away from me, and could see the entrance hole with Neuroscientist next to it shrinking. In the top half of my vision there was a dark hole widening to accept me. It was like simultaneously looking into the wrong ends of two telescopes. Dizzy, I closed my eyes.
The platform jerked lightly to a stop. Neuroscientist spoke, as if from inside my skull.
“For this first part, we’re just going to take a preliminary scan of your brain. Close your eyes, make yourself comfortable, but try not to move, and try to stay awake. Are you ready?”
“Yup,” I said. Did the headphones have speakers in them? Were there speakers inside the machine? I never found out.
Evidently, he could hear me as I spoke into the darkness, because the machine started up.
I closed my eyes and listened. A rolling bass-line ran in circles around my head. I imagined its source was two heavy stones that made the plastic vibrate as they rolled around the cylinder, and bumped into each other occasionally to thump out irregular beats. A humming began, a mid-range whine that crescendoed to noticeability from beneath the bass-line and settled at a volume just below unbearable. Another mid-range whine, dissonant with the first, swelled to equal volume. The dissonance was uncomfortable at first, but after three minutes, somehow began to resolve itself in my brain and created a weird harmony with its new familiarity. The whines petered out, and were replaced by loud clicking, clicking like what a 1920s film-camera would sound like up close as the photographer pressed the button. Over and over. The clicking stopped. The whines swelled again, their dissonance almost welcomed this time, and soon diminished. The rocks slowed. It was quiet.
Lights came on, and I opened my eyes. A white screen above me displayed instructions for my task, instructions which were recited to me by Neuroscientist.
“You’re going to be shown sets of words. Try to think of the kinds of people these words remind you of. If two identical sets of words appear in a row, click the button. Are you ready?”
The screen became blank white. Three words flashed in rapid succession followed by a white screen.
“unintelligent dumb uneducated”
“smart brainy educated”
Glowing, searing white. I wanted to close my eyes.
“conformist traditional family-oriented”
White. My eyelids drooped.
“conformist traditional family-oriented”
I remembered my task and pressed the button. As instructed, I tried to think of people these words reminded me of. Instead, I pictured a table. Our kitchen table at home. With my family around it.
“muscular athletic strong”
I thought of myself. Realizing the vanity of this I tried to change my thoughts but before I could:
“smart brainy intelligent”
A memory of the Dartmouth library sprang into my head. Scanning the metal bookshelves for a collection of essays on Dante’s Inferno. I was thinking of myself again. I almost decided which professor to think about before the next set of words.
“smart brainy intelligent”
A repeat. I clicked the button frantically, lost my train of thought, began to fantasize about Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. My eyes drooped a little more.
Three quick flashes: “unintelligent dumb uneducated”
I sat in my third grade classroom, staring at an excerpt from Sarah, Plain and Tall, listening with frustration to a classmate stumble over the words.
My eyes closed. I opened them with effort.
Three words. Whiteness. On repeat for an immeasurable amount of time. My topmost vertebrae, the one that connects to the back of my skull, ached more and more the longer I lay down. I made stiff little half movements side to side with my head, trying to get the pressure off that one sharp bone, but nothing helped. I tried to pay attention and click the button when sets of words repeated, but I think I missed most of the repeats. I was exhausted when the screen finally settled on a constant white.
The lights went off again. I quickly turned my head to the right about ten degrees, releasing pressure from the painful point. I was instructed again to stay still and not fall asleep as they scanned my brain. The rolling bass rocked me into a half-sleep. I pictured myself resting on the hard shell of a canoe, swaying back and forth in the nighttime breeze of a lake. The moon came out from under the clouds, glowing a soft yellow through the skin of my eyelids. The sounds stopped.
The screen was on again. I opened my eyes.
My next task was to look at squares and circles. Neuroscientist said the shapes would be “red or blue.” If a shape was red, I was supposed to click the big button on the right of the remote, if a shape was blue, I was supposed to click the smaller button on the left. While doing this, I was supposed to focus on what the colors made me think of. I shifted my head to what I hoped would be a lastingly comfortable position and told Neuroscientist I was ready. The task began.
A red square: the right button. A red circle: the right button, again. The circle morphed into my brother Jack’s face, scarlet with anger. A blue circle: the left button. Jack’s face became blue, hypothermic. His teeth chattered.
A purple circle. I blinked. It was definitely purple. Purple isn’t red or blue, necessarily, I thought. It was a trick. Jack’s shivering face still fresh in my mind, I decided the circle was blue.
A red square: bricks, sand, a sunset framed by the horizon.
A reddish-purple square: another trick. I clicked red, and pictured the light of a sunset behind closed eyes.
A blue square: the ocean beneath the sun, a dark room.
A bluish-purple circle: a head on a pillow in that dark room, sleeping; arms wrapped around me.
Jack’s red face, a sunset, apples, blood, the Spanish flag, the ocean, dark rooms, lovers’ heads on pillows in dark rooms, maroon lips on heads on pillows in dark rooms, purple infected throats, blood, afterbirth, floating on the ocean, floating on a purple ocean, bumping into Jack’s red face in a purple ocean, falling through a purple ocean into a bright white world.
The screen was blank white. I had been sloppy about pressing the buttons toward the end of the task and had almost drifted off to sleep. I felt sorry for Neuroscientist: I was messing up his study. Thinking he’d probably only be attracted to exceptionally focused subjects, I decided to try harder.
“We only have one task left,” he told me.
Darkness. Rocks rolling around. One whine. Two whines. No whines. Clicks. Rocks. Silence. White.
I would be presented with sets of three images. My task was to click the big button if two consecutive sets of images were identical. I repositioned my head and told neuroscientist I was ready.
Three couches floating in white space flashed in succession: a black leather couch, a brown leather couch, a green canvas couch.
Three unpaired women’s shoes: a black stiletto, a cork wedge, a beige ballet flat.
Three unpaired women’s shoes: a brown pump, a black pump, a beige sandal. They were trying to trick me. These shoes were almost the same as the previous ones, but not quite.
Three computer-generated floating faces of Black men.
Three computer-generated floating faces of Black men. Were they the same ones? I couldn’t tell. I needed more time to study them. I panicked and pressed the button.
Two sets of three almost-identical men’s shoes. No button press.
Three computer-generated floating faces of Asian men flashed in rapid succession.
Then, another three computer-generated floating faces of Asian men. I simply could not tell if the faces in the sets matched. Panicking again, I clicked the button.
Three shoes would flash. Three couches. Three shoes, again. Then, three Black faces would come up and I would panic. I would frantically try to draw out some identifiying feature from the faces. And then another set of Black faces would flash, just as foreign to me as the first, even though I knew some of them had to be matches. I came up with a short cut: I compared the men to celebrities: This guy’s nose looks a little like Kanye West’s. That one looks a little like Lebron James. This one has big ears. I knew how bad this method would make me look if I told anyone about it, but it was my last hope.
I couldn’t do it. I wanted to cry. Neuroscientist would be disappointed. I could imagine myself becoming the central focus of his experiment. This year’s Annual Review of Neuroscience would feature articles like:
“Caucasian Subject Immersed in Diverse Community Still Unable to Recognize Faces of Other Races”
“College-Aged Male Surprisingly Good at Distinguishing Between Almost-Identical Women’s Shoes”
“Caucasian Subject Panics when Presented with Other-Race Faces and is Definitely an Awful Racist Despite Outward Appearances”
I gave up trying and just clicked the button every time two sets of Black or Asian faces appeared in a row. At least I’d get some right.
The task ended with a white screen, and I was finally done. I wanted to leave.
After a brief darkness, the platform began to slide out of the machine. Neuroscientist greeted me outside, and leaned over me to take the cage off my face. I tried to avoid eye contact with him. I took my headphones off and handed them to him, extracted my earplugs, putting them in my pocket so he wouldn’t see if maybe they had earwax on them.
“Thanks for doing a good job in there. I know how uncomfortable it can be to stay still.”
I forced my face into a half-smile. He knew I hadn’t done a good job. I had failed his racism test. He was trying to console me. We walked back to the outer room, and Neuroscientist passed me off to another guy. I rethreaded my belt through my shorts, put my shoes back on, put my phone and wallet back into my pocket, and, eyes down, followed this new guy up three long flights of stairs and through two unlabeled heavy wood doors to a small room with three desktop computers. The new guy directed me to sit at the center computer and left me alone.
My task was to rate the applicability of different descriptions to Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. I was supposed to respond from the viewpoint of “what most people think.” For example: “Most people think Asians are hard workers.” It really depends on the person, I thought, but remembered years and years of comments from friends, became aware of this sort of gradual buildup in my social consciousness of Asians as an academically-driven race. I highlighted the button for “Somewhat agree,” i.e. “Most people would Somewhat agree.” It was another trick. They were trying to draw out my own latent racism. Emotionally exhausted at this point, I was too weak to resist.
I clicked through the survey as quickly as I could, cringing occasionally, and then walked out the door. The guy who had led me upstairs was waiting there. He pulled out a white envelope and gave me the promised eighty dollars cash.
“Thanks for helping out,” he said, smiling.
I grunted and walked away. Was he mocking me? He knew, just as well as the basement Neuroscientist, about that ugly something in my brain I had just discovered. I wanted to turn back, to explain to him that, really, I’m not racist. I have non-white friends. I don’t judge people based on outward appearances. But they had seen my brain and its failure, and any desperate rationalization of it on my part would just drive home their case.
Was I so afraid of my possibly biologically racist tendencies that I really hadn’t acknowledged their presence in my psyche until just now?
Down two flights of stairs and back in the sunlight, I tried to shrug it all off. It felt nice to have four crisp twenties in my wallet, at least.