Neuroscientists sometimes forget just how different the experience of an MRI scan is from everyday life. I’ve just found this intriguing study that asked patients who had scans for the first time how they felt about the experience – the most common theme was the ‘sense of being in another world’.
There is a delightful bit in the study where one man compares it to being in a space capsule.
The participants’ overall experience of going through the MRI scan was a sense of being in another world. The environment, the enclosed space, the hammering metallic noise and sometimes the discomfort of lying on a hard bed, made the experience special and something out of their normal frame of reference. The experience of being in ‘another world’ was derived from the participants’ feelings of being isolated, far away, confined, lonely and dependent on others. ‘You feel confined, there is no door you yourself can open if you want to go out of there’ (P11). Being in the scanner was often associated with other enclosed spaces like coffins, a wooden sofa with a lid, a space capsule or ‘like lying almost as for cremation’ (P16).
All associations with other enclosed spaces were of a negative kind except for one man who had previously been inside a space capsule. He experienced that ‘I got a feeling, which is quite natural, that I entered a space capsule in NASA, Houston‚Ä¶ I was lucky I have been there’ (P17). The fact that the MRI department was situated in the basement contributed to the feeling that it was a different and scary place. Walking down the culvert made some participants imagine that this must be special as the MRI scanners had to be down here. A participant experienced a feeling of going to his own execution (P8).
The hammering noise added to the feeling of unreality and was associated with other sounds familiar to the participants. ‘When you have this sound in your ears it’s like listening to those who chop asphalt or concrete’ (P12). The unusual situation with the enclosed space and the sound at irregular intervals made the participants experience difficulties keeping track of time.
UPDATE: Thanks to Mind Hacks reader Brenner who posted a link to this article where a journalist describes their own experience of being MRI scanned:
“It was like being inserted headfirst into a giant, white cigar tube and having minimalist techno music hammered over my entire body. If robots were born and not made, it would be what a robot fetus experienced in the womb — if the robot’s mother was a bipolar drum machine stuck in manic phase”…
Link to PubMed entry for study.