8 Unexpected Activities People Have Done in MRI Scanners for Science

iStock
iStock

In medicine, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnetic fields and radio waves to show what's happening inside the body, producing dynamic images of our internal organs. Using similar technology that tracks blood flow, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans can show neuroscientists neural activity, indicating what parts of the brain light up when, for instance, a person thinks of an upsetting memory or starts craving cocaine. Both require staying within a massive MRI machine for the length of the scan.

There's some controversy over how scientists interpret fMRI data in particular—fMRI studies are based on the idea that an increase of blood flow to a region of the brain means more cellular activity there, but that might not be a completely accurate measure, and a 2016 report found that fMRI studies may have stunning rates of false positives.

But we're not here to talk about results. We're here to talk about all the weird, weird things scientists have asked people to do in MRI machines so that they could look at their brains and bodies. From getting naked to going to the bathroom, people have been willing to do some unexpected activities in the name of science. Here are just a few of the oddest things that people have done in scanners at the behest of curious researchers.

1. SING OPERA

Researchers once invited world-famous opera singer Michael Volle to sing inside an MRI at the University of Freiburg in Germany. The baritone sang a piece from Richard Wagner's opera Tannhäuser as part of a 2016 study on how the vocal tract moves during singing at different pitches and while changing volume. The study asked 11 other professional singers with different voice types to participate as well. They found that the larynx rose with a singer's pitch, but got lower as the song got louder, and that certain factors, like how open their lips were, correlated more with how loud the singer was than how high they were singing. The scientists concluded that future research on the larynx and the physical aspects of singing should take loudness into consideration.

That study wasn't the first to take MRI images of singers. In 2015, researchers at the University of Illinois demonstrated their technique for recording dynamic MRI imaging of speech using video of U of I speech specialist Aaron Johnson singing "If I Only Had a Brain" from The Wizard of Oz.

2. REACT TO ROBOT-DINOSAUR ABUSE

Stills of a video in which a robot gets petted or beaten by a human
Stills from the videos participants watched of robot dinosaurs being treated kindly or unkindly.
Rosenthal-von der Pütten et al., Computers in Human Behavior (2014)

To test whether or not humans can feel empathy with robots for a 2013 study, researchers put participants into an fMRI machine and made them watch videos of humans and robotic dinosaurs. The videos either included footage of the human or robot being stroked or tickled, or the subject being beaten and choked. The brain scans showed similar activity for people viewing both videos, suggesting that people might be able to feel similar empathy for robots as for people.

3. PLAY VIDEO GAMES WITH A MEAN-SPIRITED A.I.

Two brain scans
Eisenberger et al., Science (2003)

To see whether the brain responds to emotional pain in similar ways to physical pain, researchers asked participants in a 2003 study to experience social rejection within an fMRI machine. During the scans, participants played a virtual ball-tossing game against two other players—whom they believed to be other study participants in other scanners—by watching a screen through goggles and pressing one of two keys to toss the ball to one of the other players. They were actually playing against a computer that was programmed to eventually exclude the human player. At some point during the game, the computer-controlled players stopped throwing the human player the ball, causing them to feel excluded and ignored. The researchers found that the excluded study subjects showed brain activation in regions similar to the ones seen in studies of physical pain.

4. POOP

Watching people poop through MRI imaging is a surprisingly common medical technique. It's called magnetic resonance defecography. Doctors use it to diagnose issues with rectal function, analyzing how the muscles of the pelvis are working and the cause of bowel issues. The scan involves having ultrasound jelly and a catheter inserted into your butt, donning a diaper, and crawling inside an MRI scanner. Then, on command, you clench your pelvic muscles in various ways as ordered by the doctor, eventually resulting in pooping out the ultrasound jelly and whatever else you might need to evacuate. No pressure.

5. HAVE SEX …

MRI of a woman before, pre-, and after orgasm
MRI images of a woman at rest, in a pre-orgasmic phase, and 20 minutes after orgasm (L–R)
Schultz et al. in BMJ, 1999

Scientists have also recorded MRI body scans of couples having sex. In the late '90s, Dutch researcher Pek Van Andel and his colleagues at the University Hospital Groningen asked eight couples to come into their lab on a Saturday and have sex in the tube of an MRI scanner in order to analyze how genitals fit together during heterosexual intercourse. Despite the surroundings, they apparently had a fine time. "The subjective level of sexual arousal of the participants, men and women, during the experiment was described afterwards as average," the study noted.

Meanwhile, other researchers are trying to capture scientific images of sex in different, sometimes even more awkward ways. For her 2008 book Bonk: The Curious Coupling Of Sex And Science, science writer Mary Roach and her husband had sex in a lab at University College London while a researcher stood next to them and held an ultrasound wand to her abdomen.

6. … AND HAVE ORGASMS

Scan of a woman's brain during orgasm
Wise et al., The Journal of Sexual Medicine (2017)

Scientists still don't know all that much about how orgasms work, so various studies have asked participants to come into the lab, lay down in an fMRI scanner, and stimulate themselves to orgasm. (A reporter at Inside Jersey went to Rutgers to take part in the university's orgasm research herself in 2010. She brought her own sex toy, but the lab was kind enough to provide the lube.)

Over the course of their work, Rutgers researchers have found that when people bring themselves to orgasm within an fMRI machine, it activates more than 30 brain systems, including ones that you wouldn't think would be involved in getting off, like the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with problem solving and judgment.

7. COMPOSE MUSIC

A musical score with just a few notes on it
Lu et al., Scientific Reports (2015)

Singers aren't the only music professionals to get inside an fMRI machine for science. For a study published in 2015, 17 young composers were asked to create a piece of music while Chinese researchers examined their brain activity. While all of them played the piano, they were asked to compose a piece for an instrument none of them know how to play—the zheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument. They were given a musical staff with just a few introductory notes already written as inspiration and asked to come up with something from there. As soon as they exited the scanner, they wrote down the notes they had imagined during the imaging process. The researchers found that the composers' visual and motor cortex showed less activity than usual, the opposite of what researchers have seen in studies of musical improvisation.

8. HAVE AN OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCE

Four brain scans with different areas of the brain lit up in red, yellow, and orange
Activated portions of the brain during an out-of-body experience
Smith and Messier, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2014)

In a 2014 study, psychologists at the University of Ottawa recruited an undergraduate student who reported that she could have out-of-body experiences at will to do so within the confines of an fMRI scanner.

"She was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane," the researchers wrote. "She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving 'real' body."

She entered the scanner six times, reporting out-of-body experiences that included feeling as if she were above her body and spinning or rocking side-to-side. The researchers found that the experience activated regions of her brain associated with kinesthetic imagery, the feeling of visualizing movement (as athletes often do during training and competitions, for instance), and a deactivated the visual cortex.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

A New DNA Test Will Break Down Your Cat's Breed

Basepaws
Basepaws

Modern DNA testing kits can reveal a lot of information about you just by sending your spit off to a lab for analysis. As a result, it's easier than ever to learn about your personal ancestry and health risks. And now, the same goes for your cat, too.

Basepaws is now offering what it calls the "world's first DNA test for cats," which can tell you which breeds your beloved fur baby likely descended from, in addition to other information about their characteristics. The CatKit will reveal whether your little Simba is more similar to an American Shorthair, Abyssinian, or one of the other 30 breeds on record, as well as determining which of the "big cats" (think lions) your kitty has the most in common with.

Here's how it works: After receiving your kit in the mail, you will be asked to collect a DNA sample from your feline friend. The current kit includes adhesives for collecting cat hair, but Basepaws will soon roll out new kits that call for saliva samples instead. (This will provide a more consistent DNA sample, while also allowing staff to process more samples at once, according to a company spokesperson. It also will make it easier to collect samples from hairless cats like Sphinxes.)

A cat DNA test result
Basepaws

Once you collect the sample, just mail it in and wait eight to 12 weeks for your report. Basepaws uses sequencing machines to "read" your kitty's genetic code, comparing it to the sequences of other cats in its network. "More than 99 percent of your cat's genetic sequence will be similar to every other cat; it's the small differences that make your cat unique," Basepaws writes on its website.

In the future, Basepaws will also be able to determine your cat's predisposition for certain diseases, as well as their personality and physical traits. The company holds on to your cat's genetic data, allowing it to provide updates about your cat as the Basepaws database continues to grow.

Order a kit on the Basepaws website for $95. Enter the code "MEOWRCH-I5W3RH" at the checkout for a 10 percent discount.

And don't feel left out if you're a dog lover rather than a cat person—Wisdom Panel offers a similar service for canine companions. Its kit is available for $73 on Amazon.

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