Google Earth is a virtual globe that lets its users "fly anywhere on Earth to view satellite imagery, maps, terrain, 3D buildings, from galaxies in outer space to the canyons of the ocean." To achieve that goal, the service must regularly stitch together individual photos from its library of satellite images in order to create a wider view. In two dimensions, that’s not so hard. But trying to convert that to three dimensions—especially in places where the visuals can get tricky, like where roads overlap—is where the algorithm can break down, and the resulting topologies can resemble what looks like an M.C. Escher painting viewed through beer goggles.
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 from the videos participants watched of robot dinosaurs being treated kindly or unkindly.
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.
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.
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 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 bookBonk: 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.
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.
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
Activated portions of the brain during an out-of-body experience
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.
A new virtual reality app developed by high school students at Michigan's Kent Career Tech Center is designed to work a little differently than most VR experiences. Created to help people with autism practice social interactions, the still-unnamed app eases users into the virtual reality experience at their own pace, instead of bombarding them with immersive sounds and visuals as soon as they slip on the headset.
Users start out with multiple options designed to help them feel comfortable. First, they can choose to enter a comic strip where they can read static panels, rather than immediately being thrown into an interactive scene. Then, once they've grown comfortable with that, they can move on to view an animated version of the situation. The final option takes full advantage of the virtual reality technology, placing them directly in the story.
The VR app was one of 10 student-led projects pitched at the final round of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest in New York City on April 8. Every year, Samsung challenges teams of students grades six through 12 to use STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) to tackle issues facing their own communities and beyond. The program "is a platform for students to take something that's meaningful to them and create the change they aspire to see in the world," Ann Woo, Samsung's senior director of corporate citizenship, tells Mental Floss.
For their project, the students at Kent Career Tech Center chose to focus on an issue they could observe firsthand at their own school. To develop their software, they collaborated with a behavioral expert and teachers familiar autism spectrum disorder as well as a local tech company. At each step of the way, Kent students with autism were able to test the app and provide feedback to the team.
"We want to cover the entire spectrum of autism," Ashton Charron, one of the app's creators, tells Mental Floss. "We wanted to create a highly interactive version, but we also wanted to create versions that were slightly less overwhelming. We wanted to make it very easy to step into.”
The final product gives users a chance to test out social experiences in a comfortable, controlled environment. "You’ll be in a scenario where you’re in a class sitting down. You want to raise your hand and ask a question, but you don’t really know how to or that you need to," Donovan Fletcher, one of the students who presented the project, says. "Practicing these situations in advance allows people to become more confident, comfortable, and productive."
That VR experience isn't limited to users on the autism spectrum. Kent student Astron Charron says trying out the software could be beneficial to anyone. "People who don’t have autism can plug into the VR and understand a little bit more of what it’s like for people who do," she says. "It gives everybody on the outside a chance to look in and see through another person's eyes."
Other ideas that made it to the final round of Samsung's competition include football helmets that detect concussions, sensors that deploy water barriers during floods, and energy-efficient window shades that cool schools without AC. While Kent's app wasn't among the three winners to earn $150,000 in Samsung products for their school, the students are still optimistic about the product's potential. "The future of this thing is huge," Ashton says.