They always joke that I’m a professional. Helium is the key. The cold magnets look inside. A thunderous vibration pounding my brain to pulp. I’m floating through the universe, and everything is sound.
In 2017, after suffering through years of pain and on the verge of total paralysis, I was finally diagnosed with the illness Neurofibromatosis Type 2, an extremely rare genetic mutation that leads to tumour growth on nerve cells.
Since then, I have undergone about six MRI scans per year, and a few on top of that for good measure. I present here for you a very subjective tour of this quantum experience…
As soon as the machine starts humming, I am overcome with anxiety: is there some piece of metal somewhere on my body which I’ve forgotten to remove? Will I feel it burn? Will it rip off and spin through the tube, its atoms hyperactively vibrating, tearing through space, supercharged? What happens inside a super conductive magnetic tube such as this?
The walls of the capsule make cracking, sliding sounds. There is a steady hiss, and a pulsing clicking, like the drum beat for an inane techno track. It is the tank of helium, liquid helium which keeps the electro magnet cool enough to allow for a superconductive environment. The electric charge in such a magnet is permitted only by maintaining a temperature so deep that it can only be induced on Earth with the aid of liquid helium, an otherworldly element. In my right hand I grasp a life-line, a bulbous plastic ball attached to a wire, an alarm should something go awry. What can go wrong? A panic attack, an explosion due to technical malfunction? Or some unlikely yet possible quantum incident which causes the sudden collapse of space time, crushing my body, or ripping it apart into magnetised human jerky? Anything is likely. Keep your eyes closed and breath. I imagine stories I’ve read about prisoners condemned to decades long solitary confinement, who maintain their sanity by reciting epic poems, the Odyssey, the book of Psalms, users guides to electronic devices, anything at all, summoning from their memory information so detailed, so vivid, that they are able to enter another reality. For this purpose I have chosen a musical piece in hopes of entering a new world of the senses, yet a purely spiritual world, a Sufi hymn. I begin to play it in my head, a mediation.
Wrapped inside the cylinder which encapsulates me are coils. The coils create a magnetic gradient which changes the alignment of the water molecules inside my body. A series of radio waves is then produced which reflect off the atomic particles and produce an image. We are all waves, atoms and strings of vibrating energy. The magnetic gradient is then quickly changed and a new image is taken. By contrasting the images from different magnetic gradients the computer can synthesise the image of various tissues inside the body. By adding the heavy metal gallium through an infusion, the density of certain tissues changes, and a higher contrast image is produced.
The machine thumps, it pounds, it screams as the initial magnetic state is produced. It reaches a climax of noisy volume which I can feel in my soft tissues, in my eyes, before suddenly stopping: silence. Then come the waves, the radio waves; they feel as real as ocean waves, like I am drowning in a riptide, tossed in a ferocious and stormy ocean. But the radio waves are also stable, and somehow I hear them— or is it the device which produces them? The frequencies are musical and I begin to recognise harmonic intervals. The interval often begins wide, a fifth, a fourth, and narrows, until it is oscillating quickly at a discordant point, focussed on something, perhaps a blood vessel a bone a tumour.
My hymn ceases, overwhelmed by this strange symphony. Wave after wave rushes over me. The magnets pound me in rhythm, accompanied by a random and fierce series of harmonic intervals. Terrifying, hypnotising, an uncanny valley of sound which often approaches music, yet defies understanding, as though Cthulhu were a Techno DJ from the future. The infusion of the contrast agent is cold, and the magnets change the gradient. Everything continues; I wonder if my brain is being pounded and pulverised into a liquid which will be extracted by scientists from another galaxy. I am transported out of this planet, into the solar system. My body is only a disturbance of wave lengths, a harmonic structure; my life is a song, my illness is a passage, a key change. I feel the rings of Saturn fly by me and pass through a super nova. There is no reality but this unceasing cacophony. Space is sound, vibrations, and here in this machine I am experiencing the true music of the spheres. The pulsing beat of the helium, the mechanical throbbing of the magnetic gradient, the radio waves passing through me have destroyed my sense of physical reality— but it suddenly stops. The table I’m on slides out of this weird passageway back to the neon lit, cold medical chamber. The nurse removes the IV from my vessel and asks me to push down on the tiny hole left in its absence.