Technological Object: MRI Machine


Siemens’s Magnetom family of Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines all have musical names: Rhapsody, Symphony, Allegra, Sonata, Harmony, Concerto, and the Trio pictured above. Perhaps this tries to gloss over the intimidating sonic assault that awaits the patient. In Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (2007) the experience of MRI for Keith Neudecker, a 9/11 survivor, switches between the soothing music Siemens want us to think about (classical, on his headphones), and magnetic cacophony:

The noise was unbearable, alternating between the banging-shattering sound and an electronic pulse of varied pitch. He listened to the music and thought of what the radiologist had said, that once it’s over, in her Russian accent, you forget instantly the whole experience so how bad can it be, she said, and he thought this sounded like a description of dying.

Through all this sound a voice comes into Keith’s mind: the radiologist’s glib reassurance (with its own rather musical cadence) resonates with his traumatic experience; memory — or forgetting — and death readily associate with one another.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging exerts a kind of brutal power. The Trio earns its name by having a top-of-the-range three-Tesla magnet: 100,000 times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field. Differences in the magnetic resonance of substances in the body are revealed only when we are constrained within the magnet: the coffin comparison, just below the surface of the DeLillo passage, is clumsily obvious. DeLillo’s radiologist is presumably trying to offset a claustrophobic reaction.

On the other hand, MRI is ingenious and subtle. It provides detailed information about the inside of the body without invasion or lasting effects. One modern evolution — functional MRI (fMRI) — reveals what is happening inside the brain because when the neurons in a part of the brain are active, blood flow there increases. Oxygen-rich blood and oxygen-poor blood have different magnetic characteristics. This ‘blood oxygen level dependent’ (BOLD) contrast was discovered by Seiji Ogawa in early 1990; the use of MRI to trace it was first demonstrated in rats, and soon after in humans. There is some debate as to what it really shows, whether blood flow and ‘thinking’ are being associated too readily. The vivid coloured images that result may sell too strongly the idea that there are discrete and identifiable places in the brain that simply are the key components of our humanity.

fMRI has not had long to impinge on literary culture, but even before it was in use writers looked at images of the brain and associated them vividly with a mind and a person. In his memoir Patrimony (1991), Philip Roth depicts himself responding to the brain scans that reveal his father’s fatal cancer:

Alone, when I felt like crying I cried, and I never felt more like it than when I removed from the envelope the series of picture of his brain – and not because I could readily identify the tumor invading the brain but simply because it was his brain, my father’s brain, what prompted him to think the blunt way he thought, speak the emphatic way he spoke, reason the emotional way he reasoned, decide the impulsive way he decided. This was the tissue that had manufactured his set of endless worries and sustained for more than eight decades his stubborn self-discipline, the source of everything that had so frustrated me as his adolescent son.

Roth’s words ‘prompted’, ‘manufactured’, ‘sustained’, and ‘source’ all suggest different relationships between the physical structures of the brain visible in the scan, and the personality of an individual. The mixture of metaphors seems to me an effective way of feeling, rather than thinking, your way through the mind/body problem. What is striking is the intimacy he finds, because in depictions of MRI from the perspective of the patient (as in DeLillo) the experience can be estranging.

There is a memorable MRI moment in Woody Allen’s film Hannah and her Sisters (1986). Allen’s character Mickey Sachs looks very small as he is swallowed into the magnet. The machine seems to vindicate Mickey’s anxiety: if the therapeutic technique makes the body seem so frail, hypochondria seems justified. The moment of the scan can’t be seen online, but there is a clip of the aftermath:

The self-indulgence and self-acceptance that run through this film and others seem a lot darker after recent allegations of sexual abuse made by Allen’s adopted daughter. Nonetheless: there is brilliance in this clip. Everything is set up for a joyous Gene Kelly skip down the road after the good news — there is no brain tumour. The problem is that Woody Allen (or rather, Mickey Sachs) has no moves. The tracking shot and the music are ready for expressive leaps but they don’t come. Cars and trees interrupt the view, and these interruptions in the visual perspective seem to fit the interrupted, not-quite-happening quality of the physical articulacy that the scene seems to want. Soon, as the clip shows, Mickey feels anxious and beleaguered again.

It seems ironic that a technology created by prodigious human ingenuity, dedicated to the deepest possible appreciation of what makes humans work, should make its human beneficiaries seem and feel so small. Some version of this irony, though, may arise to a pretty much clichéd level in many of our interactions with technology. Someone builds a chess computer, which then outperforms the best humans, and allows poor players with cheap software to disparage the world champion: achievement turns to belittlement.

In the case of fMRI, there is philosophical resonance. The technology for investigating the brain, and a theory of how the brain and body and mind relate, aren’t innocent of one another. We may posit a dynamic engagement in the world – an embodied mind, a phenomenological interconnectedness. The machine suggests otherwise. It shadows and realises Plato’s idea, in the Phaedo, of the soul (or the mind) as a prisoner in the body. It imprisons the body in order to illuminate its prisoner:

The lovers of knowledge are conscious that their souls, when philosophy receives them, are simply fastened and glued to their bodies: the soul is only able to view existence through the bars of a prison, and not in her own nature; she is wallowing in the mire of all ignorance.

Perhaps the ready availability of the incarceration metaphor in thinking about the mind and body, and the basic experience of MRI, also helps explain why Siemens chose those musical names. They evoke a beautiful, freeing thought to counter the fear and constraint:

—Raphael Lyne

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