Q: You participated in a brain study last spring.
Rose Gowen: Yes, that is correct.
Q: How did that come about?
Gowen: Well, I was working as a temp at the time.
Q: The temp agency sent you?
Gowen: No, of course not, the temp agency sent me to insurance companies to make photocopies. No, I was working as a temp, but in the spring, assignments were few and far between — I don’t know why, as I’m pretty good at making photocopies — but anyhow, I needed money. A friend of mine’s cousin is some kind of brain researcher, and she works at an Institute for brain study.
Q: What’s the name of the Institute?
Gowen: I don’t remember, and it’s just as well, because I didn’t ask if it was okay if I talked about it. I didn’t sign anything that said I wouldn’t.
Q: I didn’t ask if I could write about it either. Let’s continue.
Gowen: So my friend said his cousin was always looking for test subjects. And it paid ten bucks an hour.
Q: That’s not that much.
Gowen: It’s more than nothing. Which is what I was making sitting at home. And I thought it would be interesting.
Q: Okay, so you signed up. Were you excited? Nervous?
Gowen: Yeah, both. I was going to get a ride to the place with my friend’s cousin; the night before, I had trouble sleeping. In the morning, on the subway into Manhattan, I took some notes about what I was thinking, but I lost the notebook.
Gowen: But I remember, I was thinking, “What if they discover I have an amazing brain?”
Gowen: I mean, why not? There could be something rare and special about my brain.
Q: (laughing) Sure. Why not?
Gowen: A few years ago — maybe this is too intimate to share, but who cares — a few years ago, during a pelvic exam, I learned that my uterus is unusual — it’s tilted, or something, I forget — anyhow, something about my uterus (or maybe it was my cervix?), something about it occurs in only one out of four women. And, perversely, that makes me feel special.
Gowen: So I was thinking, maybe there’s something unusual about my brain, too. Maybe I have an extra bump somewhere or something. I was riding the subway having this fantasy: one of the brain researchers would say, “Wow!” He or she would call a colleague over, and say, “Hey, check this extra bump out! Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Gowen: But then, I was also considering the possibility that they would discover that my brain was ravaged by a tumor, or some kind of degenerative disease, and they would say, “It’s amazing you’re able to function at all!”
Q: So interesting subway ride, hmm?
Gowen: Yeah. I met my friend’s cousin at her apartment, and she drove us to the Institute. She was nice. I tried to make conversation about an article I read in The New Yorker about whether or not the brain regenerates. I kept forgetting the vocab, though. It was kind of silly, but then we got to the place.
Q: At this point did you know what you would be doing, and what the study was about?
Gowen: No. I was so absorbed in the idea that my brain might be unusual, that I didn’t even ask! But when we went into the building, and walked down the hall to the room where the study was going to take place. The walls were lined with posters about schizophrenia and perception.
Q: What did you think about that?
Gowen: I thought it was interesting.
Q: Did you think maybe they would find that you were schizophrenic?
Q: Well, did it occur to you that though you thought you were volunteering for the study, perhaps some personality that you are not aware of is a patient of a psychiatrist who signed you up for the study?
Gowen: That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.
Q: You didn’t even think of that?
Q: Well, remember what P.G. Wodehouse said: “Never confuse the impossible with the implausible.”
Gowen: I think you’ve got that quote wrong. I think it’s “Never confuse the impossible with the unlikely.”
Q: Okay. Whatever it is, let’s get back to the story. So you got to the Institute and saw the posters about schizophrenia. Then what?
Gowen: I was introduced to the other researchers, and I signed a thing saying I agreed to be paid, and filled out a questionnaire about whether I was right- or left- handed, footed, eyed, and so on.
Q: Which are you?
Gowen: Righty all the way. And then they stuck electrodes on my head, and I did the tests, and went home.
Q: Tell me about the electrodes.
Gowen: I felt like I was at a hair salon. I never go to a hair salon in real life, but I was sitting in a vinyl armchair, reading about Uma Thurman in an InStyle, while a young man and a young woman attached the electrodes. There was a blue cloth cap, which they put on my head and fastened under my chin with a chinstrap. Some of the electrodes dangled from the front; they attached those ones first, by squirting a saline solution on my forehead and temples, and taping them on, and the rest were stuck through grommets on the cap. Someone described getting their hair highlighted to me once — they put a cap on your head, and pull bits of your hair though holes in it with a crochet hook — it was a lot like that. They had blunt-tipped syringes, with which they rooted around in my scalp, and squirted the saline solution with (the saline looked like semi-solid grease), and then they stuck the electrodes in. It took a while; I think there were 132 electrodes.
Q: Then what?
Gowen: Then, for the rest of the day, except lunch, I was tested.
Q: Were there other test subjects there as well?
Gowen: No. They do one at a time.
Q: What was the testing like?
Gowen: The wires from the electrodes came off my head, and were gathered together in rainbow bands — you know those rainbow bands of wires? So I was in a small room, almost a closet, sitting in the armchair in front of a computer screen. The rainbow bands were hooked up to a computer behind my chair, and I was given an indicator button — just a little box with a button on it, that was hooked up to the computer. Each test lasted about twenty minutes, I think. During the tests, a square of color would flash on the screen, and then a pair of letters and numbers. Depending on what color flashed on the screen, I had to push the button if either the number was even, or the letter was a vowel. So, like if the color was pink, I was supposed to look for vowels, and if it was purple I was supposed to look for even numbers. For instance if the screen flashed purple, and then A7 came up, I wouldn’t press the button, but if it was A6, I would, or if it was pink and A7, I would. It was very quick: click, click, click, for about twenty minutes, and then I would rest before the next one.
Q: Was it hard?
Gowen: Well, at first I was second-guessing myself — I’d think, I think that was a click, but maybe it was really purple, not pink… and then after a while I was sort of mentally reciting, pink-vowel-yes, purple-odd-no, and at the end I had it down, and it was just yes or no.
Q: How’d you do?
Gowen: I thought I was doing pretty well, and the people who were running the test from the computer on the other side of the door to the closet where I was sitting, kept saying I was doing well — but I found out later from my friend, who did the test too, that they always say you’re doing well, partly to keep the subject from falling asleep. It was pretty hypnotic. But then at lunchtime, one of the other researchers, who was watching the test from another room, told me he had to check the program because I wasn’t missing any.
Q: You’re grinning.
Gowen: Yeah. I felt pretty pleased with myself that I was doing well, until later when I was on my way home, and realized that the test had nothing to do with intelligence or anything, it was more about alertness and reflexes and perception. So there was no reason to feel smug.
Q: You look kind of smug, though.
Gowen: I know, but it’s misplaced smugness. The other thing they kept telling me, during the tests — aside from, “You’re doing really well” — was, Relax your forehead. They were in the other room, they couldn’t see me, so when they said, Relax your forehead, I thought, “Oh my god, if they can tell what my forehead is doing what else can they tell?” Because they were watching my answers on the test, but they were also looking at my brainwaves. And everything that happened in my head or body would show up in the brainwaves, right? So at one point, I was doing the test, and there were a bunch of researchers in the other room talking. I was doing the test, trying to eavesdrop on the conversation in the next room, thinking about my itchy foot, and thinking about how I might describe the experience to my boyfriend later — and wondering if the brain researchers could tell, and if they were impressed that I was doing all those things at once.
Q: Could they?
Gowen: I don’t know, they didn’t mention it. But then after lunch, my chicken wrap was digesting in a… rude way, and I couldn’t help wondering whether they knew and would recognize the brainwave pattern for the opening and closing of the sphincter.
Q: Reminds me of that song “I Saw An X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas.”
Q: So did you find out if you have an amazing or unusual brain?
Gowen: No. But my friend’s cousin said I had beautiful brainwaves.
Q: Do you think you learned anything through this experience?
Gowen: I learned that I am even vainer than I thought, and that I should not scorn videogames — I might be good at them.