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We ran a Live Experiment as part of our public engagement collaboration with Banbury Museum in 2022. Read all about it here from the point of view of the subject in the scanner!

On 16 June, I volunteered to be the scanner subject for the live-streamed Live Experiment that was part of WIN's public engagement collaboration with Banbury Museum. Prior to the day, WIN had run a competition for Banbury primary schools, for groups of children to design their own MRI experiments. The winning idea was then conducted and live-streamed, with an online audience of 1,800 students. Having been scanned multiple times, I was happy to be the volunteer in the MRI scanner. One can imagine the joys of finding out that the winning design was based on fears and comforts! Despite knowing I would have to endure something that would evoke fear, I knew this was going to involve only pictures, and was happy to continue with my involvement.

As I went into the scanner, I found myself starting to feel quite cosy in there – quite a different feeling compared to the first scan I ever had, which had felt a little more claustrophobic! Once in, I was first was asked to look at something I’m afraid of, which happens to be octopuses (or should it be octopi or octopodes? Regardless, they remain as terrifying whichever grammatical version you use). I was then presented with a display of much cuter kittens and small animals, with the purpose of comforting me. Finally, I was once again presented with images of octopuses and asked to think about the kittens. All the while during this, the team were looking at my scans and discussing what was happening in my brain.

Interestingly, although the second round of octopus pictures were still unpleasant to look at, it wasn’t as bad as the first round when there were no thoughts of cute kittens. I wondered if this technique would work if there had been a live octopus rather than pictures. I’ll have to keep you updated on that, though I won’t be going out of my way to find out!

Excitingly, the scans revealed several areas of activation. I found it especially noteworthy that there was sensory motor activation observed when looking at the pictures of octopuses (the part of the brain involved in planning and sensing movements). Dr Miriam Klein-Flugge speculated during the feed that this may have been because I could have been imagining how it feels to touch an octopus, and I can confirm that I was in fact thinking about how horrible it would feel to have the tentacles wrap around my arm.