Don’t Volunteer: Brain Scans Will Tell Them Everything About You

After Albert Einstein died in Princeton in 1955, Thomas Harvey, who did the autopsy, stole Einstein’s brain. He kept it in a jar in formaldehyde for many years, and, eventually, it was studied. But nobody could find anything unusual about it.

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If you type the words BRAIN SCANS FREE VOLUNTEERS into Google, you will discover a whole world of universities that are looking for people willing to have to have their brain scanned. They will pay you to do this.

Among the colleges are Dartmouth, Yale, MIT, NYU, Duke, Sydney (Australia), Johns Hopkins and even our very own Stony Brook University.

Ostensibly, all these studies are being done so we can observe the way brain synapses flash this way and that, in order to find ways to cure certain conditions that affect the brain, that cause people to shake or lose their memories or see things going on that others don’t see. These conditions would be afflictions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It’s a tall order.

The pay ranges from $20 an hour to $450 for two days and more. For example, at Stony Brook, which is partnering with Yale, they are looking for people who have bipolar disorder and are currently depressed. A doctor screens applicants. The scans are being done to try to find a baseline in common for people with this disorder. Besides the $450, those who participate receive free medication for the illness for a time.

But at other universities, just ordinary people are welcome to walk in the door and have their brains scanned. For example, at Duke you get, after it is over, to look at your brain. They tell you they are studying visual perception, how information is held in memory and, according to their brochure, even “how people make predictions about future events.” Subjects listen to words or music, count stimuli, press buttons to indicate judgment calls, and get between $10 and $20 an hour for the two or three hour’s work. You have to give your social security number to get the money, though. It’s a university requirement.

This study of the brain is an enormous project going on all over the world now. Hundreds of millions, even billions, in government money is being spent on the studies. In Europe, the program is called the Human Brain Project. In America it is called The BRAIN Initiative.

But know this. It would be a good idea to shop around to get the best deal for getting your brain scanned. And the reason is that all these scans, at MIT, UCLA, Mass General, the University of Minnesota, Harvard, the University of Oxford and all the rest, are being gathered together in a huge database. That’s the whole point. It’s like the study to find the human genome.

As a doctor in one study told The New York Times, the central question to be answered is “how do differences between you and me, and how our brains are wired up, relate to differences in our behaviors, our thoughts, our emotions, our experiences.” And no one university can do it alone.

Choose a university. If you go to another to volunteer again, you could be turned down. It’s a combined database. They’ve already got you.

Before I move on to tell you how secure and how private this is, and how nobody will be ever be able to see who you are (and some day, why) because they are being so careful to protect your privacy, let me tell you some other things.

I recently went to see my doctor in Bridgehampton. I’ve been seeing him all my life. My file about my various aches and pains, none of your business of course, is so thick that it is actually occupies five folders. Behind the reception desk you can see all my doctors’ files. They occupy shelves floor to ceiling. But not in my most recent visit. They are all gone.

“They are now all stored digitally,” the secretary said.

Now here is what Dr. Deanna Barch of Washington University in St. Louis told The New York Times about brain scans. “The amount of time and energy we’re spending collecting this data, there’s no possible way any one research group could ever use it to the extent that justifies the cost. But letting everybody use it—great!”

On the other hand, the results are confidential, or at least the test results of motor skills and cognitive abilities and other things of a personal nature are.

Right.

In James Gorman’s Times article, “The Brain, In Exquisite Detail,” a reporter colleague of his has his brain scanned. The reporter was shown it afterwards. It was “all there,” the technician told him, with details down to a half cubic millimeter or 0.0001 cubic inches. This is new. There’s new technology that gets it all. They can even layer scans, as in Google Earth, to get roads and streetlights and traffic flow. It’s ten hours of scans and ten hours of study.

Here’s what it was like to do the scans at the University of Washington in St. Louis. Subjects spend 10 hours over two days in the MRI and in other labs. In the MRI, the lab assistants ask the questions. You answer. Elsewhere, in a corridor, they have two traffic cones set up where people are timed running back and forth and back and forth. They then go down the hall to another lab where technicians place a drop of liquid on a swab that the subjects then taste to say what it is. All the while, their brains are hooked up with wires.

There’s a new book out about what you can learn from brain scans. It was written by a neuroscientist named James Fallon, who is a professor at the University of California at Irvine, and it’s called The Psychopath Inside.

Fallon wanted to see if there was any brain activity common to those who have committed mass murder. He got scans of the brains of some of these psychopaths. And he found a connection. A particular part of the brain that deals with emotion was strangely inactive.

It then occurred to him that two of his ancestors had been psychopaths who murdered. So he decided to ask members of his family to have their brains scanned to see if the gene had been passed on. He took a brain scan himself.

What he found was that there was no evidence of anyone in his family having this psychopathic gene, except one. He peeled the tape off the label of the scan. It was him.

I heard him do an interview on the radio. He sounded like a nice guy. He said that he was raised with love and kindness by wonderful parents. So that was probably the reason why he hadn’t killed anybody, at least yet. But then, also, he said, he wouldn’t have known if he were a psychopath, anyway. Only those around him would. So he asked them. Colleagues and friends all agreed he seemed to have little empathy toward friends and family and was only interested in them if what they did was something on a global level that he could relate to. He was also told he was manipulative.

So he’s ok. But he’s a carrier.

Where is all this going? Well, all the brain scans are being kept in a secure underground place in South Dakota under armed guard. Nobody will ever get it. Ever. Except for all the people working on them. Oh dear, there’s been a break-in. Not to worry. We don’t know who did it, but what would they want with a scan of your brain, anyway?

Twenty years from now, when everything has been figured out and we all know why you had that awful foot fetish and what pill you have to take for the rest of your life for it, you’ll be invited back into polite society.

My advice? Don’t let anybody near your brain.

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