On Sunday, I participated in another research project at Baycrest – Neuroimaging Studies of Attention and Working Memory as a Function of Task Complexity. Quite a mouthful.

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The young PhD student, Susan, was investigating how the brain pays attention and makes a decision about how to respond when there are differing amounts of information to process before making that decision.”

Given that I sometimes have the attention span of a squirrel, she had her work cut out for her. First, she did a hearing test. I was glad to know I’ve got 25-year-old ears. See, what they say about ‘mom ears’ is true. I can hear the cookie jar lid opened from three rooms away. She followed with a simple memorization test.

Then came the fun part – getting wired up for the electroencephalogram.

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In the 80s, when I was almost felled by crippling migraines, I’d had several EEGs. Back then, the technician actually poked little brass electrodes into your scalp. What an awful sound that little ‘pop’ was when they punctured the skin. Then came the AIDS epidemic and they stopped inserting things into our bodies because people got sick from infected probes. Talk about damned scary!

This time, I was measured for a tight elastic cap thingy. She squirted in the conducting goo then attached twenty five electrode wires.

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That took about half an hour. I looked like an alien. Into a soundproofed room to see if there was any brain activity. Yeah! There was. It was cool seeing my thoughts transferred into wavy coloured lines.

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I had to follow a moving circle of light so they could track my eye and facial movements. Then came the tests – click every time you see a white square against a black background. The contrast was high and I learned about a phenomenon called ‘”visual latency”.

Even after the white square disappeared form the screen, I was still able to ‘see’ the image. Apparently, our eyes process things with lag time. Usually, we don’t notice because of the multiplicity of sensory images we take in every second. But in that small dim room staring at a black screen and brilliant white lines, I could “see” the residual image. That was very cool.

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Next, it was clicking when I saw a specific shape and colour of object. That’s when my mind started to wander. What shold I make for supper? Did I take the clothes out of the washing machine? Should I have Jake touch Kenora’s hair or whisper in her ear? And of course, that’s when I hit the wrong button and said bad words (I’d already warned her about that).

The “wired for sound and light” portion of the test lasted two hours. It got boring. And by the end, all I could think of was getting a drink of water and going to the bathroom. Lunch break, then two hours of memorizing lists of words, recollecting which were animals, fruit or modes of transportation, drawing shapes, repeating lists of numbers in reverse order, picking out objects that do not belong, yada, yada, yada. More tiresome than challenging.

The part I liked best was reading the two pages of multi-syllable words she gave me. Some I hadn’t seen in years, like “synecdoche” and “perspicacious”. She was surprised I knew them; I reminded her I’m a writer. All those days spent reading the dictionary paid off.

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Hub asked why I do these tests. Partly, it’s because my type A self wants confirmation that my mental processes still function, but mainly it’s for scientific research. I’m not leaving my body to science but I can let them look into my brain. If that helps develop a cure for something or helps in charting memory and learning, I’m all for it.