6 Cool Things People Have Done Inside MRI Scanners

People do the darndest things inside MRI machines.

Flickr/COD Newsroom

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines are a technological marvel. They pick up tumors, let us see bone fractures too small for X-rays, and examine electrical activity in the brain. You can do them standing up, or sitting down, or lying on your back. They're completely safe -- unless you're carrying a gun, evidently -- since there's no radiation involved. It's no surprise, then, that MRIs have been used for all sorts of wacky science experiments. Below, a selection of some of the coolest uses of MRI scanning.

While playing jazz

Charles Limb, a hearing specialist at Johns Hopkins and a faculty member of the Peabody Conservatory, wanted to know how some musicians are able to produce concert-length pieces of music that are entirely improvised, from beginning to end. So he stuck jazz pianists and rappers inside an MRI and had them perform. The resulting imaging showed that the most prolific improvisers somehow managed to shut off parts of their brains that handled self-monitoring, leading Limb to conclude what many musicians can probably intuit: don't worry if you make a mistake.

While giving birth
Charité -- University Medicine Berlin

Giving birth in a hospital bed is hard enough. Now imagine doing it in an MRI scanner while it's turned on, taking 3D pictures of your womb with that incessant banging to keep you company. That's exactly what one German woman did in 2010, and the act was all caught in vivid detail. Doctors could even watch the baby's head change shape during the process.

While reading T.S. Eliot

When actors assume a role, it's often as if they've flipped a switch and become a completely different person. What does that switching action look like in the brain? To find out, British researchers had a female actor alternately recite lines from T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Wasteland," and count sequences of numbers. When the actor was counting, her brain activity looked like any normal person's. But when she switched into character, a part of her brain called the infraparietal sulcus lit up. That's the part that handles spatial memory.

"I think actors' brains are like musicians' brains," she said, "in that they've been trained to learn enormous sections of language -- not by rote, but by matters of association."

While playing video games

Think of a video game as a big, flashy puzzle. To win, you have to learn the rules. Learning takes place over days, weeks, months or even longer -- but how does it actually work? Researchers at the University of Illinois tried to push the ball forward on education science by having test subjects play a game in various positions:

We built in aspects of shifting your attention around to different objects in the display, remembering different pieces of information, using different rules depending upon the context and the changes in the game. There's also a very complex psychomotor control in which you use a joystick to control a spaceship. We designed a somewhat entertaining task that was complex to learn, but built in various aspects of memory and decision making and control and attention. It was used very productively in studying learning and studying strategies that might be applied to enhance ideas about how we learn and how much and how quickly we learn.

While unleashing animals into the room

Some of us have a deadly fear of snakes. Others, tarantulas. Who would voluntarily undergo an MRI while being assaulted by these critters? A good number, evidently. In one Israeli study, volunteers were asked to bring a snake named Nachshon into the MRI chamber with them as the machine ran scans of the subjects' brains.

"We are very grateful to Nachshon for inducing intense fear in the participants of our study," deadpans Yadin Dudai, one of the lead researchers, in a video explaining the results.

Another study tricked volunteers into thinking that a live tarantula was being slipped into the same box their feet were in during a brain scan. Much as with the snake study, different parts of the participants' brains lit up depending on how far away the tarantulas were thought to be.

While having sex

Finally, no wacky experiment on medical imaging technology would be complete without somehow bringing sex into the equation. Scans have been performed on people in the throes of orgasm, on people who've been told to think loving thoughts as intensely as possible, on even genitalia in... er, motion. You can read those links on your own time.