Magnetic Attraction

Experience an fMRI scan with a USC Dornsife undergraduate as she participates in a project studying people’s neuropsychological and physiological reactions to narratives in cross-cultural settings.
ByPamela J. Johnson

“Danger! This magnet is always on!” reads a sign on the door to the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

A list of what not to bring or do near the apparatus warns against pacemakers, metal implants, metal fire extinguishers,  watches, keys, cell phones and, of course, smoking.

“Be careful to remove your glasses, hairpins or anything metal at all,” Sarah Gimbel, a postdoctoral research associate at USC Dornsife’s Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI), cautions a young woman who has agreed to be scanned for a research project.

Weighing several tons, the magnet in this scanner has a strength of 3 tesla. It is the most powerful scanner available for clinical use today. Compare 3 tesla with magnets having half the strength that can lift a tractor. The 3-tesla magnet is 60,000 times more powerful than Earth’s magnetic field.

Near the machine, metal items become dangerous projectiles that will abruptly and with great force be pulled out of your pocket or hair, or fly off your wrist. Artificial heart valves are forbidden. You have a bullet fragment in your body from an old war wound? You can’t be scanned.

“Anything in your pockets?” Gimbel asks Laura Driscoll, an international relations senior who will undergo the test for the experience and the $20-an-hour pay. “Hair clips, coins, anything?”

“I have a belt,” Driscoll realizes.

“Let’s go ahead and take that off,” Gimbel says. “OK, perfect. Leave your shoes at the door and we’ll get you all set up.”

Metal free, Driscoll slips off her sneakers, enters the scanning room and sits on the scanner bed, where the BCI’s Jonas Kaplan, research assistant professor of psychology, and Christine Tipper, a postdoctoral research associate, begin connecting electrodes and a belt to her chest to monitor her heart and breathing rates. They attach electrodes to her foot to measure skin conductance.

When scanning, the machine sounds like the motor of a water pick gone awry — only many times louder. Driscoll is given earplugs and headphones, which muffle the deafening noise of the fMRI but still allow her to hear instructions from researchers.

Driscoll reclines on a long table extending from the machine and Tipper places a USC comforter over her.

“She’s going to be in there for a little over an hour and she can’t move the whole time,” Gimbel says. “So we try to make them as comfortable as possible.”

A loud whir begins and Driscoll disappears into the doughnut hole of what looks like a stark white spacecraft. It is 4-feet deep and 8-feet in diameter.

Driscoll is participating in a study called “Neurobiology of Narrative Framing.” The study brings together University Professor Antonio Damasio, BCI director; University Professor Hanna Damasio, BCI codirector; Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, assistant professor of education, psychology and neuroscience; Kaplan; Gimbel; Tipper; BCI researcher Andrew Gordon and others from the USC Institute for Creative Technologies.

These researchers are studying people’s neuropsychological reactions to personal narratives. They’re investigating how people are influenced by the way in which events are framed by a narrator and appeal to the listener’s own values, knowledge and experiences.

While Driscoll’s brain activity is being scanned and monitored, she reads a set of stories in which people talk about a personal moral dilemma or transgression.

For example, there might have been a writers’ strike at a major newspaper. The person in the story, a writer, broke an unofficial societal code to never cross a picket line. The writer did so because she thought of the bigger picture: The First Amendment guarantee of free speech must be upheld.

After reading the narratives, Driscoll is asked whether she thinks the person in the story would have acted differently for any amount of money. This shows researchers how deeply felt the beliefs of the narrator came across to Driscoll.

Later, Driscoll will answer a questionnaire revealing her own beliefs about the issues discussed in the stories. The researchers will compare her brain activity while each issue was discussed with her written responses to see how they match up.

“We’re getting a handle on how the brain is processing these narratives and relating how participants respond to the stories with their own values,” Tipper said. “With all of these stories, every person who gets scanned responds differently. For some people, crossing the picket line is absolutely reprehensible. And others would say freedom of speech is more important.”

“So there are these polarizing issues that they’re watching. We’re really utilizing the differences between individuals to get at what it is that makes these sacred values tick in people’s brains.”

In part, quantitative analyses of cross-cultural sacred narrative framing can be used to predict effective framing. The researchers will determine how narratives can be most effective given particulars of the situation, the narrator’s goals and the culture of the listeners. The analysis can be validated through behavioral and neurobiological measurements.

“How are you doing in there, Laura?” Gimbel asks Driscoll.

“OK,” Driscoll replies.

“Excellent,” Gimbel says. “This is going to be the very last round of stories.”

While Driscoll reads the last group of stories, Gimbel adds, “We always check on them from time to time. People are known to fall asleep in there. It gets pretty cozy.”


Read more about the Brian and Creativity Institute (BCI)

Read more articles from USC Dornsife Magazine‘s Spring/Summer 2013 issue