I’m unemployed, having lost my job at the cafe I worked at after it was absorbed by the Corporation (more on the soon). While looking for new work, my friend suggests getting involved in some of the student medical trials at McGill University as a ‘lab rat’. She’s been making an extra buck or two from taking part in the studies herself and confirms it’s legit. I follow the link she sends me and sign up to a Personality Study. This one is only meant to last an hour and I’ll get $15 cash-in-hand in return for answering a few questions on a computer. Though they offer more money I avoid all the experiments that require you to take pills because I’m too much of a hypochondriac for that.
I cycle over to the university on the day of my first study, determined not to waste any money on getting there. It’s the first time I’ve actually been inside the university and I kid myself for a moment that I could be a student here but for now I’m contributing my data in the name of Science (which, momentarily, feels like it gives my life meaning). The building is huge and segmented into West and North wings. I get a bit lost and have to ask directions from a student. Not being a real student makes me feel like a bit of an imposter here but I want my $15 and I’m curious about the test.
When I arrive I’m shown into a tiny room with a desk and a computer. The walls are made of concrete so there’s no chance of them spying on me which I’ve read about in Science magazines but I’m told to switch off my phone as this can affect the study so I do, just in case there is a camera hidden somewhere. The experimenter leaves the room and closes the door behind her. I decide to forget that I’m mildly claustrophobic and focus on the computer screen. It gives me instructions and I answer a multiple-choice questionnaire which is mainly about my aspirations and social interactions. At the end of the questionnaire I’m given a score for how introverted I am and a paragraph about what my future will look like. It tells me that I might be married a few times (I’ve actually been married once already so that’s plausible) and may have a number of relationships (I’m terrible at dating so that’s plausible too) but I’ll ultimately end up ALONE. I groan at reading this because although I’ve been happily single for a while it confirms a niggling fear that I’m not very ‘normal’.
The rest of the experiment involves watching videos of people telling their life stories and rating how much you empathize with them. I laugh hard with some of them and cry with others. I kind of hope the experimenter can hear me through the walls and note that I’m very empathic and therefore perfectly capable of making human connections, despite what the computer says.
At the end of the experiment the moderator comes in to give me my fee and also some feedback about the study. She asks me what I thought the experiment was about and I tell her that the paragraph at the start of it affected me. She nods her head and tells me that the prediction I was given was completely random. The study was to see if participants who were told they were not going to be fully accepted by society would react less empathetically to others. I guess I’m a bit of an anomaly then.
I leave the room still feeling a bit irked even though the experiment is random. I look at the letter I’ve been given – the experimenters have made sure to cover their backs by offering advice and contacts for counsellors as they recognize it can cause some distress to participants. I relax a little remembering that this was not a real diagnoses so I still have a chance to fit into society (sort of).
During the following weeks I take on more experiments and actually get a bit hooked to signing myself up for trials (still no drugs though). The subjects are interesting – looking at how humans find meaning in things. I also quite like the idea of a few hours of work with immediate cash-in-hand reward. Although I worry about being a social outcast I do quite like not working a normal job, creating my own schedule and being my own boss (sort of) while sun tanning in between trials. ‘I wonder if I can do the tests as a part time job?’ I actually think one afternoon as I avoid dropping my CV off at another ice cream cafe.
But it turns out I won’t be able to take part in every test. I join the McGill Robotics team one morning for an experiment which involves shaking hands with a robot for two hours. First, they have to send electrodes through my body to my upper arm muscles to see if they can generate an impulse. I gulp a bit when the technician talks about a machine which they’re going to point at my head to send signals through to do this. I decide to forget that I’m a hypochondriac and sit in the testing chair. They strap wires to my body and switch on something which looks a little bit like a large plastic hole punch. They press it to my head each time they send a signal and I feel like a million sheets of paper as the machine makes contact with my head with a dull thud. My nose twitches but nothing happens to my arm. They continue to send signals through my body but don’t seem to be achieving the response they’re looking for.
Let’s take it up to 65, the experimenter says. ‘Oh no’, I gasp (they started at 15). I begin to imagine that the experimenters have lost control and don’t really care if I’m going to suffer any brain damage as long as they get their result. The experimenter looks at me and comes down to my level to explain how safe the procedure is. We continue with the experiment, my face spasming every time a signal is sent through the top of my head (apparently I’m in the 5% who can feel this) but my arm only reacts once to the signals. I feel bad that it’s not working. ‘Come on’, I silently tell my arm but it’s stubborn. ‘Ok, this is one of them’, the experimenter says and starts to remove the wires from my arm. ‘One of what?’ I ask. ‘You’re in the 15% who don’t react to TMS’, the name for the procedure, ‘so we have to terminate the experiment’. They still give me my money and I’m kind of glad to leave a bit early and enjoy the rest of my day. ‘You can come back for other experiments in the lab’, the technician reassures me, ‘but don’t do anything involving TMS.’
‘You can bring a camera with you’, the researcher says over the phone. I recognize her voice from a previous study I did and I’m sure she recognizes my accent. Apparently it looks quite cool when you’re wearing an EEG cap which secures electrodes to your scalp. The researcher recognizes me when I arrive on the day. ‘Turning this into a part-time job?’ she jokes. I don’t tell her I’ve actually considered it. I’m shown into a small black box room with an armchair. This time I know the experimenters can see and hear me from the other room because there’s a camera and microphone to talk through. I nestle back into the large armchair they’ve put there and look ahead at the computer in front of me. The room is warm and quiet. Just before sealing the door, they show me the emergency button in case I get claustrophobic but I know I’ll be fine. Actually, I could enjoy sitting here for quite some time, I think.