Magnetic moments


By nature, I am most apprehensive about having to undergo any medical intervention. Even having my hair cut at the barber gets me worried, not because I am concerned about the final hairstyle but because I fret about what might go wrong. Recently, I had to undergo an MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) scan for reasons that need not concern you, dear reader.

I first heard of magnetic resonance whilst studying biological chemistry as part of my physiology degree course at University College London. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy is used to investigate the physical and chemical properties of molecules and is of particular usefulness to organic chemists. On the other hand, medical MRI scanning allows a non-invasive investigation of body parts (including soft tissues) without any dangers such as harmful radiation.

Many people who have experienced MRI scanning have told me how fearful an ordeal it is. Their main concern is having to lie still for a long period of time in a noisy, featureless, confined space in a narrow tube barely large enough to hold a body. When I learnt that I was going to have undergo an MRI scan, I was filled with anxiety. For someone like me, who dreads even haircuts and eye-tests, you can imagine that I was not looking forward to having my scan.

I arrived at the scan and felt like the peanut which stood on the railway track, whose heart was all a flutter (when ‘around the track the engine came… toot toot peanut butter’). 

Putting a brave face on it, I entered the scanning room through a reinforced metal door that looked like the entrance to an atomic bunker. I lay on a narrow bed, which turned out to be extremely comfortable. Before being given a set of headphones to protect my ears from the noise that would be produced during the scan, I was asked what music I would like to hear. I asked what was on offer. The choice was between Motown and classical. I opted for the latter.

The bed with me on it slid slowly into the circular tunnel in the centre of the Siemens ‘Magneton’. I continued entering it until only the crown of my head was outside it. When I looked up, all I could see was the grey funnel like rim of the entrance to the machine.

There was a sound like a fog horn, and then the sound of monotonous soporific classical piano music, rather tinny in tone. No decent composer would have had the gall to own up composing this pathetic attempt at ‘classical music’. Nevertheless, it was mildly distracting, and its lack of variety helped me to relax.

Then, the fun began. For reasons that the nurse could not explain the MRI machine produces a series of extraordinary noises, which must have been very loud because I could hear them quite clearly despite wearing the ear-protecting headphones. The first of these noises resembled someone hammering loudly at a building site. This was followed by bursts of sound (each lasting several minutes) that included ‘kerchunk, kerchunk, kerchunk,…’; ‘boop, boop, boop…’; ‘whooo, whooo, whooo,…’, ‘tak,tak, tak…’; and so on. All the time, the monotonous piano music droned on, barely competing with the miscellany of bursts of weird mechanical sounds coming from the magnets in whose womb I was confined. At several stages, the machine seemed to become over excited, not only emitting noises but also causing the bed on which I was lying to vibrate.

Far from hating the whole experience as I was sure that I would, I found it mildly entertaining. The 40 odd minutes of my scan shot by. Let me explain. First, I was extremely comfortable. Having to lie still on a comfortable bed was very restful and relaxing. It was far more comfortable than sitting for 40 minutes in an aeroplane or in some theatres. Secondly, the noises conjured up various images in my mind. During the vibrations described above, I felt as if I was on a reclining chair in Business Class on a long-distance flight. The odd combination of the repetitive classical music accompanied by the series of ever-changing mechanical noises being emitted by the scanner resembled the music of minimalist composers, notably the compositions Steve Reich. At times, I felt as if I was listening to a bad pianist giving a concert in a busy construction site. Many years ago, I attended a concert of Spanish Flamenco dancing. The endless racket produced by the dancers stamping their shoes on a hard floor was far less bearable than what I heard during my MRI.

At the end of the day, I realised that the horror stories that I had heard about MRI scans should possibly be discounted. I have written this to allay the fears of those who might one day need to undergo one of these investigations.

1 thought on “Magnetic moments

  1. Sounds very like my own recent experience of an MRI scan, except that I was offered no music. It never occurred to me that I should be, given the unlikelihood that any could be heard above the racket of the machine 😉

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