Once again, Dr Lucy Brown has given us 2 lengthy questionnaires to fill in before we meet. It’s curiously wonderful to fill in these questionnaires, which delve into how the two of us feel about each other, how we feel about ourselves, how we react to everyday situations, and what we treasure in our relationship.
The brainscan is scheduled to start at 9.45am at NYU’s Center for Neural Science. We have two hours and every minute of the session costs $15. Which means that there can be no arsing about. At all. Last time, Mike’s little claustrophobia attack gave everyone the willies because it ate into valuable time. Not so this time, we’re pros.
The CBC documentary crew set up all their equipment, and I’m up first. The fMRI scanner is a beast of a machine, located behind heavy locked doors at the NYU neurology department. It’s a huge block of metal with a hole in the middle, with a gurney which slides into the centre. It is basically a massive magnet.
For this reason, absolutely no metal is allowed near the scanner – earrings out, belts off, coins out, underwire bra off. I lie on the gurney, familiar with the process this time. Dr Helen Fisher is the hand holder at this point, getting a prop for under my knees, a blanket for warmth. Keith, the guru of the fMRI – he runs the machines and knows the brain well- gives me earplugs because the machine is violently loud. Foam is then put either side of my head to protect my ears further, then a Hannibal Lectur cage is lowered onto my head to hold it in position. Above my eyes is a small mirror which is angled so that I can see a screen at the back of the tube.
As I’m being slowly moved into the central hole, there’s a clunk. Disaster is only nearly averted as a quarter leaps from my pocket to the inside of the tube, slowed by the blanket. No blanket and I could have cost us all thousands…
Once the quarter is retrieved, I slowly glide into the tunnel. For the first ten minutes, they are just trying to get images of the brain without any stimulus. I lie fairly contentedly for a few minutes until I’m seized by the need to scratch my nose. Not cool. I breathe through it, trying not to move my head. I then panic that no images have appeared on the rear screen yet, so I wave my hand which is protruding from the base of the tunnel. No worries, I’m told. They are about to start.
The scientists are looking for neural activity in reaction to three sets of stimulus. Mike and I have provided three photos of each other to the NYU team in advance (of our first brainscan all those months ago). The basic idea is that there are three types of love in our brain: romance, attachment and sex.
We have to provide photos of the other one’s face which inspires those feelings. For romance, I have a black and white photo of Mike’s face smiling during our first dance. For attachment (the feeling of comfort and security with a partner), I have a photo of him smiling on a holiday in Beirut which I really love and inspires happy memories (I have to confess, I found this a hard sentiment to capture in a photo) and finally, of sex, a photo of his head on a pillow (also a very difficult one to do – “make a sexy face Mike!” “erm…”).
The brainscan works in blocks of about ten minutes. First romance, then attachment, then finally sex. The image of Mike in our first dance appears. I haven’t seen it for a while (well, 8 months since we were last here) and I smile hard then get tears in my eyes. Probably a good reaction, but you just never know if what’s happening in the old walnut during this thing is right. But generally, with the romance, I throw myself into memories of how I felt at the wedding, some of Mike’s most romantic gestures (he was surprisingly good at them in the early days – romance is, as you’d expect, very linked with the feelings of the early days. Dr Fisher later says that it is unusually to see strong feelings of romance last longer than around 3 years in a couple. Of course, there are wonderful exceptions) That said, there were moments on our trip which were magically romantic – as I lie on that gurney, I think of lying on a Scottish tartan rug in the deserted southwest of Oregon, with Mike beside me, staring up at the inky black sky alive with glittering stars, during one of the few summer nights of meteor showers when the sky seems to be striking matches, and feeling like my heart was swollen with love for this man as we talked for hours into the night before crawling into our own little world of the tent by our bike. Our little daily signal to tell the other that we loved them, whilst in the shared solitude of the bike’s long journeys, was something we learnt from a couple in Fairbanks: 4 squeezes which say I love you (2 for love – so, forgive the dodgy Morse code: 1 – 11 – 1). They taught it to us because they said that they liked to be able to ‘say’ I love you without other people knowing, and Mike and I have embraced it wholeheartedly. I squeezed my own leg in the formation (I would put my hand up onto Mike’s thigh as he drove, and he’d reach across and do it to my hand).
We were asked to provide a photo of someone who we felt totally indifferent about. This is a tough one (how do you ask someone if you can take a photo of them because you feel totally indifferent about them?) – I used a security guard at my clients’ building. I happened to remember him from ten years earlier when he was security during a brief stint I did at Warner Music so occasionally I chat to him. He’s a perfectly nice guy, but I feel nothing about him.
Romance: Mike’s face for around 10 seconds, then the ‘nothing’ face, then we are presented with a fairly large number (like 2035) on a white screen and, beforehand, told to count down from it in increments of 7. This desperate concentration basically flushes out the feelings of anything at all. Mike’s face again. ‘Nothing’ face. Number. Alternated a bit, but repeated 4 or 5 times.
All the while, the machine is punching the air around me in loud blasts as it ploughs through my brain taking images slice by slice. Particularly creepy when the eyeballs are in shot.
Romance over, onto attachment – same process with ‘nothing’ face and numbers but with the attachment photo this time. Attachment is a harder one to evoke. I feel it more strongly than ever now that we have finished this trip. A feeling of complete trust and contentment with one person. What swirls in my head during this time is a happy cocktail of shared jokes, laughter in good and bad times on the road, the peace that I felt in the sidecar when I looked up to his face and watched him driving, the thought of having children with him, the life we are building with each other, my love of being around him generally. I smile everytime the picture comes up.
As the scan goes on, I get sleepier and I worry that I’m not giving them the brainjuice that they need. Then I worry that this worry is going to throw the results out totally. Then I try and think of nothing and get back to the job in hand.
Finally, sex. Now, this one is a bit different from the other two because it’s so physical. The first time we had our brains scanned all those months ago, I had terrible jetlag and was suffering from the aftereffects of the yellow fever jab was so feeling wretched and was very worried after the scan about the first two. But when it was time to think sexy thoughts, I really had no problem. I’m not quite so randomly horny this time, but I don’t have a problem. Apparently, that’s fairly normal and is why they leave this one until last.
After the sex block is over, they put on a DVD (of Planet Earth this time, of The Simpsons last time) for 10 minutes to get more of the control pictures of the brain. I fall asleep and only wake up when my hand falls off the gurney. Since the last time that we did the scan, they have got a new device which allows them to see where we look during the images. This new technology has opened the door to whole new studies where individuals are shown films and researchers monitor what part of the screen their eyes are looking at during certain frames – this could well dramatically change the way that we are presented images (surely if they know that we are concentrating on one corner of the screen in, say, a scary bit, they’ll make that corner more interesting? etc). In our case, however, they use it to make sure that we’re not asleep during the study. They are fine with me falling asleep at the end – otherwise they would have woken old koala bear here up.
I’m motored out of the tunnel, all good. I go into the study area on the other side of the glass, and Mike heads in. He seems much calmer than last time, and sure enough, he has no problems. In the hour or so that he is in the scanner, I chat to Helen about my feelingsduring the scan, which she documents. This time, she is keen to know how they compare to last time too. I tell her that attachment was easier to evoke this time. She is surprised – her hypothesis with us too is that we would return having fuelled our romantic feelings towards each other with the whirlwind and magic of travel.
The reality, I tell her, in my experience, is that travel is far from romantic. Yes, it’s about sharing experience and creating memories together but most of the day to day reality is not romantic at all – it’s practical even. It’s about learning to get a strong instinct for each other’s moods, about sharing the highs and, more importantly, the lows. Especially when Mike and I are sharing a professional dream here too, an all consuming project which we have both invested ourselves entirely in. The stress is daily and follows waves which are relatively unpredictable. My pride and my happiness in what we have achieved lies much more in the attachment area than the romance: what I now feel for Mike is a love much deeper than I could ever have anticipated. When we started, neither of us could understand how we could love each other more, but somehow we both do, and it’s because of the fact that we have shared EVERYTHING – from the random panic attacks, the desperate frustration at trying to get interviews or great shots, to the same thoughts.
And I say to her that I actually value attachment much more than romance. Romance, to me, feels like the cheap flirt of the family. The butterflies in the tummy at the start of the love affair, the fire that burns bright but not for long, the reaction that has people blind to faults, has people seeing only what they want to see. Attachment is the truth laid bare, it’s the eyes wide open, the acceptance, the feeling of total completion by another human being. It’s happiness and it’s my whole world.
She says she’s never thought of it like that before. The truth is that all three are important in a relationship, she says. And I say yes, but that I like the Big A the best. The other two are great but they are cheap.