How Life is Like an MRI


Compacted into 30-minutes, having an MRI is an analogue for living. It took only one half hour in the machine to get a visual impression of my knee. There were no life threatening conditions. Just possible surgery due to wear and tear. Both words, literally.

I lay myself down on a movable platform. Imagine me as a cigar on my back, electronically slid into and out of a narrow, cylindrical enclosure. The magnets, on at all times, made a metallic, heartbeat-like racket; louder and arrhythmic when the machine got excited attempting to get a proper picture of the crucial body part: the kind of sound to make a person believe he was being fed into a meat grinder. I was given ear plugs which never fully killed the noise. The technician reminded me to be still, lest the exercise become worthless.

In the magnetic resonance imaging machine you enter a world of “booming, buzzing confusion,” as William James said. Is that any different from the world outside the hospital? You are on a very short assembly line. On it. Now you know something new: not what a factory worker knows, but the piece of metal or plastic on which he works before the product moves on to the next employee on the line. I had become a thing, objectified, like people we pass every day, unknown to us except by a few details. Just as we are unknown to them.

The cigar was left to mark the time. Nothing to read or notice. I’d been offered headphones and a choice of music, but experience informed me tunes couldn’t compete with the creature swallowing me. If one is a catastrophizing sort, here is a major opportunity to think the worst: “I won’t be able to be still, I’ll screw up the picture and therefore screw up the surgery and therefore screw up my life!” “I’ll sneeze or need to pee.” “One of the technicians will mess up.”

Or, if you prefer, you can take the 30-minutes and contemplate everything else wrong with your life or capable of going wrong. You are in any case, at the mercy of circumstances beyond controlling. Like life, again.

I did, in fact, have a foot cramp while on my back. The right foot, not the one in need of stasis. A few flexes calmed it down.

My left hand held a “panic button.” MRIs sometimes require the patient to live in the tube head-to-toe. I’ve had that done too and if your claustrophobic (I’m not) you need the panic button. The machine mimics how fate acts upon us. There are some things to which one can only submit. Fortunately, I took the event as an opportunity to meditate. Until, at least, I got the idea for this essay and thought about what to write. Make lemonade out of lemons, another life lesson.

Had I been upset, instead of panicking I could have reminded myself the hospital visit would soon be over. This too shall pass. My first time in the tube I remember thinking it might be an experience from which I’d learn something new and interesting. “This isn’t a misfortune, but a part of life.” If I lived a while back I’d have no remedies such as the knee surgery ahead. Psychologists call this “reframing.” Taking a new perspective on your situation.

In the big picture we are kind of like the cigar. On a conveyor belt that sometimes moves forward, sometimes in reverse, and makes no progress much of the time. We are dependent on the kindness of strangers — people like the two competent and kind ladies who took care of me. We move and are moved, not only as a matter of inches, feet, or miles, but in the emotional sense. The experience in the tube, like all experience, is time-limited.

The key, if you can find it in the “booming, buzzing confusion” of the world inside and outside your brain, is sometimes to relax. Control what you can, give in to the rest. Take the people around you for who they are, not objects, but folks made of the same stuff you are. We laugh, we cry, we struggle, and — if paying attention to what is important — we give some love, get some love, and do a little good.

Two out of three is a passing grade.

Enjoy the ride. However long, it is brief. So you better, in the words of Woody Guthrie, “take it easy, but take it.”

The top image is explained by the man whose brain was imaged, FastFission: “Made from an fMRI scan I had done. Goes from the top of my brain straight through to the bottom. That little dot that appears for a second on the upper-left hand side is a vitamin E pill they taped to the side of my head to make sure they didn’t accidentally swap the L-R orientation.” It comes from Wikimedia Commons.

14 thoughts on “How Life is Like an MRI

  1. I love the analogy and the fact that this came to you while you were actually in the scanner itself! Making lemonade out of lemons indeed 🙂
    When I had a brain MRI as part of a psychology study over the summer, they took a number of ‘baseline’ scans and told me to ’empty my mind of thoughts’ (ha! I thought). Anyway, I forgot about that (not deliberately), but because I was worried about having a panic attack, I decided to try and stay calm by ‘playing the piano in my head’. I had been practising the piece I wanted to learn to play for my therapist and which I associate with her, and so I visualised the notes and the music and played it over and over in my head. At the end of the baseline scan the technician came in and asked me to please empty my mind of thought. I really regret not asking what the scan looked like – could they tell something was going on, and if so, what did it look like? What did my brain look like when imagining playing the piano, as opposed to ‘when resting’?
    Your knee, I suspect, did not respond any differently when you began to make lemonade out of lemons 😉


    • If it was an fMRI it would look different depending on what you were doing or thinking. The neat thing about fMRI’s is that one can see which sections of the brain are engaged. Psychologists are doing a fair amount of research using this device. I regular MRI just takes a picture of the brain structures, without giving evidence of what parts of the brain are “lighting up.” Did you play better afterward?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Life has a way of showing you that you are never really in control of things. The aging process especially is a great leveller. It doesn’t how much money, power, education or opportunity in life you have, it can’t be bypassed.
    I learned a great deal though from my dear grandmother and from being a nurse working with the elderly and I now realise my grandma was one of the bravest people I know. In her wisdom, she faced her reality and realised that when she was start to struggle living on her own she made the decision for her self that she would go into a nursing home even though all her children including my mum offered to care for her. My grandma chose the nursing home she wanted to go to, even chose her own room. We had a big family day and got her home ready to sell. She had a few good years there and lived quite independently and we all visited her regularly.
    About 4 weeks before she passed away I had a conversation with her about what her wishes would be if her health deteriorated and she couldn’t speak for herself, would she want to go to hospital and have medical interventions. Her reply to me was ‘ I wouldn’t want to go to hospital, I’ve had a good life and I think grandpa would be on the other side waiting for me with a cup of tea’. I will always be thankful that I had that conversation with her because 3 weeks later she had a massive stroke and could no longer speak but we knew what her wishes were and we all got to say our goodbyes and let her go. I know that when she went she was in no doubt of how much I loved her and I was in no doubt of how much she loved me, her eyes could still light up.
    As a nurse I very rarely see older people make choices while they still can and often its left until life makes it for them, people plan for their retirement and their funeral but are in denial about the rest in between.
    I’ve learnt that even though there is alot we can’t control there is still alot of choices we can make and also how important it is to have the difficult and awkward conversations with your family and let them know your wishes – the peace of mind that can be experienced by all is a priceless gift.
    ps I am only speaking about my family each situation is very individual.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “Control what you can, give in to the rest.”
    ~ Thanks for the reminder, Dr. Stein. Right now, I’m facing a situation over which I have no control. I can only hope that things work themselves out for the good of all involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice analogy and spot on. I, however, reacted immediately to the knee issue more than anything. Think twice (or maybe three times) about knee surgery , especially if that might chance to be bilateral knee surgery! News alert! NO control there! Maybe the surgeon was locally known as “the best” and maybe I was in excellent shape and raring to go. No one (surgeon included) figured I would still be hobbling around six plus months later. Let me tell you, it’s been a lesson in letting go of expectations for how “things” were supposed to go. You’d think I would have learned this lesson by now but, nope! Slow learner, I guess (in some respects anyway). Take a lesson, my friend! And then hats off to you and good luck!

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    • Thanks for your concern, JT. In my more philosophical moments, of which you know I have more than a few (as do you), I think we all assume that the normal course of a human life is uneventful. Things are “supposed” to go as planned, right decisions are supposed to prevent or avoid most problems, and there is a permanence to things, etc. The truth, however, is that all sorts of unpleasant events happen even in the most carefully considered life, but (to the good) we survive and forget about most of them. When we are in the worst part of the story we tend to suffer for sure, but this is simply the cost of doing business — the emotional overhead of any life. We even learn from a few such events. We have a little of the professional athlete in us, in our ability to take on today’s game and forget about yesterday’s. If any newborn could be told of some of the less appealing moments ahead, I think he’d climb back in the womb! All of which is a long way of saying I think it’s better to play the game and get what you can out of life, even if there are “safer” ways to live. I want to keep doing aerobic exercise, advance my heart and brain health, and be in less pain. If it doesn’t work, it won’t be the first time. Believe me, I’ve looked at all sides of this surgery, got a second opinion, considered another meniscus surgery (that didn’t go so well the first time), and thought of doing nothing. It is a big event but not a big event, in that this is just another choice a human being encounters and another possibility for gain, pain, renewal or loss. Easy for me to say, I guess, because I’m not (yet) in your shoes. So, once again, thanks for your concern. I’ll let you know how it goes. Just to be clear, the plan is to replace only the left knee with a specially modified artificial one (a “Zimmer” knee) to fit me. Unless that is, I can find a donor! Any generous person out there?

      Liked by 3 people

      • In my philosophical moments, I heartily agree with you on the above. It’s in the real moments of daily living that I stumble (as, I am sure, most human beings do). This knee thing just blindsided me and, along with the suicide last summer of a good coworker and friend and then the unexpected death of a good friend one month ago, yes, I am reeling. I am sensitive to fragility and not inclined to trust anything about the world right now. If I can retrieve my ability to be philosophical, I will become buoyant again but, in the meantime, I am skeptical and am under the surface of the water (but aware of the sunshine above). You (and I) will be fine. I think we both have thoughtful life experience that make us survivors, even if , at the moment, it’s a little hard for me to hold on to that. As I look out at this gray, damp, foggy January morning in coastal Northern CA, I can remember that spring (and summer!) will be here before I know it. And, by then, I will be back on a bike and back taking long hikes in this beautiful part of the world. Thank goodness for the magical curse that is memory, heh?

        Liked by 2 people

      • “Magical curse.” Nice characterization. You’ve sure been through a rough patch and have my sympathies, JT. It is much better to have trouble living it than thinking about it before or after “it” happens, whatever the misfortune is. As Claudius says to Gertrude in “Hamlet,” “When sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions.” We all need all the reinforcements we can get.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. riserenewrebuild

    How I loved this! I laughed out loud at some of the imagery and jabs at catastrophizing. I love the alternative to panicking – reframing. Though, sometimes panic is somatic and no amount of mental machinations tame it down. Anyhow, loved this piece, love you, hope your knee is okay. Take good care!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I hope that one day I will be able to have your perspective on life in your more philosophical moments, Dr S and JT …..A moving humbling and inspiring exchange. ….

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Rereading Fahrenheit 451 (to teach) while thinking about this MRI post and the shared thread – the ‘noise’ of life. What an age this is and how much ‘louder’ the (figurative) din.

    Liked by 2 people

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