Adventures In Cognitive Enhancement.

Earlier this year, I began to get tired of my job, or, more accurately, I began to get really tired of my job, due to some undesirable new developments. While the type of jobs I can actually get are not great, I started poking around online to see if something would reveal itself. Surprisingly, I stumbled onto a listing for a brain research study going on at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois. The description was vague,but it seemed to have something to do with mind enhancement. Also, participating in the study paid more per hour than my job. Getting paid to make myself smarter seemed like an excellent deal, and is nearly the polar opposite of what I was currently getting paid to do, so I signed up for it lickety-split.

The famous Beckman Institute. They are building another science-y type building to the left with some interesting architecture.

I was a philosophy major when I went to school, so outside of dating a couple of girls who lived near here I was never around this area, but then…  a guy I worked with was doing some sort of  experiment that involved landing a plane in a flight simulator(err, landing a plane with a flight simulator? Anyway, there was no actual plane involved).

He took me into the basement here, showed me a multi-million dollar flight simulator for a jet, which I of  course was not allowed to play with, and then took me into this room that had a simulator for a single-prop plane. Very cool. It was a cockpit with all the controls that would be in an actual plane, and inside was a computer screen that ran the flight simulator, and I learned how to land a plane(sort of). It was all I got to do with it, I tried to take off again once I landed, but it wasn’t happening and it would soon start over. He only paid me about half of the money he said he would, but it was fun so I didn’t care too much. That was… a while ago.

So we return to the present(or actually very recent past ). First, I had to take 3 hours worth of cognitive tests which were very difficult, and quite frankly, humiliating, and I had to go to the basement of a different building and run on a treadmill with a bunch of apparatus on my head and body. Then, I returned to the basement of Beckman Institute for this:


I was going to be in there for quite a while.

I was very anxious about this part. I had never been in an MRI machine before, and I was told it would be around 2 hours. All of my knowledge of MRIs begins and ends with the TV show House. In addition, I had just recently lost a friend of mine who had multiple tumors in his head. Previous to that horrible event, I would have been excited about getting to look at my brain, but now there was a bit of dread.

I laid down and they covered me with a heated blanket because they said it was cold(it was not particularly cold), strapped my head down and then closed some sort of cage around it, gave me an emergency buzzer for my left hand, and a device with 3 buttons on it for my right, as I was going to be tested while I was in there. They slid me in. It was fairly alarming. They had asked if I was claustrophobic, and I’m not, but I don’t recall ever being confined like that. They had set up a mirror(I would suppose, I couldn’t see it) above my head so I could see a computer screen from where I was and take these tests. One involved remembering words, one remembering faces, and the one I did most was looking at objects placed on a 3×3 3D grid and viewed from the front. Then the grid would be rotated and shown to me again with either no changes, objects that had switched places, or a different object thrown in and I had to decide what happened. They were all hard and gave you very little time to make decisions, but it was good to have my mind occupied. After being in there for a while I got used to it, though it was uncomfortably hot. For the last 45 minutes they did an anatomy scan and I got to watch the documentary Planet Earth, mostly, as the machine would start vibrating like crazy.

It wasn’t the worst thing ever, but I didn’t enjoy it(a female student had suggested I might) and was relieved when it was over. I got to look at my brain for the first time, it looked like it could barely fit in my head, like it was crammed in there. The MRI lady would not let me take a picture of it. When the experiment is over, I will have to have another MRI and probably do the cognitive tests again, but for now, on to the fun part:

A Room with a View


Three times a week, for an hour, I go into a room at Beckman, they hand me a tablet, and I play video games that are designed to theoretically sharpen my mind. They all have a western theme. There are six games,which I get to play for 10 minutes each, and I am rewarded with gold and silver for completing levels successfully. I can then use this gold to buy buildings in a seventh game, which appears to be an extremely boring sim of a western frontier town, the only feedback so far is that some of my buildings fell down from one week to the next(or perhaps my last session just wasn’t saved, I have no idea.) I have earned so much gold that money is not a hindrance, it is just a matter of finding space to put buildings and having the proper buildings in place to build the next level of buildings, etc. Perhaps there is an ideal way to set up the town and locate the buildings, but there is really no feedback, it doesn’t seem to do anything at all, so I am rather mystified about its purpose. Maybe they didn’t anticipate people earning money so fast.

With the exception of the main game, all of the games are pretty challenging. One is a puzzle game where you try to stack cards in a certain formation within a certain number of moves, one involves remembering a sequence of squares on a grid, and the strangest one involves a 3×3 formation of computer cowboys who raise their lanterns and speak a word(alpha, delta, hotel, echo, or “rolf”), one at a time and you have to quickly decide if the word is the same, the cowboy is the same, or both, or neither, in ever increasing numbers. I am currently trying to get past ‘3’ deep on that one, that is, when the fourth cowboy speaks up, I have to decide if it’s the same as the first cowboy, the fifth is the same as the second, the sixth is the same as the third etc. It is a strange way to think, a very strange thing to look at, and the voices are computer voices, so it is a very strange thing to listen to.

Overall, I would say that this experiment is working.  I spend a lot of my free time doing things that are cerebral in nature, but I don’t really do much that involves these kinds of mental processes, and my job barely involves any sort of thought or concentration at all. It seems to have improved my concentration, and has generally ‘sped me up’ which I have found to be quite helpful. My mind is feeling limber. It is not a replacement for my job, unfortunately, but perhaps I will be so cognitively enhanced that I will figure out how to get cognitively enhanced for a living. 🙂

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