Act Your Age… Volunteering for Experiments

First appeared in the March 18, 2011 issue of Retirement News Weekly

You’re not a real writer until you’ve volunteered your body for science experiments to earn money to pay your bills. That’s what us writers, who are volunteering to be experimented on, tell ourselves anyway.

The first experiment I volunteered for was a couple summers back. It was a beer sampling study. I (i.e. the guinea pig) went through a variety of cognitive tests and then was asked to taste three different types of beer. At the same time, I listened to what was effectively elevator music. I was told that the study was set up to determine if music would affect my taste buds. However, after the study was complete, the experimenters revealed that they were actually measuring how much free beer I would drink during an experiment. Tricky, generous scientists.

As I’ve recently been on the job hunt, I’ve returned to volunteering for these random experiments. Free beer and a handful of cash immediately after? Sign me up! This past week, I participated in a couple cash-earning experiments that I’d like to share.

The first was held at Dalhousie University in the psychology department. Being unfamiliar with the university’s layout, I arranged to meet the experimenter at the main entrance. However at the time I was to meet him, he wasn’t there and I realized I was at one of the many side entrances. I wandered the building in search of him and found myself in a sub-basement next to a water cooler. Finally, I gave up searching and called the British man conducting the experiment. He met me in the Oceanography Department and led the way to his office.

This experiment was designed to suss out patterns and predictors in prescription and illegal drug users. In order to conduct a thorough study, they required all levels of users (even non-users) so anyone could qualify for the study and twenty bucks is twenty bucks. I was asked a series of questions about drug use and felt a little inadequate by just how little data I was able to give him. Almost apologetically, I told the experimenter, “I’m sorry this isn’t more interesting data for you. I kind of wish I’d tried drugs to give you something to study.” He laughed and told me he’d interviewed all levels of user and that my data was just fine.

The second experiment I found on Kijiji (Stay tuned for next week’s I Can Explain… in which I explain free online classified ads). In partnership between the local university and hospital, a study was being conducted to determine how the brain’s chemicals may change in patients with psychosis over a year period. The experimenters were looking for healthy brains to compare with their psychosis patients’ brains. In return for nine hours of my time (three 3 hour meetings), I’d get $90 and a picture of my brain. Of course, I volunteered! After some pre-screening interviews to determine if I qualified, I was invited to come in for the first of the three meetings.

I’d never been to this department of the hospital, but after using Google Maps (Wow, I’ve become a self promoter!) I made my way to the hospital. It was a cool spring afternoon and the walk was a pleasant escape from my high-rise apartment. The lobby of the Early Psychosis office was a brilliant white. A sitting area was to my right and a glass reception desk was to my left. I approached the desk hesitantly.

“I’m here for… the experiment,” I managed to stutter.

“Excuse me?” asked the receptionist as she pushed her thick-framed glasses up her nose.

“The experiment?” I responded. She nodded and pointed me to the chairs and I took a seat.

When sitting in a lobby of an Early Psychosis Program, you can’t help but feel a little crazy. I looked at the people sitting around me and wondered why they were here. Were they all guinea pigs? Or did they suffer from some mental disease? Would this hospital help? And was I really here for an experiment or was I one of them? Was I too, suffering from psychosis and waiting for my treatment, while living in the illusion that I had volunteered to come here? I have a writer’s imagination and the apathy of a hypochondriac.

I didn’t have to wait long and soon a young woman greeted me and brought me to her office. This first round was all cognitive testing. They were determining how I thought and how quickly I did so. I was subjected to a variety of tests ranging from defining words to spatial thinking puzzles to computer mazes. It ended with a memory test in which a string of ten grocery items were listed and I was asked to remember as many as possible. Upon completion, they handed me $30 and scheduled my MRI a week from the day.

The next week, I once again arrived early; this time without the help of Google Maps (Though I did Rick Roll my way to the hospital). I was subjected to the same cognitive tests and after 30 minutes, the woman led me to the Neuroimaging Lab for my brain scan. As we made our way, we chatted and I asked her where her accent was from. She told me she was originally from Germany as we passed the lead-lined door and I was faced with a row of technicians and a tube I was about to enter for an hour. Yes, I was about to have my brain scanned by Germans… next week’s article should write itself!

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