I Got 'Brain Surgery' from a Doctor Whose Card I Found in the Street
I had an hour-long immersive experience in a bid to relax. But what am I really paying for?
Photos: Daisy Schofield
I have spent quite a lot of time being stressed. When I was freelancing, I would roll out of bed and pick up a can of Red Bull in one swift, practiced motion. I would then neck that can before my eyes had opened properly. Next, I'd sit at my laptop and type until I remembered to eat some food, which would be a handful of Linda McCartney sausages shoved in my mouth very quickly. This is the life you chose, I would think, teeth grinding, confused about the time, panicking about my overdraft. If you keep working, maybe one day you will have some leisure.
I feel less stressed these days. I have a job that doesn't destroy me, and I make a habit of prioritising things that bring me happiness, like eating rice balls in bed or doing "Word Up" by Chromeo on Dance Mat. But we could all do with more relaxation – especially if you're a burnt out millennial. Most of us are broke. Our rented flats are mouldy. Our IKEA furniture is falling apart. We spend our time – our precious, finite alive time – in offices, or behind a cash register, or wherever pays the bills. Capitalism is a bitch, etc.
Which is why, when I was handed this card in the street the other day, I felt intrigued:
"Ultra relaxing" and "brain surgery" aren't two concepts that usually go together, but neither are a lot of things – McDonald's chips and chocolate milkshakes, yoga and a 33C room – and that doesn't mean we shouldn't try them.
So, as soon I got back to the office, I emailed "Dr Leon" requesting an appointment right away. They replied saying I should arrive the following day at 12.30PM, ring the doorbell and begin my journey towards becoming a better version of myself. When the time came, I dragged my dishevelled body down Brick Lane, where their "clinic" is based, and brought Daisy our intern along to take some pictures.
On arrival, I was greeted by Dr Leon (otherwise known as Sofi Lee-Henson, the creator of XNN Systems), who was wearing a white coat and holding a clipboard. "So good to meet you," she enthused, ushering me into what resembled a massage therapist's office with a vaguely medical edge, the air smelling faintly like essential oils. "Please, make yourself comfortable." She pointed to a soft chair, before playing me some pre-recorded videos of scientific-looking people talking about how I can become my "better self" through "neural enhancement".
I was then asked to fill in a form where I wrote about how happy I currently am on a scale of 1-10 (seven, sometimes eight); whether I most value love, knowledge or power (love); and what I want to achieve after the session (creativity, productivity, a combo of the two?). Afterwards, I was led to a massage chair in the corner, where Dr Leon fastened some goggles and headphones onto my head and put some soft music on in the background.
"Do you feel quite comfortable, Miss Jones?" she asked. I nodded. "Then we shall begin."
I can't really explain what happened next. Dr Leon sprayed mint liquid in my mouth ("this can cause some patients to hallucinate") and rubbed an unidentifiable gel on my forehead. She spoke about my "better self" microchip and how it will burrow into my "brain sack". At one point, my head started to softly vibrate, as if she was rolling a softened Nutribullet across my face. As someone who gets an almost ASMR-like sensation from going to the hairdressers or getting my eyebrows done, I found the experience extremely relaxing. When she told me the "procedure" was over and I could stand up, I felt dazed, as if someone had given me a head massage, or I'd had a nap.
Obviously, I realised quite quickly that XNN Systems is essentially immersive theatre. It's too strange, too absurd, to be otherwise. Afterwards, when out of character, Sofi told me she started the project six years ago, in conjunction with her Graphic Design degree at Central Saint Martins.
"I'm not very spiritual," she told me. "I'm not big on yoga, I could never get into meditation. So I got thinking about what access point could I use to get me more interested in mindfulness, and wellness – and science fiction was that for me. It was all about creating escapism, which was dependent on the audience member – and you get as much as you give."
The purpose of XNN Systems – which began as an offshoot of Secret Cinema – can be loosely considered as "entertainment”. Sofi gets quite a few couples attending for first dates, for example, and it is clearly intended to be a performance. But it also fits snugly within faint, nebulous ideas about "wellness", too, and a lot of people go for solely that purpose. "My current aim is to explore theatre and experience as therapy," it says on the booking site. "Exploring currently-used therapeutic techniques, my company XNN applies methods through experience, allowing escapism and the freedom for audiences to explore."
Obviously this is all very vague, and Sofia has no formal therapeutic or medical qualifications, nor claims to. But it does bring up some interesting questions when it comes to the lengths we will go to in order to feel less stressed. When we spend however much on a massage, or a vampire facial, or cupping, or a sensory deprivation float tank, for example, are we really paying for the "procedure" and its supposed benefits, or are we paying for an hour in which we can feel personally cared for? In many ways, having fake brain surgery is no different to any of that.
These treatments are also all considered guilt-free. Laying in bed in the middle of the day instead of working is seen as lazy. Laying on a massage chair after paying £40 for a "therapeutic" procedure (which is what this particular session would have cost) is just looking after yourself.
I didn't leave the "surgery" with nothing to hand. Sofia had secured a medical bracelet to my wrist upon arrival, and when I left she gave me a pot of "development solution" for "aftercare". The pot, of course, had nothing inside it. "Fill to base of neck with your favourite drinkable liquid," it read on the label. "Drink and repeat up to three times."
In some ways, the bottle is an apt metaphor for the whole thing. Forgive me for sounding like an A-Level Philosophy student who just discovered Karl Marx, but in a climate as demanding as ours – one that teaches us that labour is money, and money is success, and therefore leisure is anti-money, and leisure is anti-success – it can be hard to make time for yourself. Relaxation is so fleeting, and so often full of guilt, that it can be easier to indulge in when it's dressed up as something medical, something beneficial to our betterment, something that might make us more productive.
Or maybe I'm just being proper bleak about it and I should get back to work.