September 18, 2013
Grateful Head: Drummer Explores Links Between Rhythm And Brain Therapy
The Grateful Dead always were experimental and progressive, and their former drummer Mickey Hart hasn’t changed, even though he is now 70. His current band, The Mickey Hart Band, is presently on the second leg of their Superorganism tour, each show of which involves Mickey wearing a brain cap that records his brain activity and projects it in real time onto a big screen, as part of the concert’s visual show and as part of Mickey’s music.
Mickey and his research partner, respected UCSF neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley, are interested in the rhythm of the brain, the series of pulses and movements in the brain that aid and dictate its function and activity. This is displayed in a ‘glass brain’ on screen, where the unpleasant looking meaty bit is stripped away and we just see the pulses (a huge amount of other activity is also not shown so as not to make things too complicated for observers). As such, Mikey can follow the rhythm of his brain on his percussion gear and other musical instruments, allowing for the kind of improvised (or at least unrehearsed, improvised is hard to define here) music that Grateful Dead was famous for.
But being all freaky and cool isn’t the only purpose of this project; in fact, it isn’t even the main purpose. Mickey Hart believes in the power of music therapy, and especially the therapy of rhythm, ever since he played a drum to his Grandmother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and saw an astonishing reaction. She apparently hadn’t spoken for a year, but spoke his name after hearing the drum. Since all manner of brain problems (not limited to older people’s conditions such as Alzheimer’s, but also ADHD and the like) are thought to be in part due to a disruption or malfunction in brain rhythms, Hart and Gazzaley quite reasonably believe that if we understand brain rhythm better, we can treat problems related to it better.
Reading various people’s reactions to Hart and Gazzaley’s project, a few are sceptical that it’s a bit gimmicky; that it currently has more entertainment than medical value, and the idea that it might lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s is a shot longer than a Grateful Dead fan’s hair. But anything we can learn about the brain is helpful to that incredibly complex area of science, and even if the project only adds to our general knowledge about how the brain works, rather than a cure for the condition that original got Hart interested in music therapy, that is still a good thing. Plus it makes for a more interesting gig than wearing shockingly revealing clothes and gyrating highly suggestively (I’m talking about Miley Cyrus here – it’s not something Mickey Hart did on his last tour).
And as Hart points out in a YouTube video all about the experiment, the connection between the brain and rhythm is not a new concept; shamans and monks have been harnessing the power of percussion since even before Grateful Dead started out.