SXSW 2014: Mickey Hart goes on a high-tech trip

Grateful Dead drummer takes part in a video-game demonstration that may have therapeutic possibilities.
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Dr. Adam Gazzaley and Mickey Hart during the South by Southwest panel "Rhythm and the Brain." (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Dr. Adam Gazzaley and Mickey Hart during the South by Southwest panel "Rhythm and the Brain." (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

By Chris M. Junior

Music intersected with science, health and technology when a rocker and a doctor joined forces for the South by Southwest panel “Rhythm and the Brain” on March 13.

There was a lot to digest, but at the core of the detailed discussion was this question, posed by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, the founding director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at UC San Francisco: “Can we think of rhythm as a healer?”

Grateful Dead drummer and panel co-presenter Mickey Hart answered by telling a personal story.

“For me, music is medicine … it’s a healing agent,” said Hart. He then talked about his grandmother who had advanced Alzheimer’s disease in the 1970s and had not spoke for a few years. Hart took her for a ride, bringing a drum with him. When he played it, she said his name.

“I had never seen a medicinal remedy like this, where it would arouse somebody to come out of the darkness,” Hart said. “When I stopped drumming, she [ceased talking]. But while the rhythms were right … she reconnected those broken pathways for a while that allowed her the power of speech.

“That’s when the light went on for me … and that’s [why I’m] here today with Adam to figure out what really happened at that moment.”

Wearing goggles and an electrode-covered cap, Hart played a demo version of a virtual-reality game called Neuro Drummer. For the presentation, which involved two video screens, there was accompanying artwork that was created by Hart, and prerecorded electroencephalography (EEG) signals of Hart’s brain were fed into the musical track.

“So we have art, music, the video-game technology itself and then rhythm – and we think that this is going to be the cornerstone of a new therapeutic that we’re going to now develop and test in our lab,” said Gazzaley.

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