Getting Cerebral with Mickey Hart

When you get a phone call from Mickey Hart at 1:30 a.m. you are grateful.
As one of the Rhythm Devils that helped the Grateful Dead create its iconic sound, the cadence of a conversation with the rock legend feels like a jam session.
He may be best known as a former member of the Dead, but with the "cutting edge" work Hart's doing these days he may go down in history as a scientific musical explorer.

"You couldn't have done this a year ago," says Hart referring to his new work.

His new tour marries art and science as Hart's brain activity is displayed on a projector screen every night for the tour for the debut of the Mickey Hart Band's latest album Superorganism .

Using an electroencephalography (EEG) cap to read his brain's electrical voltage, the neural oscillations that are created by his every drum hit are transmitted to the screen creating a light show that's brain-powered.

The goal of this project is that, "hopefully it will lead to some kind of language" to help researchers understand rhythm's effect on the neuroplasticity of the brain.

With the help of neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), Hart may assist in enhancing and preventing our cognitive abilities from declining.

He calls his work with Gazzaley the "rhythm genome project." Together they hope to understand how brain waves act in the minds of people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and autism.

In 1991, Hart appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging to discuss rhythm and how it affects the afflictions associated with aging.

More than 20 years later, his work on the Rhythm and Brain Project at UCSF with Gazzaley is beginning to prove that "Music is medicine," he says. "That's what this is really all pointing towards."

According to the Rhythm and Brain Project's website, brain function is dependent on complex rhythms of activity that guide interactions between regions in each hemisphere to generate synchronized neural networks.

"The connections of the neural pathways get disconnected [for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's sufferers]," explains Hart. "Vibration stimulates that at the weakest level."

The project and Hart's nightly performances hope to point to the right frequencies and amplitudes for rhythm to positively affect the brain's neural connections.

Hart's role in all of this is to provide a kind of musical therapy to the brain or what he calls "rhythm central."

"Fortunately, that's my job and drumming is the best way to make rhythm because it's an instrument we devised to cut time," says Hart.

It was with the healing power of music in mind that this album took shape.

Researchers and scientists provided Hart with electrical signals from brain waves and body rhythms that he turned into the music and rhythm of his new album due out August 13th.

"Hopefully, it will push the boundaries of both art and science."

Pushing boundaries is what the album Superorganism and its lyrics, written by Robert Hunter, are all about.

The central message of the album and one that Hart repeats on stage every night from the song, Mind Your Head , he repeats, "A happy brain is a good brain."

At 69, with his birthday coming up next month, Hart believes that his life as a drummer has helped him stay healthy and energetic over the years.

Hart feels the Grateful Dead perhaps prepared him for this part of his life.

"I always look at my work as a work in progress," he says.

He refers to his time with the Grateful Dead as a kind of pilgrimage to find trance places in the mind.

As he reflected on his time with a band that created a culture, he talks about Jerry Garcia, whose death August 9, 1995 spelled the end of the Dead, but not the end of the long strange trip they'd started almost 30 years before.

"If Jerry was here," Hart says trailing off. "He's really responsible. He always gave me encouragement to create an instrument very much like I have now," he says referring to the EEG cap that shows his brain activity on stage.

"Only it was thirty years ago, when it was not possible to do this, but he suggested I create it."

Any fan of music, Deadhead or otherwise, can appreciate that Garcia would be proud.

To see the Mickey Hart Band and the brain activity of its lead singer head to The Festival of Friends in Ancaster, Ontario this Sunday, August 11 for a free performance.

By – Cynthia McQueen

The Globe and Mail