Lib at Large: Mickey Hart’s brain on drums with ‘Superorganism’

Former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who celebrated his 70th birthday this week, has played with a lot of great musicians in his long career. But on his new a "Superorganism" album and tour, he's improvising with something that no one has ever shared a stage or a studio with before. He's jamming with his own brain.

Wearing an electrode-studded headgear developed in collaboration with Adam Gazzaley, a University of California San Francisco neurologist, Hart is able to see his own brain waves light up in real time and hear the sounds they make. He then re-imagines those buzzes and hums as actual music. It's his brain on drums.

"I give it a groove and put it in a musical setting that makes sense," he explained this week before a show in Phoenix with his Mickey Hart Band. "It opens doors to the science, to finding the neurology of music."

In concert, looking like an entity from a science fiction movie, his brain is projected onto a giant screen, where it slowly rotates and pulses with rhythm patterns and flashing colors — a light show powered by Hart's mind.

"You can see it firing and hear it in real time," he explained. "It's like dancing with your brain."

In the studio, he and members of his band used Hart's brain wave graphs and electroencephalogram data from researchers in Gazzaley's lab and "sonfied" them, assigning musical notes and sounds and turning them into actual songs for the album, several of them co-written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.

"I had to take the electrical stimuli and make it music," Hart said. "It's all noise before that. Taking that apart and using it in a creative way is where I come in."

The ever-curious drummer has had an interest in rhythm's power to heal for decades, ever since he saw the incredible effect his drumming had on his grandmother, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and had not been able to form words.

"My grandmother started speaking after I played the drums for her," he recalled. "That's what started it. That was the catalyst. It wasn't a bunch of people taking acid and jumping around in ecstatic dance. This was different. This had a direct medicinal consequence. Once I saw music as a healing agent, that changed the whole game."

Gazzaley, featured this week in a New York Times article ( about his work with a brain-training video game that can improve the short-term memory and long-term focus of older adults, has been a fan of Hart's since reading one of his books on drumming 20 years ago. While working on this project together, they recently spoke at an AARP convention in New Orleans about brain waves and memory.

"From the world of neuroscience, we now have a very clear appreciation that the brain works on rhythms itself," Gazzaley said, noting that science may be able use the lessons that exist in the world of music and rhythm to influence health and quality of life. "Understanding the rhythms of the brain is a very strong motivation of my laboratory. Coupling them together is really exciting. And that's something this relationship has now fostered."

Hart has long been fascinated by the connection of rhythm with science. On his previous album, "Mysterium Tremendum," he translated into sound actual reverberations from the big bang 13.7 million years ago.

For "Superorganism," his journey has taken him from the far reaches of the universe all the way back inside his own head, where he's been imagining the good that the rhythms he creates might do for others peoples' brains as they age.

"I'm interested in finding out how we use this superorganism in our daily life," he said. "The mechanisms for reading the microworld, the world we can't see, has just been available to us in the last couple of years. This is leading edge stuff. It's the most exciting frontier in music in this century, hands down. I've been on this trail for years. It's pretty obvious. It's a no-brainer."

– By Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal

Contact Paul Liberatore at; follow his blog at

"Superorganism" by Mickey Hart Band, $15, is available online at