By Zach Schepis
Photo by Sergey Galyonken.
Picture this, if you will–a staple of rock and roll history, a legend nearing 70 years old, mounts the throne to his drum kit. The crowd erupts into applause as he dons a goofy black cap studded with electrodes. The familiar thunder of drums sweeps through the audience–—but so, too, does something not quite so as familiar.
The light show is being powered by his mind.
The drummer’s brain soars to life 40 feet in the air; swirling colors reflect the varying brain waves being detected by the electrodes on his cap.
After pioneering the mind-expanding psychedelic music movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart has finally discovered a way to tap into our deepest psychological connections to music, and to fuse fundamental pathways between rhythm and the brain.
You don’t need to drop acid, tune in, nor drop out to make it happen, even if the new experience does feel completely liberating.
“I feel very high when I do it,” Hart told NPR. “And it’s made me overall very happy in my life.”
Collaborating with researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, Hart and his band assigned musical notes to various brain waves and included those sounds into their songs.
Hart has been interested in neuroscience since the ‘80s, during which time the drummer helped his grandmother as she battled dementia. She stopped speaking, and for years couldn’t even recognize her grandson.
But when Hart played the drums for her, she was suddenly able to speak his name.
He soon realized that music could be employed as a powerful therapeutic tool. The newfound interest soon sent him crossing paths with UCSF neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley. Together, the two have created a project called Rhythm and the Brain.
According to the project’s official homepage, “Rhythm is a fundamental aspect of the universe at every level, and it serves as a critical foundation for life on this planet.”
Not only does rhythm play an essential role in providing our day to day lives with joy and music, but it also determines brain function. Interactions between brain regions are guided by complex rhythms of activity to create synchronized neural networks from which our consciousness springs.
According to the Rhythm and the Brain website, the ultimate goal for Gazzaley and Hart was to understand how to influence brain rhythms so as to improve cognition and mood in both the healthy and impaired. To do this, a variety of novel interventions were explored, such as neuromodulation, rhythm training, neurofeedback, and even video game training.
It might sound like science fiction, but it’s real. Here’s a small taste:
All of the demonstrations and experiments have been a part of UCSF’s Neuroscape Lab, a new research center that was unveiled at the beginning of the month. Aside from hooking patients up to large brain scanning machines, the lab has also been experimenting with cutting-edge technologies, such as Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets.
People often dismiss 3-D technology for being unrefined; cheap plastic glasses and fuzzy screens come to mind. Oculus Rift, however, is utilizing this the technology’s potential in remarkable new ways. According to their website, their headsets provide a stereoscopic 3-D view with notable depth, scale, and parallax, which is achieved by presenting unique and parallel images for each eye. The headsets utilize the same manner in which human eyes actually perceive images in the real world, and therefore creates an experience that is far more natural.
Gazzaley, who runs the Neuroscape Lab, recently demonstrated a connection between virtual video-game play and improved cognitive control utilizing Oculus Rift 3-D technology. He has been testing therapeutic games with the hope that they will have the potential to treat maladies such as attention deficit disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. So far, he has already discovered that they help to improve aspects of multitasking.
A dozen tech companies so far have donated hardware for the cause, including chip-maker Nvidia.
You might have heard of a game called Second Life. In case you haven’t, Second Life is a virtual world in which users can meet other residents, socialize, participate in group activities, as well as create and trade virtual property with one another—all through the use of avatars. It was startedlaunched in 2003, and still has over a million users.
Philip Rosedale, the creator of the game Second Life and founder of the new tech startup High Fidelity, has decided to take his virtual world to the next level. Teaming up with Gazzaley, the two have created a virtual reality where you the user can watch your their thoughts flash before your their eyes.
Enter the “glass brain.”
The new system provides an amalgamation of brain scanning, brain recording, and virtual reality that allows the user to explore a person’s brain in real time. The glass brain made its first public demonstration at the South by Southwest Interactive Ffestival earlier this month.
Rosedale employed the use of Oculus Rift’s virtual reality headset to explore his wife’s brain in 3-D. A projection screen showed the audience what Rosedale was experiencing. When the brain came on the screen, the excitement in the crowd became palpable and electrifying.
“We’ve never been able to step inside the structures of the brain and see it this way,” Gazalley said in a recent interview with LiveScience. “It’s biofeedback on the next level.”