Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Crossing the Corpus Callosum: Neuroscience, Healing and the Arts

Art and Science Healing in Harmony

By Michèle Stanners

What do Julie Andrews and Mozart have in common? And what links Hillary Clinton, Che Guevara, and Cameron Diaz? The former have absolute or perfect pitch; the latter are tone-deaf. How our brains differ to create these disparities was one of the subjects of “Crossing the Corpus Callosum,” a first of its kind symposium held on January 10th at the Merck Research Laboratories-Boston. Over 200 guests from various disciplines in the medical professions gathered to “traverse the pathway that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres” and explore the interconnected worlds of neuroscience, healing, and the arts. The event was designed and hosted by the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra of medical professionals based in Harvard’s Longwood Medical Area.

This unique musical ensemble has bridged concert performance with community service in the Boston area for over twenty-five years. The members are predominantly health professionals, scientists, and students. Most of them will tell you that the most important instrument in their medical bag is not their stethoscope, reflex hammer, or tongue depressor. It’s their violin, oboe, or clarinet. And many of them will attest that their passion for music has made them better observers, healers, and practitioners.

Dr. Tom Sheldon, Chairman of Radiation Oncology at Concord Hospital, explained how errors of medical diagnosis can occur without keen assessment skills. “The doctors look but don’t see, listen but don’t hear, or touch, but don’t feel as well as they might. Nothing trains the senses better than the arts”. Countless hours depressing oboe keys and adjusting reeds sensitize his fingers, as well as enable him to better detect concealed lumps or tumors.

At Harvard Medical School, a popular course offered by Drs. Shahram Khoshbin and Joel Katz helps doctors see patients through a new lens. These mentors to many trainees at Brigham and Women’s Hospital recognize that art appreciation is inherently ambiguous and forces one to work with an incomplete data set. They teamed up with Curator Alexa Miller and others from the Davis Museum at Wellesley College to develop a curriculum based on Visual Thinking Strategies. By understanding the rudiments of art — line, form, shape, color, balance — and through observation exercises, students improve their visual literacy and formulate better diagnoses.

Dancer and President of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group Olie Westheimer described the similarities between the mechanics of ballet and struggles facing patients with Parkinson disease. Through a strategic collaboration, people living with Parkinson disease in Brooklyn, NY now enjoy weekly therapy sessions led by dancers from the famous Mark Morris Dance Group.

Certain stroke victims who have difficulty saying their name can still sing “Happy Birthday” perfectly, explained Gottfried Schlaug, M.D. Ph.D, Director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. This is usually the result of injury to the left side of the brain, which houses the language center, leaving the right side of the brain, which influences singing, intact. At the Center, Psyche Loui, Ph.D. and neuroscientist with a background in music discovered a process that employs musical note passages to recruit neurons on the functioning side of the brain to improve speech. The discovery helps stroke victims recover by singing.

Dr. Dennis Spencer, Harvey and Kate Cushing Professor of Neurosurgery at Yale Medical School told the audience that a human can create 6,000 facial expressions. He explored both the scientific and sentimental meanings of facial expressions, with reference to Harvey Cushing. This famous father of modern neurosurgery left behind a remarkable anthology of fifteen thousand patient photographs — moving, poignant and at times arresting — taken from 1906 to 1932 and collated with autopsy specimens and hospital records. The Yale Cushing Collection was stored and forgotten until the early 1990’s, when it was accidentally rediscovered by medical students in a Yale dormitory. In their current place of honor in the Yale Medical Library, the photographs represent concurrent achievements in both medical and art history.

“We are all ill-equipped for the journey of Alzheimer’s” acknowledged the last presenter, John Zeisel, PhD, President and co-founder of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care. While a string quartet of the LSO joined him onstage to perform carefully selected compositions reflecting the four phases of Alzheimer’s - anxiety, agitation, aggression, and apathy - projected on the screen behind him were paintings by people living with dementias, reminding the crowd of the life and creativity still within them. The process of letting go of a loved one with dementia requires embracing their new way of life and love and expression. “The ultimate gift”, he said simply “is the opportunity to turn life’s tragedy into something beautiful.”

The day’s closing remarks were delivered by Dr. Lisa Wong. She is the President of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, a violinist, a Clinical Associate in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the real brain behind the symposium. “We recognize that the arts and sciences have somehow become disconnected in society,” she concluded. “Just as the brain recruits healthy neurons to restore speech through song, so we in the arts and sciences community must recruit each other to heal this rift.”

For more information on the symposium and presenters, go to www.longwoodsymphony.org.

Michèle Stanners is a Canadian Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University who is researching the role of the arts in foreign policy and nation branding.