Drumming, the Brain, and Mental Health: Where Neuroscience Meets Shamanism (and Rock 'n Roll)

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Last week, I mentioned I participated in a drum circle led by Mickey Hart, the legendary drummer with the Grateful Dead. Mickey was also accompanied by Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at UCSF. The two have been collaborating on the “Rhythm and the Brain Project.”


    According to the Project’s website:


    Rhythm is a fundamental aspect of the universe at every level, and serves as a critical foundation for life on this planet. As we now understand it, brain function itself is dependent on complex rhythms of activity, which guides interactions between brain regions to generate synchronized neural networks from which our minds emerge.

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    Dr Gazzaley explained to us that neurons communicate with each other, as part of a vast network working together in concert. In 1929, Hans Berger first used the EEG to record brain waves. Alpha rhythms, for instance, pulse at about 10 beats per second. Multiple rhythms sync with each other and become locked in time.


    According to Dr Gazzaley, the different rhythms are associated with different cognitive operations like perception, attention and memory. Theta rhythms, for instance, are associated with paying attention and planning. More data is emerging to show that these rhythms relate to how we think.


    This brings us into the realm of brain rhythm disorders. In essence, Dr Gazzaley is asking us to reconceptualize, at least in part, various psychiatric and neurological conditions as malfunctions in the brain’s ability to bring its rhythms into sync.


    He specifically mentioned Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s schizophrenia, ADHD, and depression. In Alzheimer’s, for instance, music is being used to recruit neural networks in pulling up forgotten memories. Meanwhile, an experimental surgery known as deep brain stimulation (DBS) is being used on treatment-resistant patients. 


    Bipolar - an illness defined by its cycles - is begging to be included on Dr Gazzaley’s list.    


    By viewing your brain’s rhythms in real time, Dr Gassaley explained, you may acquire the ability to control them. This would involve novel interventions, such as video games and drumming. Cue up the drummer ...


    According to Mickey Hart, rhythm occupies three worlds - nature, the body, and things we create. It all started 13.8 billion years ago. We are born into a rhythmic world. The brain is a multi-rhythm machine. We are embedded with rhythm. We are born to our mothers’ heartbeat. Vibrations are the bottom line. “When that’s over, we’re dead.”


    What got Mickey started was caring for his grandmother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. He drummed for her. As he describes it, “she came to, she reconnected, she was right in the moment.”


    Two worlds - neuroscience and drumming. The scientist and the shaman. Both are saying, in effect, that drumming - and by extension music and dance - can rewire the brain. The science is new, the shamanism is old. All cultures have their music, Mickey reminded us. Everybody has a rhythm.


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    Time to start drumming ...




    See also my companion article: Drumming for Depression (But Go Easy on the Ram's Blood)

Published On: May 25, 2014