Stephan Wolfert on rewiring the brain with Shakespeare and science

Angela Santillo
Nov 11 · 27 min read

This is a transcript of episode 11 of And Then Suddenly, the podcast about unexpected moments that turn our lives upside down.

Originally released on November 12, 2018, this transcript is being posted today in honor of Veterans Day.


Angela Santillo
Some say memory starts in the womb, and that the storage space in the brain is basically limitless. But there are some things you totally forget, like where you put your keys or what you did last Wednesday. But there are some things you always remember. As Shakespeare says, “Memory, the warder of the brain.”

This is And Then Suddenly, the podcast about the unexpected moments that turn our lives upside down. I’m Angela Santillo. And welcome to part two of my special Brain Doubleheader. Which yes, it’s a redundant title, but I like it. So, I mentioned in the last episode that I happen to have two guests who talked about the brain and I wanted to do them back to back. So last week, I spoke with Bill Monroe. He’s a Gen X stroke survivor, and we talked about his stroke and how it led him to start the Strokecast, which is a podcast all about strokes, recovery, and neurology. And he talked a little bit about neuroplasticity, which is the ability for the brain to rewire itself. So, we’re going to continue down this avenue in a different, but yet similar way, and I am very excited. And the reason I named this special Brain Doubleheader is because anytime science is involved in a story, I kind of lose my mind because I’m a science freak. So, this episode today is even more of me losing my mind because not only is it someone’s story plus science, but it involves the arts and theater and I am a theater person. So, if you can just imagine what my brain scans would look like when all these worlds unite. I mean, it’s probably just off the chain basically.

So really fast before I jump in, I wanted to introduce someone to you because she’s going to be pivotal to this episode and you might not know her and that is Twyla Tharp. So, she is one of America’s greatest choreographers. She has choreographed about 130 dances for her company and she’s also worked at the Joffrey Ballet, the New York City Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and the American Ballet Theatre. She’s choreographed for television and won Emmys for that work. She’s been on Broadway and when Tony’s for that work. She has a MacArthur Fellowship, which is otherwise known as a genius grant. She has so many accolades, so many credits. She’s super important to American Dance. So, just some context.

Now I am a theater artist, and I’m a playwright and I have taught playwriting before and the best job I ever had, was teaching playwriting with Northern Stage in Vermont. I had a short teaching residency where I was driving up and down the state visiting all these high schools teaching playwriting, but it was based around war literature. And for one week, I worked with veterans and bringing them into the classroom, so they could talk to students about war. And I learned more about politics and war and storytelling and life, working with those veterans in one week than I did in my entire college and graduate career. And when I finished the residency, I was talking to an actor I knew, that I really wanted to work with veterans, and that opportunity hasn’t arisen yet. And I hope that’s in my future at some point. But he mentioned that he knew of an actor who was performing a solo show about-he was a vet, and he happened to see a Shakespeare play and how it changed everything for him. And a few years go by and in New York City, I see somehow through some newsletter from a theater that there was a solo show about a veteran seeing a Shakespeare play, and I went, and I bought a ticket instantly. And that solo show happened to be Cry Havoc, and that was performed by Stephan Wolfert, who also wrote it. And it was the greatest solo show I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of theater. And Stephan also happen to be the founder of DE-CRUIT, which is a nonprofit that works with vets to heal trauma through Shakespeare and science. And I didn’t know how much science until we talked. So, when I launched my podcast, I also happened to get an email from DE-CRUIT announcing that now- I believe they were originally working in New York City primarily, and that they were taking the programming on the road. That they were going to travel around the country to impact a greater veteran population. So, I emailed Stephan and I said, “I’d love to have you on my show.” And he said, “Yes.” And honestly, I just wanted to hear whatever he was going to talk about. So, this is our conversation.

Stephan Wolfert
One moment that turned my life upside down was working with Twyla Tharp, which would turn anyone in the artistic or in the theater or dance world’s life upside down to begin with, but it wasn’t just that I was working with her. It was- this is back in the 90s. We were working on Moving Out and it wasn’t even called Moving Out yet. It was a the Thoel Project which was Tharp and Joel put together. So, it was the Thoel Project and it was just an idea at that point. And I was working with her, helping her dancers stand like military personnel, particularly in this case the army personnel. So, I’m trying to teach these male dancers how to stand at position of attention, but they kept doing the first position turned out. I guess, to attempt to speak their language. And I was getting so frustrated because I was working on it for hours and hours, and this is for days. And their default would be turning back to a dance stance, where I wanted them to stand like a soldier and there is a subtle difference, but for dancers and soldiers, it’s glaring. And Twyla was really dedicated to it being authentic or as authentic as we could get. And not doing what so many people do, which is to, you know, give me a weekend. But she said, “How much time do you need?” and gave me a huge hunk of time, four hours a day, every day for weeks. And it wasn’t working. And she turned to me and said, “It’s because they’re wired as dancers. They’ve been doing this since they were children. So, they’re going to fall back to their default wiring, especially under moments of stress.” And it was an absolute…I can’t stress how much my brain both exploded and imploded at the same time, because everything came washing back to me. So many significant events.

And it is the moment that crystallized the work that I’m doing today, 20 plus years later. And what it was is when she said, “They’re wired that way,” it made me wonder, well, how am I wired? And I realized, “Oh, right, the military wired me for war.” And everyone I’ve been working with, all the men and women veterans at that point that have been working with doing Shakespeare, I saw that we were wired for war, but we were never unwired from war. And then as I started unpacking this more and working on this wondering, “Well, why is Shakespeare helping us? Why is classical actor training?” Well, then we started to realize that, in working with scientists- I started to realize that oh, okay- and by scientists, I mean, specifically psychiatrists and psychologists- I started realizing, oh okay, I had all this childhood trauma wiring. It was- if I can put it that way, right? The childhood trauma wires the limbic system in a particular way, and the vegus nerve and the central nervous system in a certain way that lent me the tools to be more successful in the military. I had insomnia before I joined the military. So, sleep deprivation, for example, wasn’t a big stretch for me. Stress-you know, if you look at my childhood, stress wasn’t a new thing for me. Being screamed at and threatened and bullied was not a new concept. So, drill sergeants didn’t terrify me as much as they did some of my peers. So then when I looked at all this, just from her saying- from Twyla Tharp, saying “these dancers were wired this way” helped me realize all this wiring that I had. And it helped me realize that everything that was going on with me wasn’t anyone’s fault. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t the fault of you know, any of the bullies in my life or family or anything like that. It was a function of the brain, it was a function of my wiring. And that helped me begin to rewire myself. And it also helped me then create this DE-CRUIT program that I have because I talk about how we recruited for the military but never de-cruited. It helped me formalize DE-CRUIT in a new way. In fact, unwiring us not just from military wiring, but from trauma, from childhood trauma. Which I won’t say all but the vast majority of the veterans I work with, when we keep working most share that, “Oh, yeah, right. Yeah. I had childhood trauma that that created a wiring that made the military attractive to me.” And even the ones who were drafted share that. And then drafting was- that alone was traumatizing in many cases. And then going to war or war training is a form of wiring, but then we’re just dumped out into the world. So that was the moment, believe it or not, being in a dance studio with Twyla Tharp was the moment that turned my life upside down.

Angela Santillo
And I currently have her book on my desk at the moment-

Stephan Wolfert
Oh do you?

Angela Santillo
Trying to get through it. It’s “The Creative Habit.”

Stephan Wolfert
Yes, yes.

Angela Santillo
It’s been haunting me. It’s like, “Finish the book. Finish the book Angela.”

Stephan Wolfert
Yeah. You have to now. Yes. She wrote this after working on that. In fact, she talks about it. When you get to the part about a guy giving her a beret, that’s me.

Angela Santillo
Oh my gosh, well I definitely have to look out for that. So, as far as the DE-CRUIT program, you mentioned that you had already been working with veterans by the time you worked with Twyla. Was that idea of de-recruitment part of that programming before you worked with her?

Stephan Wolfert
That’s an excellent question, because that’s why when you said pick a moment, I had the moment that I almost always talked about, which is…well, I’ll tell that moment, see if I’m answering your question. But the moment- what that moment working with Twyla helped me realize-I was working with veterans already- I’ll answer the question. I was working with veterans, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or why I was doing it. Right? I just had this feeling, I had this pull, I had this draw. And growing up in Wisconsin in the you know, late 60s, 70s and early 80s before I joined the military, that was not a place to where- at least my family and my community was not a place to where theater or dance, my two favorite things that I wasn’t even aware of, that behavior wasn’t rewarded or reinforced. You know, people weren’t saying, “Oh sing us another musical tune Stephan.” They wouldn’t even call me Stephan, they called me Steve because they thought my name was too pretentious. I mean, that’s the kind of community I’m from, right? So, to want to embrace dance or the performing arts was something I had to keep secret.

So now I joined the military and I’m in the military, I’m in about several years, I joined in ’86. And after the first Gulf War in ’91, I’m in training in Fort Irwin, California. This is desert training, and it’s a live fire exercise and a dear friend of mine is killed right in front of me from not just friendly fire but training. We were in training and he got killed. It’s just not what- it’s just not supposed to happen. You know, I mean, having someone killed is horrific enough and in front of you is deeply traumatizing obviously, or have some talking about it clinically in that regard. But then to have it be in training felt what I later came to understand from Jonathan Shay is a moral injury because it’s just not supposed to happen there. You know, we hear about it that there’s one to 1–3% of training casualties in training, but you don’t expect it to be you or your loved one. So that happened. I didn’t know what was happening. But luckily, my NCOs, is my noncommissioned officers around me because I was an officer at this point, they knew what was happening to me because they were Vietnam veterans. So, they covered for me, let me take a leave of absence, went out of the area I was supposed to be able to go. So, I’m in Montana, from Fort Benning, which I wasn’t supposed to be that far away. But they’re covering for me because they knew something was going on. They knew what was going on, I didn’t know because I was in my early 20s. And I end up wondering, I’m just on a drunken jag, I’m drunk 24/7 at this point. I’m on an Amtrak train with a cooler full of beer and bread and peanut butter, because that’s all I can afford. And I somehow ended up in a play. Richard III, Shakespeare’s Richard III. And this is the story I normally tell, it’s in my solo show Cry Havoc, it’s become that pitch about the work that I do because I see this play. And I see this- I see this soldier step out onstage, Richard III. And I’d never been to a play before and I certainly hadn’t been to a Shakespeare before.

Angela Santillo
Wow. That’s a huge first play.

Stephan Wolfert
Right? And I don’t even know how or why I just ended up there. And then this soldier steps out on stage looks, what I think is directly at me, and starts talking about how his military service is over. The war is over, his military service is over and now we’re in a time of peace and everything’s great and dandy and everyone’s celebrating. But I, as he talks about it, am not made for peace. I don’t fit in here. “I’m deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world scares half made up. And that’s so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I live by them.” So, as he describes this, he’s describing me dealing- attempting to deal with this life after the military even considering it. Me in a restaurant or a bar when somebody makes a loud noise that I don’t see coming and how this place that I go to, and that I don’t see other people going to. So, one could argue that that was my moment. And it was. And it led to me leaving the military and going to graduate school for acting. So, this is a moment that turned my life upside down. But I still didn’t know why. You know what I mean?

Angela Santillo
Yeah.

Stephan Wolfert
I still didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it. I just felt compelled to do it. So, I left the army and I went to graduate school and in graduate school, I’m finding this work is helping me deal with something I didn’t even know I had, which is addiction and PTS. And it goes on and it wasn’t until years later that I’m working with Twyla and she said that wiring, it was a function of the brain and central nervous system, not anybody’s fault that I went, “Oh, now I get it. Okay. Okay.”

Angela Santillo
Yeah, it’s like she gave you the key to finally unlock what your impulse was already driving you towards.

Stephan Wolfert
Yes.

Angela Santillo
But you didn’t. You weren’t able to contextualize it. You just knew that you had to go that way.

Stephan Wolfert
Right.

Angela Santillo
Well, that’s incredibly validating and clarifying

Stephan Wolfert
Right? And then it was deepened by continuing- by having that impulse rewarded, you know, with Twyla Tharp, and then Twyla Tharp saying that and then to explore further. Then to work with Tina Packer at Shakespeare & Company to where she is all about personalizing the text. You know previously the people I’d worked with it’s, “Well theatre’s therapeutic, but it’s not therapy.” Whereas now I’m meeting people like Tina Packer at Shakespearean & Company, Randy Reinholz at Native Voices and Native American Theatre Company in Los Angeles, and Yvette Nolan up in Canada whose also Algonquin- indigenous performing artist and maker of theater- and they embrace theatre as medicine openly. In fact, the Yvette gave me not just the language but the permission to say theatre is medicine. She empowered me towards that end to say, “Yes, use it.”

And then I was able to take deeper levels, instead of just doing the Shakespeare and you know, secretly having my little actor secret instead it was no this is what it means. This is what Mark Anthony’s speech about having a friend killed in front of him means. These feelings are very personal to me, I can relate to them. Having Henry IV speech said, you know in graduate school they talk about honor and all this stuff and I’m like, “You guys don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” None of them had served, you know? It was infuriating. I was like, what? That’s not that’s- Crispin’s Day Speech is not romantic. We are about to die. It’s not cool. It’s not, “Oh, we few, we happy few. It’s, “Yeah, we’re dead. This sucks. If there were any other outcome, I would find it, but we don’t. So alright, if I’m going to die, this is a group that I would choose to die with. Sure. But I’m not happy.” It’s not glorious. It’s not romantic. Does that make sense?

Angela Santillo
Yes. I mean, because I think if you don’t personally know a veteran or are a veteran- so I’ve worked with veterans in theater. And I feel like if you don’t understand that experience, I think we tend to romanticize stories about war. And people don’t really get to the heart of what those kind of speeches or moments are like.

Stephan Wolfert
Of course.

Angela Santillo
They glorify them.

Stephan Wolfert
Of course, because it is around us. Look at the movies, look at the TV shows, look at the music, look at all of it. You know, none of its done- very rarely does it show, you know, show the after affects.

Angela Santillo
When you started getting drawn to theater before this clarifying moment, is it right to say that it was like in your gut, it felt therapeutic, but you couldn’t understand why? Or were you just drawn to it because the subject matter spoke to you?

Stephan Wolfert
I think both you know, because I love musical theater too. And in many ways couldn’t be more antithetical to what I’m doing where I work with vets. We just had a class. I mean, I’m in the room where my wife and I, Dawn Stern, just had a class with eight or nine veteran- was it? I do it every night, so I forget how many we have. We had nine veterans in here and they’re sharing deep personal stories and moving directly into Shakespeare monologues. There’s nothing musical theater or cheery about it unless you know, we have a good laugh afterwards to try and shed some of it but it’s really deep personal stuff. But I love musical theater and they’re not- maybe they’re connected, I don’t know. Charles Durning, the song and dance man who died just a few years ago, he was at D-Day. He stormed the beaches of Normandy. He shared with me that he used to have nightmares every night when he was still alive into his- right up till the end. But he was known as a song and dance man in musical theater. So, what drew him? And he didn’t start till he was 40. So, we bonded about this, that it was something that pulled me in, whether we knew consciously what it was or not, it didn’t matter, it pulled us in. And it was therapeutic somehow.

Angela Santillo
How did you change in the room with your DE-CRUIT program as you started learning from these practitioners that theatre is therapy, theatre is medicine? What changed about your process and your interaction with the vets you were working with?

Stephan Wolfert
Oh, it took- do I have to keep my language clean?

Angela Santillo
No, no, no. I’ll put an explicit on it and we’re good to go.

Stephan Wolfert
Oh good.

Angela Santillo
I interviewed a Marine for my fifth episode, and he was like, “I’m gonna say fuck” and I was like, “Go fucking for it man.”

Stephan Wolfert
Yeah, believe me, my wife was in here earlier and she saw that several words formed in my mouth and you probably heard me go, “Oh-”

Angela Santillo
No, do it man. Go for the goal.

Stephan Wolfert
It helped me get rid of the bullshit. It took my bullshit meter- I just stopped lying. Well, it isn’t a lie that’s a bit extreme, but it did get rid of the bullshit. You know, before that moment with Twyla and before working with Tina and Yvette, and now like I said I’m working with these scientists at NYU and Bessel Van Der Koch and Alisha Ali and these incredible- Ed Tronick and Sue Carter- these incredible researchers in cutting edge research of trauma in the world currently. The fact that I’m even in the room with them, half the time I go, “What am I doing here? I don’t belong.” But they see that when I got rid of the bullshit, that’s what allowed me to get in the room with this level of personnel- if I can put it that way. That by stop pretending this is an acting class and that we’re going to just, you know, “I know it’s therapeutic, but it’s not therapy.” When I stopped that lie, what to me is a lie, when I stopped that bullshit, then this work got real, then this work that deep, and then this work started having real impact on not just my life but the veterans I’m working with. Their lives in a much deeper level, much more rapid, and much quicker. And like I said, it got me into the rooms that- I mean I’ve given keynotes. I’ve an MFA in theater, and I’m giving keynotes at psychological conferences and symposiums.

Angela Santillo
Wow.

Stephan Wolfert
You know, I’ve traveled to the Netherlands and Australia to present at international trauma conferences. I’ve spoken to and presented to the heads of the military in the Netherlands, and their veteran treatment programs. And that’s because I got rid of the bullshit. And because that allowed me to work with Dr. Ali here at NYU who said, “Yeah, you’re right. It does rewire the brain. It is medicine. I’ll help you prove it.” And she’s helped me get access to do EEGs- electroencephalograms on the veterans we work with before and after our program and heart rate variability and the data shows flat out we’re looking at a different brain before they work on Shakespeare and after they work on Shakespeare.

Angela Santillo
So you mentioned that they share a personal story and then they work on Shakespeare. Are those scans mimicking that process or are they just saying a monologue and then you do a scan?

Stephan Wolfert
A great question. It’s a 24-hour program right now. I mean, I want to be a much- it would be, if I had my dream, it would be a four and a half month in residence program. Right? So, it’s something that you’re going- we have to think of the military. So, the military takes people who have no understanding of the military whatsoever, at least the vast majority, they bring us together and teach us everything. They break us down, and they build this back up into soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard members and they do that by stress and breath and rewiring, right? Which are the way the same things that theater is stress, breath and rewiring. And so, is dance, right? It’s the arts are the same thing for a reason and so is rehabilitation. Stress, breath and rewiring. So with the way they’re modeling it is deprivation is part of the stress and rewiring, but we do eight weeks of training just to learn how to wear our uniforms, how to speak, how to stand, how to walk, how to sing, who to salute, how to salute. Just real basic things. That’s eight weeks, 24/7 for eight weeks they break us down just to get to our advanced training or our technical training. When we get out there’s none to get rid of that, none to take us off that military model, none to take us off of that quick response, those auto responses. Especially if someone either deploys to come or if you go into a combat arms like the infantry as I did, you know now we’ve rehearsed responses to war to where they’re automatic. And now I’m in New York and I hear a subway make a clunk, or a screech, or it makes a sound remotely similar to a combat scenario. My body goes into that mode, it doesn’t know the difference. And I’ve never been taught how to undo that, how to quickly recover from that.

So that’s what we’re doing. And the arts, the arts are the model for that. Instead of deprivation, its support and creativity instead of destruction. And so when- then the short answer to your question is we use personal narratives. So Narrative Therapy, if you will, which is them writing. We’re following Jamie Pennebaker’s model of writing our significant events out because it seemed to be more beneficial than just speaking it alone. It’s a group therapy model, which is camaraderie like the military. It’s Jonathan Shay’s communalizing the trauma because we share it within the group. And then they go from the personal narrative straight into the Shakespeare. And what we’ve worked on all along the way before they get their Shakespeare, for about 12 hours depending on the model of the course, we’ve worked on grounding and breathing, or the popular term today is mindfulness. Which is planting your heels, breathing in deeply to interrupt that limbic system response, that fight or flight or freeze mechanism. The breath in, can help interrupt that.

And Shakespeare’s so brilliant that not only did he write about the veteran’s experience and veteran’s emotions, feelings, and thoughts so perfectly, even 400 years ago, and describes, by the way, post-traumatic stress perfectly in Lady Percy’s speech. But not only that, but he gave us a model of the natural human rhythm, five beats per line, five heartbeats and then a breath. So, if we honor it, if we do what he wrote, which is breathe in and speak. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” then breathe in, “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer,” breathe in, “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against the sea of troubles.” You follow me?

Angela Santillo
Yeah.

Stephan Wolfert
So by interrupting-even though these are heightened words, heightened language, which turns on parts of the brain, Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area in particular, not only does it activate higher parts of the brain to keep us out of our limbic system response, but it’s also interrupting the breath to help us self-regulate- interrupting the thoughts rather to help us self-regulate. He also prevents us from staying re-traumatized or re-traumatizing yourself by getting caught in the loop because he asks you to breathe and speak the next line, breathe and speak the next line. So, you have to keep going forward.

Angela Santillo
So he demands that you stay present because breath makes you remember where you currently are opposed to getting lost in your thoughts.

Stephan Wolfert
That’s right. That’s right. Or go all the way back to your trauma and live there because that- we lose sense of time when we’re in. That’s why the flashbacks, right? Whether it’s an intrusive thought or a full-blown flashback, the fMRIs of the brain in Vessel Vander Cook’s book show the cingulate gyrus for example, which is our timekeeper, going offline. When that goes offline, we don’t know where we are. We’re back in that trauma, whatever year that was, we’re smelling the smells, we’re seeing those colors. We’re there. We’re not in the room. But by breathing in and seeing each other in the room and speaking in these words, it brings on those language centers. It brings online the cingulate gyrus, it brings online the somatic sensory parts of our brain that reminds us, “No, no, you’re here.” You can be both even. But you’re not exclusively there. You can’t go into full blown trauma or crisis.

Angela Santillo
What are you finding on the scans? So, you do this 24 hour process and then they scan the brain of the vets you’re working with, what is the brain doing after all of this?

Stephan Wolfert
Um, how would I put it…

Angela Santillo
Do you know?

Stephan Wolfert
Yeah, I do. I do. Although this would be a better this would be a better question for Dr. Alisa Ali, the co-creator of DE-CRUIT in terms of she does the science side of it. So, she could answer more accurately but I’ll do my best. One of the slides that we presented, and she presented recently to Vice President Pence and his wife, they’re interested in the arts in healing and treating PTS in particular with military veterans. So, we were able to present our work because it showed a significant difference in the brain afterwards. And what we’re seeing is, instead of this hyperactivity in the amygdala and the hippocampus, these parts that- well the hippocampus sometimes shuts down. But instead of the limbic system taking over and hijacking the brain, and not just hijacking but operating at- there’s even a color scan of the brain of the EEG. And it shows this thing in dark, dark red. It’s particularly the left hemisphere, it’s firing, firing, firing. After a mere 24 hours and spread over eight weeks, so it’s three hours a week for eight weeks, but after a mere 24 hours, eight weeks of doing this work, you see a cooler brain, if I can put it like that. It’s more greens instead of reds. There’s some yellow, but not a lot. There’s not big regions of yellow. Keep in mind, coders did this, took the data and gave it color scheme. Those are the actual colors showing.

Angela Santillo
Yeah, a spectrum of the results.

Stephan Wolfert
Right.

Angela Santillo
Wow, so there’s a big shift that happens. I mean, I’m not totally surprised because I’ve done the arts as a way to deal with trauma.

Stephan Wolfert
Yeah.

Angela Santillo
So what’s the plan for DE-CRUIT? I know you guys now are on the road. What are your plans for this program like in the next year to five years?

Stephan Wolfert
Oh gosh, I-this…now you with that question-

Angela Santillo
Am I gonna stress you out by that question?

Stephan Wolfert
No, not anymore because what we’ve done is, we’ve hired people to actually make those questions- make those decisions is the word I’m looking for. You can see how I shut down and like, “Oh god, oh god business questions.” Because I know what I want to do with this. I mean the idea behind this is, you know, it’s not entirely dissimilar to the model of AA, Alcoholics Anonymous. What I mean by that is to have a program- you know, with AA I can go to almost any city, find a meeting, and it’s run virtually the same way. So, with this, since we have a template of actually how to find self-regulation, how to DE-CRUIT veterans, we’ve made a manual. We’ve also got the tools to measure it because the other thing we add is heart rate variability in that. And now that heart rate variability stuff is on people’s phones, it’s already on there, you just have to activate it. So, you don’t even need the full EEG work. So, people can check themselves as well. But the idea being to help set these up in communities, which we’re doing, we have it in Fort Worth, in two days I leave for Alaska to help set up a program up in Fairbanks. We have a couple here in New York, as well as in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. So, we’re growing and the idea is to be able to not only help maintain those because once we teach it in that community, the people who went through it, now we have them teach it to other veterans. And there’s a manual that’s proven to work because we have the data. So, they just follow the manual and teach each other. And so, the idea would be to expand this.

Stephan Wolfert
You asked about the next year to five years, it looks like we’re going to be doing this at Rikers Island, there’s a veterans only block there.

Angela Santillo
Oh really?

Stephan Wolfert
We’re going to do DE-CRUIT with the guards first than the guards will actually teach it to each other. And then we’ll do it with the incarcerated, the inmates who are veterans, and they’re already asking about doing it for the general population. And what’s so exciting about this is a lot of DE-CRUIT was taken from James Gilligan’s model that he did in Massachusetts state prisons. He did a four-and-a-half-month residence program where he took them out of solitary, he said we’re going to live together in a community setting, took them through a four-and-a-half-month model- he helped me build DE-CRUIT. Four-and-a-half-month model and the recidivism rate of his participants was cut by over 85%. The daily violence, which was previously measured, if I remember correctly, was previously measured in the double digits per day, was cut to single digits annually. This was a majorly successful program, so I’d love to see it happen at Rikers, I’d love to see it happening- we’re working with folks in Fort Worth, they have a vet court there, I’d love to get into their system to help the incarcerated there as well as the vet court itself, and perhaps even expand beyond those but we’re a five person organization right now. So, I don’t know how we’re going to make happen in one to five years but who knows?

Angela Santillo
Well, I just have one last question. Is it possible to totally rewire the brain?

Stephan Wolfert
I believe it can because we’re watching it happen. Now, I don’t know what you mean by totally rewire. What I know we can do is rewire around the trauma enough to self-regulate and even get on a path. I would call it total rewiring because the fact that I’m sober for example. That in a way is total rewiring. I mean I was drinking since I was a teenager. At 13 I was drinking, binge drinking on the weekends. So, for me to be able to go from 13 to only five years ago, be drinking a bottle of tequila a night and now not be drinking. And I’m not sweating from moment to moment. That to me is complete rewiring around that patch.

Angela Santillo
Yeah, I would agree.

Stephan Wolfert
Right. And if we want to look at another way because people think- I’ve gotten flack, “Well I don’t know if that’s the same.” Think of someone who has a stroke, that part of the brain is dead. If there’s an embolism you know, if there’s a part that releases the blood vessels pop, and they rewire around it. And we’ve watched people go from half their body paralyzed to playing guitar again. If that’s not rewiring the entire- you may not wire that part to dead again, but you can rewire around it entirely. Yeah. So, they can do it-

Angela Santillo
Yeah, cause the brain is elastic.

Stephan Wolfert
Yes, yes. The hippocampus can lose as much as 40% of its volume from chronic pain, severe sustained trauma, a myriad of reasons. Addiction, long sustained addiction. It’ll shrink 40% but they’ve shown that you can gain that entire volume back. So, if that part can gain it back, why can’t all of it?

Angela Santillo
There’s hope yet.

Stephan Wolfert
There is. There is and the arts are the key. That’s what’s so exciting to me. They really are, they’re the key.

Angela Santillo
Yeah. Cause it’s not so complex. You know, it mimics a lot of other systems and it’s readily available.

Stephan Wolfert
Yes. I mean, what’s more life or death than that moment before entering the stage?

Angela Santillo
Don’t they say fighter pilots experience the same kind of stress and focus?

Stephan Wolfert
Yes.

Angela Santillo
As someone before they go onstage?

Stephan Wolfert
Yes, it is. It’s absolutely, you have to- oh yeah.

Angela Santillo
That adrenaline, you cannot mimic it. It’s crazy.

Stephan Wolfert
No. And for the body to experience it, especially for people who’ve been like fighter pilots or in combat or severe trauma, for them to be able to have that experience the moment before they go on stage, their body associates their trauma as the exact same thing. So, they want to go back to their trauma, but then we put them on stage and they realize, “Oh, wow.” The perfect phrase we can hear from a veteran afterwards because I asked how do you-right now I feel is the prompt. And when they say, “Right now I feel lighter.” It’s a glorious moment because they see that lightbulb go on, where they realized, “Wow, I just survived my own trauma. I just survived.” And then if they say, “I know what Shakespeare meant,” oh that is the most glorious day I can ever experience right there. That’s fantastic.

Angela Santillo
So I was lucky in that a few weeks after I interviewed Stephan, DE-CRUIT sent out an email saying that they were going to have a performance with a group of veterans they were working with in New York City. So, on a Friday night, I ran to Times Square area and I saw a very informal performance with their vets. And I just have to say they’re doing some really powerful, incredible work. And if you wanted to learn more about this program you can visit decruit.org or Stephan says for his brothers and sisters and arms, that’s Delta Echo Charlie Romeo Uniform India Tango dot org. And of course, this episode coincides with Veterans Day and Veterans Month. So, to all of you who have served our country, I just want to say thank you.

And that wraps up this special Brain Doubleheader. I’m in my happy place you guys so much knowledge is so little time I have so much to chew on now. Good, this is good. Anyway, you can find me on Instagram and Facebook at and then suddenly podcast, visit my website andthensuddenlypodcast.com. Drop me a line write me on iTunes, share me with your friends or share this episode with your friends or this show, share whatever. I trust you. Thank you so much for listening and I hope you have a good one.

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