Mind-melding Music and Medicine

Today’s Rogue Physician

Once again, I have run headlong into yet another article about someone who is immersed in the arts to the extent that the play between science and art is almost undelineable. Just last night I read an article about Einstein on the National Geographic website entitled Inside Einstein’s Love Affair with ‘Lina,’ His Cherished Violin. Within the article there is a quote from his wife who briefly describes a process by which Einstein worked:

He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.

Further in the article Einstein is quoted as saying,

I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.”

To speak in a language fluently, one fluently thinks in a language. Beethoven thought in musical notes. I think in pictures and then have to translate to words. Did Einstein switch back and forth between musical notes and numbers? If so, how do these two modes of thinking support, conflict, and/or feed on each other? What happens in the mind of a person as it goes between different languages of thought?

I can just imagine the neurological pathways lighting up as they jump like fireflys across the right-brain/left-brain sides and how they might zip along well-worn pathways like the wheels of a train sparking against the metal of its track. It is the interplay of these cognitive processes between and among the varied languages of thought that intriques me. But I digress. The relationship of Einstein’s musical and scientific mind is arguably well known. The subject of this message is about a physician — like Einstein, a scientist and a musician— a somewhat ‘rogue’ (to coin a popular term these days) physician who is forging new methods of healthcare research and who rocks out to some rather hard rhythms to carry his message.

Dr. Neil Barnard, President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine founded PCRM in 1985 and “leads programs advocating for preventive medicine, good nutrition, and higher ethical standards in research.” You may already be aware of his work from his books on diet and nutrition: Power Foods for the Brain, 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart, and Dr. Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes. He is known for promoting a plant-based vegan diet for its health rewards, but he is also known for advocating “compassionate” research — research that does not use animals for testing or subjects for training in teaching labs. There are a couple reasons for changing the way research is traditionally conducted. First, the argument proposes that humans are different from animals and what may or may not work with or on animals, even if they are mammals and similar (perhaps) in DNA, they are NOT the same and therefore, to extrapolate findings from animals to humans is like the proverbial comparing of apples to oranges. The second reason is one in which I believe to be true: the way a community treats its animals is related to its ability to be empathic. To my knowledge there is no research to support this statement, but that does not alter my belief. While people who do not abuse animals can demonstate empathy, how much more empathic might they be as a community if they consider and care for the lives of the feral animals and wildlife as they do the human unfortunates that live within their community? Everything is connected…

I have known of Dr. Barnard’s work for many years. However, I did not know of his relationship with music. I receive a newsletter from PCRM in the form of occasional updates. One of the stories at the bottom of the page was about Dr. Barnard’s band, Carbon Works, and its recent release of Samurai. Look for the story here about Dr. Barnard, his band, and the meaning behind Samurai. Here is an excerpt from the interview with Dr. Barnard by Lindsey Borders, an AXS contributor:

AXS: How do you balance being a world-renowned doctor, along with creating and making music?

Dr. Neal Barnard: People think of doctors as being “left-brain” — that is, very logic-oriented — and musicians as being “right-brain” — more emotionally oriented, and you have be one or the other. But the truth is that we all have our logical and emotional sides, even if one side or the other gets neglected at times. And many scientists and physicians have been in both worlds. Albert Einstein played violin with leading symphonies. And Rudy Tanzi, who is a top Harvard researcher — plays with Aerosmith.

The bigger problem is being taken seriously in both worlds. In music, you’re all right if you’ve just gotten out of prison, are strung out on drugs, and have a face tattoo. But if you’re a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology, you’ve lost all artistic credibility; it’s hard to imagine you’d know what to do with a Les Paul.

AXS: Being that you are immersed in two different professions, how do you personally relate the two to find fulfillment from both?

NB: The two come together in surprising ways. First of all, when people are drawn to unhealthy foods — meat, cheese, sodas, etc. — it is because these foods trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the reward chemical, and the search for dopamine is the basis for all addictions — alcohol, drugs, and junk food. But researchers at McGill University found that you can get dopamine — a “high,” if you will — from music, too. And unlike Velveeta, Beethoven has no calories. So the more we get dopamine from healthy sources — friendships, exercise, and, yes, music — the less we need junk food and drugs.

And these two elements come together in another way, as you’ll see in our Samurai video. Lily, the adorable little girl who wakes up to find a rock band in her bedroom, becomes a samurai and cuts imaginary chains to free her animal friends. There is a message about kindness and compassion there. And from a medical standpoint, there is a huge payoff, too. When you leave animals off your plate, your coronary arteries breathe a lot easier.”

The above is an illustration and direct link to how the interplay of music and science interact to support our health. These three scientist/artists: Barnard, Einstein, and Tanzi, incorporate music into their lives in a way that supports their ‘primary’ work. I question if it is appropriate to say that one means of their work is primary over another? Would one exist without the other? Perhaps each line of work/expression is intertwined with the other so much so that the science might not exist without the music and vice versa?

This is my evidence for thinking this way: Howard Gruber (1922–2005), a noted psychologist of the creative process notes,

Seymour Papert has used the metaphor, ‘the society theory of mind’; to convey the idea that knowledge is organized sectorially, that these sectors are at least partially independent of each other, that each has its own contents and internal structure (like a person in a society), that each has ‘expertise’ in some special domain, and that these ‘experts’ interact with each other in special ways appropriate to the task in hand…At one level the answer to this question must come from the sciences of information processing as they continue to grapple with the problems of coding, storage, and representation of knowledge…Knowledge can be organized in more than one way…Such work is always protracted, always entails repeated attacks on a problem or task over periods of weeks and months, or even years. This means that there is ample time in the socieity of the mind both for ideas to be richly interconnected and for stable groupings to form. The question becomes, what is the governance of this ‘society’?”*

Another proponent of this notion of ‘society of mind’ is Marvin Minsky (1927–2016), with whom Papert (1928–2016) collaborated. Minsky’s book, The Society of Mind demonstrates page by page (each page is a chapter) how the mind takes pieces of information and builds on these small pieces like bricks in a wall that can be disassembled and rebuilt according to need. Gruber, Papert, and Minsky follow the initial thinking of Piaget, who pioneered the notions of developmental thinking, or “cognitive development”, to which Gruber added the dimension of developing work over a period of time. I posit that one’s perspective of the world and the manner in which information is absorbed and analyzed as a creative person, happens over a lifetime. Aha! moments are actually moments that happen when the mind is at rest — away from a significant struggle that has been formulating over a period of time — even over a lifetime. The unconscious mind is then able to accumulate and assimilate the necessary bricks to solve the problem. Once the bricks are rearranged along new neurological pathways, the problem is solved and pops into the person’s consciousness, and thus, an aha! moment occurs.

I will continue to explore the cognitive functions of the brain’s interplay between and among creative and other domains of thought. That’s what this blog explores. I hope it is fruitful for your creativity and it assists you in solving your most puzzling problems.

Thanks as always for reading Interplay. Pass it on to others who you think might enjoy it or have a comment or suggestion for a future topic. I’m always open for discussion and constructive comments. Soon, I will be posting on Facebook and Twitter. I’ll announce when the pages are open for comments.


*Gruber, H. E. (1980). The evolving systems approach to creativity. In S. M. Modgil & C. Modgil (Eds.), Towards a theory of psychological development (pp. 269–299). Windsor: NFER Publishers.

Addendum: as I have written this article and as I work through finding sources to illustrate the ideas here, I see another article published by National Geographic titled: US Animal Abuse Records Deleted — What We Stand to Lose. This article by Natasha Daly, published online on Feb. 6, 2017, states:

“Two weeks into the Trump Administration, thousands of documents detailing animal welfare violations nationwide have been removed from the website of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which has been posting them publicly for decades. These are the inspection records and annual reports for every commercial animal facility in the US — including zoos, breeders, factory farms, and laboratories.”

Please follow the link above and read the story for the full account.

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