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 Jan. 10 at the Merck Research Laboratories-Boston.
More than 200 guests from various disciplines in the medical professions gathered to “traverse the pathway that connects the right and left cerebral hemispheres” of the brain and explore the interconnected worlds of neuroscience, healing, and the arts. The event was designed and hosted by the Longwood Symphony Orchestra (LSO), 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 more than 25 years. The members are predominantly health professionals, scientists, and students. Most of them will attest that their passion for music has made them better observers, healers, and practitioners.
In his presentation, 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 — and also enable him to better detect concealed lumps or tumors.
At Harvard Medical School (HMS), a course offered by Shahram Khoshbin and Joel Katz of Brigham & Women’s Hospital, helps doctors see patients through a new lens. The two explained to the audience that art appreciation, like the practice of medicine, 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 and through observation exercises, students improve their visual literacy and formulate better diagnoses.
In her talk, dancer and president of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group Olie Westheimer described the similarities between the mechanics of ballet and struggles facing patients with Parkinson’s disease. Through a strategic collaboration, people living with Parkinson’s disease in Brooklyn, N.Y., 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, director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). 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 BIDMC, Psyche Loui and neuroscientists 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.
“We are all ill-equipped for the journey of Alzheimer’s,” acknowledged the last presenter, John Zeisel, 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,” Zeisel said simply, “is the opportunity to turn life’s tragedy into something beautiful.”
The day’s closing remarks were delivered by Lisa Wong ’79, president of the LSO, a violinist, a clinical associate in pediatrics at HMS, 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.”