A prescription for… art?

It’s safe to say that, when we think about personalized medicine, one of the last things that comes to mind is music. But, should it? These days, music streaming apps aren’t only organized by genre; you can easily find curated playlists that are designed to put you in a certain mood, or help you reach a goal (how about some “Cure those Monday morning blues” or “Songs to wake up happy,” anyone?). Many of us regularly use music as a tool to help us focus on the task at hand, or to pump ourselves up before a challenging workout.

Image courtesy of ShutterstockThere’s nothing particularly surprising about the fact that music affects how we feel. But, do we really understand what it does to our brains and bodies? The physiological and neurological effects of music are largely a mystery – one that Ketki Karanam, Head of Science at The Sync Project, is eager to solve. The Sync Project – whose Advisory board members include artists like Peter Gabriel, as well as neuroscientists and machine learning experts – is designing the first large scale data collection and machine learning models to understand these effects. It will identify how music’s structural properties – like beat and tempo – can affect our biometric rhythms, such as heart rate, sleep patterns, and brain activity.

The goal of the initiative? To identify potential music therapeutics that would serve as an alternative to drugs for health issues like insomnia, pain, and anxiety. Like Ketki, the relationship between music and medicine has also been a lifelong interest for Richard Kogan, who has led a distinguished career as both a psychiatrist and a concert pianist. A professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College, Richard has developed a series of renowned lecture-recitals, in which he examines the influence of psychological and psychiatric factors on the creative work of great composers, like Schumann, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Gershwin. In part, Richard is motivated by a desire to destigmatize mental illness by highlighting savants with mental disorders, whose symptoms may have inspired their creative processes.

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Scarred for Life, Ted Meyer

For both Ketki and Richard, music and medicine are inseparable. But does the relationship between the two extend beyond music, to other forms of art? According to artist and curator Ted Meyer, it does. Having been diagnosed with Gaucher disease, a rare genetic illness, at age 6, Ted spent years in hospital rooms creating paintings that depicted the loneliness, fatigue, and pain he experienced. Decades later, after a new drug was discovered to treat those symptoms, the subject of Ted’s art has changed. Today, his 18 year old project, “Scarred for Life,” chronicles the trauma and courage of people who have lived through accidents and health crises. Using this mixture of personal stories and a love for art, Ted has set out to improve the doctor-patient relationship. As an Artist in Residence at the USC Keck School of Medicine, Ted curates patient-artists whose work ties to the medical curriculum; for example, an artist with asthma for a class on the respiratory system. Ted hopes to expand this program to other medical schools, with a goal of teaching future doctors to look at their patients beyond their diagnoses, and view them as complex, whole human beings.

We are delighted that Ketki, Richard, and Ted will each be speaking on the TEDMED 2016 stage, where they will share their discoveries and unique insights about the relationship between art and medicine. We invite you to join us this November 30-December 2, in Palm Springs, CA, to learn more from them and other extraordinary speakers.