Art as a Survival Tool Series: V

Speak and Be Known

The theater as a place of personal and social power

Stella adler quote

This blog is the last in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

When pernicious ideas overtake the rules of man, performing arts emerge as an antidote to social ills. Theater, in particular, acts as the literal stage for protesting inequalities, persecution, cruelty, and all manner of governmental power trips from tyranny (Caryl Churchill’s The Mad Forest) to illogical unreasonableness (The Capitol Steps).

The Capitol Steps began as a group of Senate staffers who set out to satirize the very people and places that employed them.

The Capitol Steps began as a group of Senate staffers who set out to satirize the very people and places that employed them.

Theater, as a survival tool, serves as a knife, rope and matches: in any circumstance, theater preserves culture, giving people hope and shelter when all feels lost. In some historic instances, theater allows the voice of the people to survive under censorship, brutality and strange disappearances of significant people (Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman). Theater also allows us to say what can’t be said or talk about difficult subjects. From Greek anti-war works like Lysistrata, operas such as Madame Butterfly that subvert the colonial appropriation of the East by the West to Tony Kushner’s AIDS opus Angels in America, theater history teems with passionate works speaking up and speaking out for people and cultures under the threat (or in the process) of being overpowered.

angels in america

Tony Kushner received the Pulitzer  Prize for Drama in 1993 for his play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

Amiri Baraka was pivotal force for understanding racism in America.

Writer, poet and music critic Amiri Baraka was pivotal force for understanding racism in America.

One such group making the rounds in America recently is Belarus Free Theatre, an underground group resisting the country’s authoritarian regime under Alexander Lukashenka. Subject to raids, imprisonment, expatriation and beatings in Belarus, the troupe members and audiences who come to see their clandestine performances in such spaces as private apartments and woods persist despite these political and police threats. Their defiance of state-controlled art and subject matter to continue to talk about social issues in Belarus won international support, inspiring documentary filmmaker Madeline Sackler to create Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus. The troupe performed their latest work Trash Cuisine in New York this summer, raising awareness about their philosophy of theater being a crucial voice in the cross-talk of society

Despite the growing social reliance on screen technology, theater continues to enervate the human condition precisely because it is immediate, it is in-your-face. There is something undeniably effective in being with living, breathing human beings enacting, feeling and speaking to some piercing truth of the human condition, especially when we ourselves may lack the ability to express it. This way, we can speak and be known—even when it is another speaking for us.

Art as a Survival Tool Series: IV

Remembering Oliver Sacks and Musicophilia

This blog is the fourth in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

Sacks_music quote1

“For anyone who has ever wondered how the climax of Beethoven symphonies can move us to tears, or why the pounding rhythms of a festival can cause us to lose all inhibitions, his [Oliver Sacks’] 2007 book Musicophilia is a revelation.” – Tom Barnes,

On August 30, 2015, the beloved neuroscientist Oliver Sacks died in his Greenwich Village apartment in Manhattan surrounded by loved ones. This great visionary, whose work started with Awakenings and ended with this article in The New Yorker, made an astonishing scientific contribution to the performing arts with his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, published in 2007.

Caught in the Act originally slated a blog on music therapy for this, the fourth installment of our Art as Survival Tool series, but in light of Dr. Sacks’ passing, we felt compelled to recognize his ground-breaking work in neuroscience that illuminated the mysterious, integral mind-body connection between music and the human experience.

Music can move us to the heights or depths of emotion. It can persuade us to buy something, or remind us of our first date. It can lift us out of depression when nothing else can. It can get us dancing to its beat. But the power of music goes much, much further. Indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does–humans are a musical species.” — Oliver Sacks, M.D.

Sacks_book cover

When Sacks published Musicophilia, NPR’s Andrea Seabrook caught up with the scientist and writer on All Things Considered. We re-print the transcript of her interview with Dr. Sacks here, in which he discusses music and Tourette’s, the phenomenon of neurogamy, Parkinson’s disease and the peculiar ability of the brain to imagine music as effectively as actually hearing it. You can also listen to the interview and read an excerpt from the book on the NPR archives page.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host: Neurologist Oliver Sacks has spent a career investigating the brain and its capacity to confound us. He’s written about many of his patients, some of who have lost the ability to remember, others whose minds no longer control their bodies. Sacks earned national recognition for his book “Awakenings,” which chronicles the lives of patients suffering from the so-called sleeping sickness. That was in the ’70s.

Now, Dr. Sacks is out with book number 10, “Musicophilia.”

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Neurologist; Author, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain”): Well, I’ve always wanted to get people’s stories. I also like to know what’s going on in the brain and how this wonderful two or three pounds of stuff in the head is able to underlie all our imagination, underlie our soul, our individuality. And music is a special part of this mind-body investigation.

SEABROOK: In “Musicophilia,” Oliver Sacks explores the brain’s relationship to music. It’s a relationship that’s both personal and universal.

Dr. SACKS: Certainly, music is central in every culture known to us. Darwin imagined that singing and music was part of a courtship behavior and other forms of behavior before speech. Some people have thought that speech comes first. Some people have thought that music is incidental and rather trivial. Steven Pinker sometimes calls it auditory cheesecake. But I get the feeling that it’s sort of been an essential – had an essential bonding power, you know, from the start.

SEABROOK: Let me pull back the lens for a second and say that at the beginning of your book, you proposed that we look at music for a second as if we were aliens from outer space. Say a Martian comes down and it lands here and it sees human beings sitting in a concert hall, listening to musicians play around with pitch and tone and all these things that are essentially meaningless. There’s no information involved.

Dr. SACKS: Well, there is certainly no information in the way that language conveys information. You can’t say where someone is or what they look like, but you can call up emotions and moods and states of mind. Quite how this happens is very mysterious but, certainly, this is central to music.

But then, there are also other aspects. One’s Martian would see that people are involuntarily keeping time to music – they’re tapping. The rhythm is in them. I mean if you go to something like the Grateful Dead, you can see 15,000 people moving in unison. It’s a most amazing thing. It reminds me an old term used to be used in the early days of hypnosis, of neurogamy – the marriage of nervous systems – and everyone is synchronized there by music.

SEABROOK: I never would have expected you to bring up the Grateful Dead, sir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: Well, it’s not exactly my sort of thing, but I did go there when I was dancing and sort of in the zone with everyone else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Dr. Sacks, we hear music in our heads. How? Why?

Dr. SACKS: How is part of the fact that we are continually recollecting and sort of mapping our experiences – whether they’re visual experiences or emotional experiences and this imagining is very real. So that if, for example, you have electrodes on the head or you’re imaging the brain, and you ask someone to imagine a piece of music, you will often see activity similar to what you would have if they were listening to the music.

Having said that, to come to a why so many of us have music going through our heads all the while is something I think we should have puzzled the Martians even more than with the way in which we go to concerts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Some of your patients that you described in your book are professional musicians – others are not. What are the differences between musicians’ brains and others?

Dr. SACKS: Well, they can be very striking and there have been beautiful studies of these by a man called Schlaug – Gottfried Schlaug – up at Harvard. He used brain imagery to measure the sizes of different parts of the brain. He found first, for example, that the corpus callosum – the big band which unites the two hemispheres of the brain – tends to be larger in musicians. And then he found enlargements of the cortex, the grey matter, in the auditory parts of the brain, and in motor parts of the brain to a degree which may be almost visible to the naked eye. So that, say, if one looks at pictures of brains, you might not be able to say this man is a genius or this man is a fool, or this man is a visual artist, but you could probably say that man is a musician.

SEABROOK: That is just…

Dr. SACKS: And that’s…

SEABROOK: …astonishing.

Dr. SACKS: And he makes them…

SEABROOK: What do you make of that? What do you make of that, sir?

Dr. SACKS: It shows, in tandem, the power of music to affect many different parts of the brain and the plasticity of the brain to respond to the stimulus of music. If one is doing five-finger exercises, you can see changes in the brain in half an hour.

SEABROOK: What do you mean five…

Dr. SACKS: And the…

SEABROOK: …finger exercises? What is that?

Dr. SACKS: Oh, I’m sorry. Just doing scales. And that now, of course, the changes you find then will be temporary changes but with repeated practice, then the changes become anatomical.

SEABROOK: Let’s talk for a moment about how music works on people whose brains are ill, for example, Tourette’s. What’s going on with music in people with Tourette syndrome?

Dr. SACKS: All right. Well, as a start, I think a lot of people with Tourette would simply say they’re different. People with Tourette’s have all sorts of involuntary or compulsive movements but they can also have accelerated thoughts and movements and unusually vivid imagery. What was absolutely fascinating, which I saw in New York recently – I wish I could have filmed it – was a drum circle for people with Tourette syndrome. And there were 30-odd people with Tourette syndrome, all of them making sudden movements. Tics – all of them ticking in their own time. And then the lead drummer started, who himself was a gifted drummer with Tourette’s, and everyone fell into synchrony with him in the most wonderful way. One felt they were being orchestrated as a group but also that their nervous systems were being orchestrated so they were no longer sort of prone to sudden impulsive movements. They were with it. For me, this was almost an allegory of bonding and of coordination both between people and also inside the nervous system.

SEABROOK: What about people with Parkinson’s? You’ve worked with Parkinson’s patients.

Dr. SACKS: Right.

SEABROOK: How do people with Parkinson’s – how does music work on their brains?

Dr. SACKS: Well, in a way, this is where things started for me back in the mid-’60s when I came to a hospital in New York and I saw 80-odd patients with the severest Parkinsonism, who were really absolutely frozen or transfixed and not able to initiate any movement or any speech of their own. And at that point, there was no medication which could make any difference to them. But what was well known and what all the nurses knew is that music could unlock them…


Dr. SACKS: …at least for a while. And they could move. They could dance. They could sing. They could think as long as the music lasted. I once took W. H. Auden to see a music session…

SEABROOK: The poet.

Dr. SACKS: …with these people.

SEABROOK: You took…

Dr. SACKS: The poet. And he was amazed at what he saw and he quoted an aphorism of the German poet Novalis, who said every disease is a musical problem. Every cure is a musical solution.

SEABROOK: World-renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks is the author of the new book, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.”

Thank you very much, sir.

Dr. SACKS: Thank you, Andrea.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Now, these parting words: In this time of international complication and war, consider this from the ancient Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch – I think Dr. Sacks would appreciate this. Medicine, to produce health, has to investigate disease; and music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.


Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

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Find more great quotes from Oliver Sacks here:

Art as a Survival Tool Series: III

Good Vibrations
Polyrhythms, sound healing and the significance of vibration

This blog is the third in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

tie dye baby at drum circle

Famed scientist Nikola Tesla once revealed “if you want to know the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”

Where we come from, this is called music and dance. And what would these art forms be without drums?

Mixing energy, frequency and vibration in different rhythms happening simultaneously results in polyrhythm, a phenomenon that occurs in natural vibrations and sounds which humans captured and mimicked with the invention of the drum.

women drum polyrhythm

African, Indian and shamanic cultures employed polyrhythms to sacred purpose, intuitively applying frequency and vibration to heal physical or psychological wounds and treat illnesses. The drum literally knitted communities together, entwined them with their environments and “talked” across distances, communicating messages from one tribe to another.

So profoundly integral and powerful a tool was the drum that, at the start of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, European colonizers realized the easiest way to break the culture of Africans was to strip them of their drums—which they did; however, stripping a culture of its rhythm, embedded in its cells for millennia, is impossible. In time, polyrhythms, drumming and the power of beat dominated popular music in every country that utilized African slave labor, especially in the United States, where we witnessed the birth of intricate jazz and hip hop polyrhythms that would define popular culture for several generations.

drum connection tampa bay

Kathryn and Sally Robinson, the mother/daughter team of DrumConnection Tampa Bay, who use traditional African drumming for community building. (Photo:

Today, neuroscientists identify the ability of rhythm and sound to affect neuroplasticity in the brain and their abilities to release chemicals such as the “stress hormone” cortisol, a natural anti-anxiety medication. Certain polyrhythms, as employed in African, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures, induce the brain into a trance state, which researchers now understand allows a person to re-tune her frequency, harmonizing the body’s vibration to well-being, much like tuning a violin or, as it were, tightening a drum head.

Grammy®-nominated recording artist Jonathan Goldman describes this re-tuning as “resonant frequency healing” and, when performed in a group, creates entrainment, a natural phenomenon of synchronizing that can happen without the listeners’ being aware of attuning to others in the group. Goldman’s sound healing, which may strike the more hard-science-minded as wishful thinking, gained scientific support in July when a study from the University of Bristol tracked ultrasound (high frequency sound waves) as having a vibration high enough to speed healing in physical wounds.

Polyrhythms got you intrigued? Then check out this online polyrhythm generator and let us know what you think.

Art as a Survival Tool Series: II

Art of Healing with Breast Cancer Survivors

This blog is the second in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

A phoenix.

A lotus.

A human heart.

These are some of the images women chose to design the tattoos that would reclaim their bodies from the ravages of breast cancer. Instead of reconstruction, tattooing, an ancient practice tracing to Neolithic societies, uses art to create a ritual celebrating the power of choice and self. The designs are personal, symbolic—and deeply healing.

tattoo design collage_FINAL

Tattoo designs on’s Mastectomy Tattoo Idea Pinterest board.

Mastectomy tattoos gained global attention recently when Australian tattoo artist Mim D’abbs posted a picture of her first mastectomy tattoo to Facebook: a double purple flower-petal design requested by survivor Alyson Anderson. Anderson, who gave her permission for the use of the photo, became an inspiration when the photo instantly went viral, getting 14,000 shares within the first 24-hours of being online.

If treatment and mastectomies are the descent into surviving, using tattoo art can represent the ascent of the new body into a new life. According to an article in USA TODAY, South Carolina tattoo artist Shannon Barron states the most common response from women seeing their completed tattoos from her is “thank you for making me whole again.”

In this way, the power of art to transform works in triplicate: physically, emotionally and spiritually.

"Every single time I see myself in the mirror, I am deeply moved. I feel something healing inside me." -Mari (Image and quote from

“Every single time I see myself in the mirror, I am deeply moved. I feel something healing inside me.” -Mari (Image and quote from, a non-profit in the United States, stands for Personal Ink. Inspired by his sister-in-law’s battle with breast cancer, founder Noel Franus launched on Pinterest, creating a social media platform specifically designed to change the culture of healing. pairs women with tattoo artists to collaborate on the design, journeying together—through art—in the empowerment of the body. The effects on the survivor’s attitude and outlook are astonishing.’s success and the groundswell of using artistic ritual to move to healing from surviving cancer inspired the company to create an app called Inkspiration. The app allows women to “try on” designs, demystifying the tattoo process. Especially, according to, if she isn’t a “tattoo person.” launched Inkspiration in 2014 for iPhones with an Android version in the works, and you or a loved one considering the option of tattoo can download it here.

Art as a Survival Tool Series: I

Creativity and Mental Illness
Embracing a Life ‘Touched with Fire’

This blog is the first in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.


VanGogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

VanGogh and his ear. Marilyn Monroe and her everything. Mozart. Robin Williams. Nina Simone.

The history of performing arts includes a long list of wildly talented artists whose lives, affected by mental illness, cantered along an erratic, inspiring road to a tragic end. The romantic notion of the “tortured artist,” a genius driven by madness or insanity, gripped the public imagination of artists, creating, by the late 20th century, a tangled, unproven belief that mental disorders play a root cause in high creativity.

While headlines reported that a recent study found a genetic link between creativity and mental illness, the headlines misrepresented the data, which only found that creative people—such as performing artists and entrepreneurs—are more likely to be predisposed to mental illness by genetic variants. In sum, it’s a weak link although helpful in advancing the overlap between creative brain functions (ingenuity, for example, or intense curiosity coupled with a desire to express it to other people) and their relationship to mental disorders, which are typically characterized by an inability to control brain processes like impulsivity. According to the study, published in Nature Neuroscience, a correlation exists between creative people and people diagnosed with mental illness. However, the study does not confirm a direct genetic link between creative genius and mental illness.

Perhaps, for now, it’s helpful to think of creativity and mental illness as roommates as opposed to conjoined twins.

The relationship between creativity and mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, remains a fascinating one, and bipolar comedian Joshua Walters discusses his “mental skillness” resulting from the “hypomanic edge” of his condition that drives him to do something everyone else thinks is impossible. Walters credits writer John Gardner with coining the term “hypomanic edge” to explain how to identify the gifts of an unordinary, unorthodox mind. In her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison links attributes of great artists like Virginia Woolf with bipolar disorder, citing a person living with the creative drive as touched with fire, an internal burning to express which may consume the person who lives with it.

The need, then, becomes reframing the notion of the tortured artist to a non-judgmental acknowledgement of the relationship between creativity and mental illness. Great artists do not need to be struggling with sanity in order to be great, but for many who do—and will—living with the disease depends upon their ability to creatively express themselves. We cannot overstate the importance of the performing arts in providing a vital function for millions of people world-wide and for allowing creativity—and madness—to have a productive outlet.

In the spring of 2015, pop singer Demi Lovato took bold moves to advocate for de-stigmatizing mental illness when she launched a media junket to tell her story of struggling with bipolar disorder and finding recovery. Her initiative, Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health, encourages people to talk about mental illness, advocating for a supporting outlook on mental health issues and empowering people to make a difference.

"Heart Attack" singer and former Disney actress Demi Lovato

“Heart Attack” singer and former Disney actress Demi Lovato

Neuroscientist Adrienne Sussman, in her article for the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, notes that artists’ ability to see in alternative perspectives and present them in unexpected ways benefits audiences as well : “By altering images in particular ways,” she writes, “art can have a more powerful impact on the visual and limbic brain areas than reality—causing an emotional resonance, a sense of meaning and beauty that the real world rarely produces.”

After all, states neuroscientist Dr. Nancy Andreason, whose work centers around studies of creativity, “people with mental illness enrich our lives. There’s so much stigma attached, but if you think about it, we wouldn’t have had VanGogh without the mental illness.”

The association, Andreason notes, between artistic people and mood disorders and mental illness, requires attention. “It’s wrong not to support people with mental illness,” she states, primarily because humans whose minds live in the common ground between creativity and mental illness do make great contributions to advance society.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone

Performing art and participating in art allows humans to navigate the fires within—in our hearts, our souls, and our minds.