Former Dead Drummer Has Rhythm on the Brain

by Calisa Cole

Attention, Deadheads: if you’ve ever wanted to crawl inside your favorite drummer’s skull, now’s your chance.

Former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and his band are performing live at the Fillmore in San Francisco this week as part of the band’s Superorganism tour.

As concert goers sway with the music, they’ll also hear – and see – something, well, trippy. A computer will generate images and sounds representing Hart’s brain activity, as it’s captured by an electrode cap attached to his skull.

Founding members of the Grateful Dead Bob Weir, left, and Mickey Hart, right, performing.
Founding members of the Grateful Dead Bob Weir, left, and Mickey Hart, right, performing.

Feed Your Head

While the imagery and sound will combine with the band’s percussion-rich primal music to create a sensory, dreamy experience, there’s something beyond entertainment happening here.

In an unlikely pairing, Hart is working with Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at UC San Francisco, to establish the Rhythm and the Brain project.

“We want to understand how we can influence brain rhythms through activities like listening to music and playing video games,” says Gazzaley.

Ultimately, the goal is to learn how to improve cognition and moods.

“When I played a drum for my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s, she spoke my name,” says Hart. “She hadn’t spoken in a year. That was power. Where did it come? How did it do this?”

For the most part, scientists study brain data after they’ve collected it, Gazzaley says. Now, Gazzaley and Hart are working with NVIDIA to use the power of GPUs to analyze the huge amounts of data the brain generates, in real time.

Touch of Grey Matter


While the dramatic demonstration during the concerts is more of an artistic effort than a scientific one, teams of developers from UCSF, Stanford, UC San Diego and interactive-entertainment studio Eye Vapor are working together to advance brain research.

To get a better idea of what is happening “under the hood,” the team uses NVIDIA Tesla K20 GPU accelerators for calculations, NVIDIA Quadro 5000 graphics cards for visualization, CUDA 5.0 and NVIDIA Nsight tools to optimize code performance.

Gazzaley and his team are working to CUDA-accelerate EEG (electroencephalogram) processing to increase the fidelity of the real-time brain activity recordings. The goal, he says, is to better represent brain sources and neural networks, as well as to perform real-time artifact correction and mental state decoding.

“Not only will this improve the visualization, but more importantly, it will move EEG closer to being a real-time scientific tool,” Gazzaley says. “Then we can use it for a host of new studies in our lab, including neurofeedback and closed-loop brain stimulation.”

In the meantime, more fans will be swaying to the beat of Mickey Hart’s brain, as the Superorganism tour continues through the end of September.

Further reading: learn more about Mickey Hart and Adam Gazzaley’s collaboration in this piece from NPR’s Steve Henn, and don’t miss this article from Nature detailing Adam Gazzaley’s work showing how games can improve multi-tasking skills.

Image credit: David King, via Flickr