Three bizarre (and potentially brilliant) ideas about music and health from TEDMED

Palm Springs, Calif. — Walking around TEDMED 2016, I couldn’t help but think of The Lonely Island song “Incredible Thoughts.” You know, the faux-philosophical rap that pokes fun at the world of Silicon Valley and big ideas with lines like “A Milk Dud sitting in the acid rain,” “Imagine if a fish could play guitar,” and “What if a garbage man was actually smart?”

As it turns out, the theme of this year’s TEDMED conference, an offshoot of the famous TED Talks, is “what if,” and all the attendees were walking around with name tags where they were asked to complete the question with their potentially world-changing thoughts. These were supposed to be conversation starters, one of the organizers explained to me, but they sometimes led to awkward moments when I couldn’t stop myself from giggling after reading some of them.


History, of course, tells us it would be foolish to dismiss those ideas, especially the most radical ones.

On stage at the conference, Jay Walker, chairman of TEDMED, delivered an absolutely fascinating walk-through of some of the rare manuscripts and books that he has in his personal Library of the History of Human Imagination. Through one of those artifacts — a journal containing data tables of deaths at a hospital in the 1840s — Walker told the tale of Ignaz Semmelweis, the guy who first imagined that caregivers at hospitals were spreading invisible germs to each other and other patients, leading to more disease. Semmelweis’s theory, you might be surprised to know, was not well-received. The doctor-scientist was dismissed by the medical establishment at the time as insane and was eventually committed to an asylum, where he died. We all recognize now, obviously, that there’s a whole world of microscopic creatures around us at all times and even schoolchildren know how important it is to wash their hands.


We all hope the world has become a more open place in the 175 years that have passed and such important theories would somehow be verified and be accepted. To do my part to spread interesting ideas widely, here’s a look at three of the neatest ones, at least in my opinion, from the gathering.

1. Musical medicine

Scientists have known for a long time that music — the pitch, tone, modality and lyrics — can have physiological effects and psychological effects on people. Can that power be harnessed as a treatment for disease, addiction, even pain management? Ketki Karanam, a biologist and tech entrepreneur who runs a company that is working on a platform to measure the effects of music on health, wonders whether doctors will one day tell their patients to “take two of these songs and call me in the morning.” The scientific research into this area is still in its early stages, but some work suggests that music can reduce anxiety, stimulate pleasure centers and could potentially even serve as a way to reactivate autobiographical memories in patients with Alzheimer’s and other diseases of the mind. One interesting finding is that a song or type of music that may create happiness or pain in one person may do absolutely nothing for someone else. “Our relationship with music we love is deeply personal,” Karanam says. She calls these “musical signatures.” Could personalized science-driven playlists be far behind?

2. Metronomes for the brain

Kafui Dzirasa, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke, describes mental illness as “a brain electrical circuit malfunction.” If by following that thinking we can pinpoint just where those circuits have gone awry, we might be able to create a way to use neuroelectrical stimulation to minimize the symptoms or even cure the diseases. Dzirasa imagines that one day we could use a sort of pacemaker or a metronome — that ticking device that you use to keep to the beat when playing an instrument — for the brain.

Dzirasa explained that he’s driven by his own family’s history of mental illness: “It’s not curiosity that drives me. It’s fear.”

3. Learning from people who ‘see’ music

Remember the white/gold or blue/brown dress that set the Internet on fire a few years ago? Kaitlyn Hova, a musician and a neuroscientist, uses that example to show just how differently people’s senses interpret the world. Hova is also among the estimated 4 percent of the human population with synesthesia, a condition that results in their senses being involuntarily linked to one another. Some synesthetes, as they are known, see colors in numbers. Others perceive them on a map. The combinations are different for each individual.

Hova sees color in music and has founded an organization to share her experiences with researchers and the public. At the conference, she performed a piece with a violin that creates a light show based on how she views the notes. G, for instance, produces a swish of green. She believes some of the answers to understanding the diversity as well as the illnesses that affect us may lie in better understanding how our senses work.

Hova’s work has been featured by the TED folks before, at TEDxOmaha in 2014, but it’s worth another look. This year’s video isn’t available yet, but if you want to “see” her play, here’s a link to a video from the earlier talk: