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TEDMED 2012

Robert Gupta: Between music and medicine

April 15, 2012

When Robert Gupta was caught between a career as a doctor and as a violinist, he realized his place was in the middle, with a bow in his hand and a sense of social justice in his heart. He tells a moving story of society’s marginalized and the power of music therapy, which can succeed where conventional medicine fails.

Robert Gupta - Violinist
Violinist Robert Gupta joined the LA Philharmonic at the age of 19 -- and maintains a passionate parallel interest in neurobiology and mental health issues. He's a TED Senior Fellow. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
(Music)
00:23
(Applause)
02:38
Thank you very much. (Applause)
02:41
Thank you. It's a distinct privilege to be here.
02:46
A few weeks ago, I saw a video on YouTube
02:50
of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
02:52
at the early stages of her recovery
02:54
from one of those awful bullets.
02:56
This one entered her left hemisphere, and
02:58
knocked out her Broca's area, the speech center of her brain.
03:00
And in this session, Gabby's working with a speech therapist,
03:04
and she's struggling to produce
03:08
some of the most basic words, and you can see her
03:10
growing more and more devastated, until she ultimately
03:13
breaks down into sobbing tears, and she starts sobbing
03:16
wordlessly into the arms of her therapist.
03:19
And after a few moments, her therapist tries a new tack,
03:23
and they start singing together,
03:25
and Gabby starts to sing through her tears,
03:27
and you can hear her clearly able to enunciate
03:29
the words to a song that describe the way she feels,
03:32
and she sings, in one descending scale, she sings,
03:34
"Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."
03:37
And it's a very powerful and poignant reminder of how
03:41
the beauty of music has the ability to speak
03:44
where words fail, in this case literally speak.
03:47
Seeing this video of Gabby Giffords reminded me
03:52
of the work of Dr. Gottfried Schlaug,
03:54
one of the preeminent neuroscientists studying music and the brain at Harvard,
03:56
and Schlaug is a proponent of a therapy called
04:00
Melodic Intonation Therapy, which has become very popular in music therapy now.
04:03
Schlaug found that his stroke victims who were aphasic,
04:08
could not form sentences of three- or four-word sentences,
04:12
but they could still sing the lyrics to a song,
04:17
whether it was "Happy Birthday To You"
04:20
or their favorite song by the Eagles or the Rolling Stones.
04:22
And after 70 hours of intensive singing lessons,
04:24
he found that the music was able to literally rewire
04:27
the brains of his patients and create a homologous
04:31
speech center in their right hemisphere
04:34
to compensate for the left hemisphere's damage.
04:36
When I was 17, I visited Dr. Schlaug's lab, and in one afternoon
04:39
he walked me through some of the leading research
04:43
on music and the brain -- how musicians had
04:45
fundamentally different brain structure than non-musicians,
04:49
how music, and listening to music,
04:52
could just light up the entire brain, from
04:54
our prefrontal cortex all the way back to our cerebellum,
04:56
how music was becoming a neuropsychiatric modality
04:59
to help children with autism, to help people struggling
05:02
with stress and anxiety and depression,
05:06
how deeply Parkinsonian patients would find that their tremor
05:09
and their gait would steady when they listened to music,
05:12
and how late-stage Alzheimer's patients, whose dementia
05:15
was so far progressed that they could no longer recognize
05:19
their family, could still pick out a tune by Chopin
05:22
at the piano that they had learned when they were children.
05:24
But I had an ulterior motive of visiting Gottfried Schlaug,
05:28
and it was this: that I was at a crossroads in my life,
05:31
trying to choose between music and medicine.
05:34
I had just completed my undergraduate, and I was working
05:37
as a research assistant at the lab of Dennis Selkoe,
05:40
studying Parkinson's disease at Harvard, and I had fallen
05:43
in love with neuroscience. I wanted to become a surgeon.
05:46
I wanted to become a doctor like Paul Farmer or Rick Hodes,
05:49
these kind of fearless men who go into places like Haiti or Ethiopia
05:53
and work with AIDS patients with multidrug-resistant
05:57
tuberculosis, or with children with disfiguring cancers.
06:00
I wanted to become that kind of Red Cross doctor,
06:04
that doctor without borders.
06:07
On the other hand, I had played the violin my entire life.
06:09
Music for me was more than a passion. It was obsession.
06:12
It was oxygen. I was lucky enough to have studied
06:16
at the Juilliard School in Manhattan, and to have played
06:19
my debut with Zubin Mehta and the Israeli philharmonic orchestra in Tel Aviv,
06:22
and it turned out that Gottfried Schlaug
06:27
had studied as an organist at the Vienna Conservatory,
06:29
but had given up his love for music to pursue a career
06:32
in medicine. And that afternoon, I had to ask him,
06:34
"How was it for you making that decision?"
06:38
And he said that there were still times when he wished
06:40
he could go back and play the organ the way he used to,
06:43
and that for me, medical school could wait,
06:45
but that the violin simply would not.
06:49
And after two more years of studying music, I decided
06:51
to shoot for the impossible before taking the MCAT
06:54
and applying to medical school like a good Indian son
06:57
to become the next Dr. Gupta. (Laughter)
06:59
And I decided to shoot for the impossible and I took
07:02
an audition for the esteemed Los Angeles Philharmonic.
07:05
It was my first audition, and after three days of playing
07:08
behind a screen in a trial week, I was offered the position.
07:11
And it was a dream. It was a wild dream to perform
07:14
in an orchestra, to perform in the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall
07:18
in an orchestra conducted now by the famous Gustavo Dudamel,
07:21
but much more importantly to me to be surrounded
07:25
by musicians and mentors that became my new family,
07:28
my new musical home.
07:32
But a year later, I met another musician who had also
07:35
studied at Juilliard, one who profoundly helped me
07:38
find my voice and shaped my identity as a musician.
07:42
Nathaniel Ayers was a double bassist at Juilliard, but
07:46
he suffered a series of psychotic episodes in his early 20s,
07:49
was treated with thorazine at Bellevue,
07:53
and ended up living homeless on the streets of Skid Row
07:55
in downtown Los Angeles 30 years later.
07:59
Nathaniel's story has become a beacon for homelessness
08:01
and mental health advocacy throughout the United States,
08:05
as told through the book and the movie "The Soloist,"
08:08
but I became his friend, and I became his violin teacher,
08:10
and I told him that wherever he had his violin,
08:13
and wherever I had mine, I would play a lesson with him.
08:15
And on the many times I saw Nathaniel on Skid Row,
08:18
I witnessed how music was able to bring him back
08:21
from his very darkest moments, from what seemed to me
08:24
in my untrained eye to be
08:27
the beginnings of a schizophrenic episode.
08:29
Playing for Nathaniel, the music took on a deeper meaning,
08:32
because now it was about communication,
08:36
a communication where words failed, a communication
08:38
of a message that went deeper than words, that registered
08:41
at a fundamentally primal level in Nathaniel's psyche,
08:44
yet came as a true musical offering from me.
08:48
I found myself growing outraged that someone
08:52
like Nathaniel could have ever been homeless on Skid Row
08:56
because of his mental illness, yet how many tens of thousands
09:00
of others there were out there on Skid Row alone
09:04
who had stories as tragic as his, but were never going to have a book or a movie
09:07
made about them that got them off the streets?
09:11
And at the very core of this crisis of mine, I felt somehow
09:14
the life of music had chosen me, where somehow,
09:18
perhaps possibly in a very naive sense, I felt what Skid Row
09:22
really needed was somebody like Paul Farmer
09:25
and not another classical musician playing on Bunker Hill.
09:28
But in the end, it was Nathaniel who showed me
09:32
that if I was truly passionate about change,
09:34
if I wanted to make a difference, I already had the perfect instrument to do it,
09:37
that music was the bridge that connected my world and his.
09:41
There's a beautiful quote
09:46
by the Romantic German composer Robert Schumann,
09:48
who said, "To send light into the darkness of men's hearts,
09:50
such is the duty of the artist."
09:55
And this is a particularly poignant quote
09:58
because Schumann himself suffered from schizophrenia
10:00
and died in asylum.
10:03
And inspired by what I learned from Nathaniel,
10:05
I started an organization on Skid Row of musicians
10:07
called Street Symphony, bringing the light of music
10:10
into the very darkest places, performing
10:13
for the homeless and mentally ill at shelters and clinics
10:16
on Skid Row, performing for combat veterans
10:18
with post-traumatic stress disorder, and for the incarcerated
10:22
and those labeled as criminally insane.
10:26
After one of our events at the Patton State Hospital
10:29
in San Bernardino, a woman walked up to us
10:32
and she had tears streaming down her face,
10:34
and she had a palsy, she was shaking,
10:37
and she had this gorgeous smile, and she said
10:39
that she had never heard classical music before,
10:42
she didn't think she was going to like it, she had never
10:44
heard a violin before, but that hearing this music was like hearing the sunshine,
10:47
and that nobody ever came to visit them, and that for the first time in six years,
10:51
when she heard us play, she stopped shaking without medication.
10:54
Suddenly, what we're finding with these concerts,
10:59
away from the stage, away from the footlights, out
11:02
of the tuxedo tails, the musicians become the conduit
11:05
for delivering the tremendous therapeutic benefits
11:08
of music on the brain to an audience that would never
11:12
have access to this room,
11:15
would never have access to the kind of music that we make.
11:16
Just as medicine serves to heal more
11:22
than the building blocks of the body alone,
11:26
the power and beauty of music transcends the "E"
11:29
in the middle of our beloved acronym.
11:33
Music transcends the aesthetic beauty alone.
11:36
The synchrony of emotions that we experience when we
11:39
hear an opera by Wagner, or a symphony by Brahms,
11:42
or chamber music by Beethoven, compels us to remember
11:45
our shared, common humanity, the deeply communal
11:49
connected consciousness, the empathic consciousness
11:53
that neuropsychiatrist Iain McGilchrist says is hard-wired
11:56
into our brain's right hemisphere.
12:00
And for those living in the most dehumanizing conditions
12:03
of mental illness within homelessness
12:06
and incarceration, the music and the beauty of music
12:09
offers a chance for them to transcend the world around them,
12:11
to remember that they still have the capacity to experience
12:16
something beautiful and that humanity has not forgotten them.
12:19
And the spark of that beauty, the spark of that humanity
12:23
transforms into hope,
12:26
and we know, whether we choose the path of music
12:29
or of medicine, that's the very first thing we must instill
12:32
within our communities, within our audiences,
12:35
if we want to inspire healing from within.
12:37
I'd like to end with a quote by John Keats,
12:41
the Romantic English poet,
12:44
a very famous quote that I'm sure all of you know.
12:46
Keats himself had also given up a career in medicine
12:49
to pursue poetry, but he died when he was a year older than me.
12:52
And Keats said, "Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.
12:55
That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know."
13:00
(Music)
13:09
(Applause)
15:53
Translator:Joseph Geni
Reviewer:Morton Bast

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Robert Gupta - Violinist
Violinist Robert Gupta joined the LA Philharmonic at the age of 19 -- and maintains a passionate parallel interest in neurobiology and mental health issues. He's a TED Senior Fellow.

Why you should listen

Violinist Robert Vijay Gupta joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the age of 19. He made his solo debut, at age 11, with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. He has a Master's in music from Yale. But his undergraduate degree? Pre-med. As an undergrad, Gupta was part of several research projects in neuro- and neurodegenerative biology. He held Research Assistant positions at CUNY Hunter College in New York City, where he worked on spinal cord neuronal regeneration, and at the Harvard Institutes of Medicine Center for Neurologic Diseases, where he studied the biochemical pathology of Parkinson's disease.

Gupta is passionate about education and outreach, both as a musician and as an activist for mental health issues. He has the privilege of working with Nathaniel Ayers, the brilliant, schizophrenic musician featured in "The Soloist," as his violin teacher.

The original video is available on TED.com
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