Archive for July, 2015

Two Hands to Health

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

I would like to introduce a short documentary I just completed. Tammy the Tumour was originally intended as a story about Maureen Steenhill and how playing the piano helped in her recovery from two major brain operations. It turns out other important factors also played a role in her healing.

There is something special about playing the piano in terms of the effect on the brain. Making music is in itself a healing activity. What piano has in addition is that very complex use of two hands acting independent of each other. The only other activity like that I can think of is juggling. There were two complementary studies; one in 2003 from University of Regensburg and another from Oxford University in 2009 that showed an increase in the size of the brain after learning to juggle. There are definite parallels to piano playing from what I have been reading.

Dr. Tara Gaertner is both a neuroscientist and a piano teacher. She writes a blog called Training the Musical Brain. I found in one of her postings called Hands Together some good points about whether the tradition of practicing new piano pieces using hands-separately is as effective as practicing with both hands at the same time. Apparently when we play with our left hand, our right motor cortex not only sends motor commands to our left hand, but it also sends commands to the left motor cortex, telling it not to move the right hand. And vice versa when we play with our right hand. Interhemispheric inhibition is an important mechanism to maximize the independent functioning of each hemisphere. But if we don’t practice with both hands those inhibiting signals will simply inhibit us a little too much.

Maureen has a brain that’s experienced 20 years of a growing tumour pressing on it, a second tumour, two operations and treatments of radiation. She is convinced that all this interhemispheric communication going on at the piano is helping her short term memory. I believe her and for myself who neither juggles or plays piano I have at least my french horn and DIY projects. I don’t need an MRI to tell me how these activities are keeping me healthy. If you have any personal experience or expertise on this subject please feel free to add your comments or insights below.

Maureen was treated at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. Her first operation to remove a meningioma brain tumour was July 2013. In April 2014 she had a second operation when a smaller tumour was removed. Following that she received radiation treatments. Maureen is grateful to the team at The Neuro especially her doctor and surgeon Dr. Jeffery Hall.