An artist’s passion is a passion to be reckoned with. From poets to painters to musicians, artists of all sorts are driven by an undying love for creation and the expression of their own imaginations. Through chord progressions, colors, shapes, and beautifully placed words, artists have the power to make us leap with joy, fall to our knees and weep, and everything in between. A passionate artist lives for art. They live to create and share their creations. Many of us can only imagine what it would be like to be stripped of the ability to express our passions.
Fifty-year-old Rosemary Johnson was once a member of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, and was on her way to becoming a world-class violinist. However, in 1988, Johnson met a cruel twist of fate, suffering heavy brain damage in an auto wreck in her early 20s. She stayed in a coma for seven months.
When Johnson awoke, she had lost nearly all of her ability to move and speak, and could only execute a few chords on the piano, forcing her to abandon her dreams of becoming a professional musician. For nearly three decades, she has struggled with the harsh reality of having her passion ripped from her fingers.
Now, twenty-seven years later, Rosemary Johnson ─ along with three other patients ─ has been given the opportunity to further pursue her love for music. For ten years, Plymouth University and the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability have been developing a new program, using an EEG cap linked to a computer to execute commands influenced by brain waves.
Here’s how it works:
An EEG cap is connected to the patient’s head and linked to a computer software. This software operates with the patient selecting musical phrases and notes based on staring into colored lights on a screen. Each color triggers different musical phrases that can be manipulated in real-time. These musical phrases show up on screens located in front a string quartet, to be executed live. In a nutshell, these patients can control a musical number with their thoughts while a live quartet plays the notes and phrases they create.
According to Professor Eduardo Miranda of Plymouth University:
“The first time we tried with Rosemary we were in tears. We could feel the joy coming from her at being able to make music. It was perfect because she can read music very well and make a very informed choice.
“The great achievement of this project is that it is possible to perform music without being able to actually move. She is essentially controlling another musician to play it for her.
“It is not yet possible to read thoughts but we can train people to use brain signals to control things.”
This is a massive leap forward for disabled artists who have lost the means to perform and create. In a somewhat similar scenario, guitarist Jason Becker began suffering symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and was diagnosed in 1989, at the age of 20. By 1996, Becker lost his ability to talk, leading his father to create a communication chart based on eye movements and blinking. Becker soon used this communication method to relay his musical composition ideas to a caretaker who programmed the tempos, time signatures, notes, and instruments he desired into a computer. With this new technology, these compositions could be altered during a live performance without the composer having to move a muscle.
Technology like this has been applied to other fields, as well. Scientists have developed software for creating visual works of art, as well as a computer that can reroute the brain signals of a paraplegic, allowing them to bypass a damaged spinal cord and direct the signals to desired limbs. This particular software allowed a man to walk for the first time in five years.
The implications of a development of this type of technology are groundbreaking. Not only through this technology are we able to restore people’s ability to pursue their passions, we are also able to restore abilities that seem trivial to many — like the ability to walk and talk. Viva la ciencia.