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How the Science of Brain Health Inspires a Storyteller

Josh Kornbluth's work emphasizes the importance of social connections


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

Loneliness. Aging. Empathy. Josh Kornbluth, a storyteller whose work positions him at the intersection of art and science, explores these crucial topics in “Citizen Brain,” a series of engaging short videos about what current research in brain health can teach us.

Neuroscience is a new topic for Kornbluth, 60, who wrote and performs in the videos. Once described in The New York Times as finding “a comfortable balance between rollicking entertainment and pained self-examination,” Kornbluth is best known for his two feature films, Love and Taxes and Haiku Tunnel as well as his 12 profound — and profoundly funny — theatrical monologues. He lives in Berkeley, Calif., where for two years he served as host for an interview program on the local PBS station.

“I’ve spent over 25 years telling stories about trying to make this a better world,” says Kornbluth. “My new videos promote empathy — my ultimate goal is to start a peaceful worldwide revolution of empathy — but they also explain how brain science can help us all be better people and better citizens.”

“Loneliness is an important fundamental quality, and when we tug to restore lost bonds, that can result in us living together better and also being happier.”

The focus of Kornbluth’s material first began to shift in 2016, when he spent a year as a Hellman Visiting Artist at the University of California San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center.  Since January 2017, Kornbluth has been an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at the Global Brain Health Institute, where he attends classes and presentations by other fellows and interviews brain scientists and researchers.

New Video Discusses Effects of Loneliness

Credit: Atlantic Institute | Lee Atherton
Storyteller Josh Kornbluth

The next video in the Citizen Brain series, “Loneliness and the Brain,” covers some of the deleterious effects of loneliness and isolation, an area of growing interest among health care providers. Kornbluth is eager to share the scientific research that inspired his work.

The story starts with tales of worms and voles (small rodents). Kornbluth explains that C. elegans — the same tiny nematodes that have taught researchers about the progression of cancerous tumors in humans — now are revealing clues about how we experience loneliness.

“We have tens of billions of neurons and C. elegans have just three hundred and two, so it’s much easier to study their nervous system,” he says. “And the worms are transparent, so researchers can actually see what’s going on inside them when they choose to clump together or when some go off on their own. That sheds light on the human experience of loneliness and on the importance of connecting with one another.”

Kornbluth also has spent time with scientists who study prairie voles. When separated from their life partners, the voles feel social pain, and release chemicals in their brains that are similar to the chemicals we release in our brains when we are lonely.

“Loneliness had a purpose evolutionarily in natural selection,” Kornbluth says. “So though loneliness is hardwired into our brains, the extent of it and our susceptibility to it can vary tremendously. Like most of us, I’ve felt lonely. It can feel subjectively shameful, and can stigmatize you in the eyes of others. Because it’s absolutely human to feel lonely, there should not be any stigma around it.”

Watch for ‘Cool Worm and Vole Animation’

The overall message of the upcoming video is how important it is to fight loneliness and isolation.

“We must connect on personal and familial levels, and also as nations,” Kornbluth says. “Loneliness is an important fundamental human quality, and when we tug to restore lost bonds, that can result in us living together better and also being happier.”

The other selling points for the video? Says Kornbluth: “Really cool worm and vole animation and music.”

In “The Empathy Circuit,” the first of the Citizen Brain videos, Kornbluth deplores a current empathy gap and stresses the importance of trying to understand the perspectives of others.

In the second video, “Aging Without Ageism,” he recommends thinking positive thoughts about getting older. “Are you aging?” he asks. “Great — that means you’re alive!”

Two additional videos are in development. The next one will focus on “othering” — seeing people different from us as “other.” Kornbluth also is considering the relationship between the left and right brain. “We have an excess of zeal in our left brain, and being super doubtful comes from the right brain. We need balance in communication between the two because people have developed ideologies that can be so destructive, so anti-human. We need to be more fluid, more capable of change,” he says.

In November, Kornbluth spent three weeks workshopping his newest full-length monologue, which also is about brain health. The solo show will have its premiere next fall as part of the Shotgun Players, a regional theater company in Berkeley. Kornbluth is also writing a movie.

Our Super Power Is ‘Being Social’

“Getting immersed in brain science has given me a great subject because I can communicate in different ways about neuroscience and how it relates to all of us,” Kornbluth says. “Storytelling is tremendously important for human beings. When I hear a story about how Jack climbs a beanstalk, the same circuitry fires in my brain as though I were climbing that beanstalk, and that produces an incredible amount of empathy in me.”

In all the stories Kornbluth now tells, everything comes back to the idea that human beings are fundamentally social beings. “That’s our super power,” he says. “We’re great at being social, so we need to concentrate on working together in small and large groups to get incredible things done. We can’t do that unless we have social skills and empathy.”

Early on, Kornbluth was concerned that learning about brain science might take away from him the magic of making stories, but he says that didn’t happen.

“Now I have a new way to look at my stories and my experiences — and I want to spend the rest of my working life making brain health accessible through my art form,” he says.

By Patricia Corrigan
Patricia Corrigan is a professional journalist, with decades of experience as a reporter and columnist at a metropolitan daily newspaper, and a book author. She now enjoys a lively freelance career, writing for numerous print and on-line publications. Read more from Patricia on her blog.

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