Josh Kornbluth uses his performance skills to talk about brain health in his "Citizen Brain" video series. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Josh Kornbluth uses his performance skills to talk about brain health in his "Citizen Brain" video series. (Screenshot/YouTube)

There’s a science to empathy, and an art to explaining it

In the middle of an explanation about a band of nerve fibers in our brains, Josh Kornbluth has a question. He grabs his phone. “Siri, do animals have a corpus callosum?” Siri bails. Kornbluth is more confident about a different section of our gray matter. “The amygdala is in the limbic part of the brain,” he says, “and probably I’m the only one that thinks of [the amygdala] with affection, as a diminutive in Yiddish.”

Kornbluth, who lives in Berkeley, is best known for his 12 theatrical monologues, each one profound and also profoundly funny. In “Sea of Reeds,” he addressed aging, his Jewishness and the modern State of Israel. He also has made two feature films (”Love and Taxes” and “Haiku Tunnel”) and two concert films, and for a time he hosted a Bay Area television interview show.

Kornbluth, who turns 60 on May 21, is busy studying brain health. He spent two years as a Hellman visiting artist at UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center, and in 2017, he signed on as an Atlantic Fellow for equity in brain health at the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI), a joint project of the Memory and Aging Center in San Francisco and Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Based on what he has learned, he will perform a monologue on brain health at the Brain Fitness Forum on June 23 at the JCCSF. Admission is free.

Kornbluth’s mission is to use his well-honed storytelling skills to share information with the public about brain health. “It was weird to set me loose in this world,” he says, “but now I spend 24/7 thinking about how to make what I’ve learned accessible through my art form.”

To date, his projects include two short, engaging “Citizen Brain” videos, one on empathy and one on aging. He also is developing new monologues and working on a movie.

“The videos illustrate how learning about science can help us be better citizens,” Kornbluth says. “I’ve spent over 25 years telling stories about trying to make this a better world, and now I see myself as an interface between the science of brain health and the world of social justice. I believe in democracy as an expression of empathy, and I want to start a peaceful worldwide revolution of empathy.”

Dr. Bruce Miller, Kornbluth’s mentor, is fine with that.

“Josh’s participation in our programs is incredible — he is a tremendous force,” Miller says. “He believes in revolution as a way to change society, so I would say Josh brings to the world the best aspects of Judaism.”

Miller is director of the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, a director of GBHI and a neurology professor at UCSF. His primary areas of research are Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia. “In addition to the videos, Josh has brought many of our faculty members into his presentations in the Bay Area, talking about how brain science can change the world,” Miller adds. “Because of that, he has changed us.”

So just how did Kornbluth get this gig?

Starting in 2014, he served as an artist-in-residence and then a volunteer at the Zen Hospice Project’s guest house, which closed last year. There, Kornbluth met a different Dr. Bruce Miller, a hospice and palliative care specialist who treats patients with terminal or life-altering illness at UCSF Medical Center and in a palliative care clinic. That Miller introduced Kornbluth to his colleague with the same name, the man who initiated the visiting artist program in the medical realm.

“We wanted three things from the program: doctors to have artists’ work touch them, scientists to think about how the arts might change science, and artists to learn about how the arts are generated in and impact the brain,” says Miller, the neurologist. “All three things have happened.” Kornbluth is the eighth artist to participate.

Now, as a Senior Fellow at GBHI, Kornbluth continues his exploration of brain health at UCSF’s Sandler Neurosciences Center in Mission Bay. “I attend meetings, classes, patient reviews and presentations by other GBHI fellows,” Kornbluth says. “I also talk with the brain scientists, the postdocs and the fellows, always asking a lot of questions.”

He freely admits he couldn’t have predicted his current path. Asked how he got interested in brain health, Kornbluth replies, “I didn’t. The artist-in-residence program might have been in kidneys or gall bladders. But I’m happy it’s the brain, because that’s where our identities are.”

Kornbluth confesses he was nervous at first, concerned that learning about neurology might reveal information that would take away from the magic of making stories. “The opposite has been true,” he says. “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 on this subject with these people, making brain health accessible through my art form.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.