William Shakespeare said music has charms that soothe the savage breast — and in the case of Scott Mannis, music seems to have done even more than that. It may have helped him deal with a debilitating disorder.
Mannis, a 24-year-old who attends Columbia University, is being treated for epilepsy at the Yale School of Medicine, by Dr. Lawrence Hirsch, professor of neurology and co-chairman of the Epilepsy Center there. And in the course of their years of working together, the two have made an interesting discovery: Mannis is far less likely to have an epileptic seizure when he is playing music or singing.
“I rarely have any warning when they’re coming,” Mannis said of his seizures. “Once it’s started, I can’t do anything to stop it. It’s basically a left-side body paralysis. I stiffen up like a surfboard and then I fall over. It’s freaky and it hurts. But it doesn’t happen when I’m singing.”
He first noticed something was wrong when he was 17 and realized that he sometimes couldn’t feel where his left leg was. As his symptoms grew progressively worse and he started falling, his mother took him to various specialists.
“They all told me it was psychosomatic,” he said. “But it kept getting worse. It got so bad, I had to take time off from college. I had to change my major from physics, because my seizures seemed tied up with how intensely I focus. The only thing I can focus on without seizures, really, is music.”
Luckily, his case came to the attention of Hirsch, who had gone to Columbia to complete a residency in neurology after attending Yale Medical School. Hirsch, who recently came back to Yale to head the Epilepsy Center, was the first to make the diagnosis of epilepsy.
“From the beginning, I thought these spells sounded like epileptic seizures,” Hirsch said, “and then the EEG showed that these spells were right in the area that would explain the involvement of his leg.”
Epileptic seizures affect about 1 percent of the population, and they happen, Hirsch said, when the brain becomes over-synchronized, causing all the cells to fire together when they shouldn’t. Usually, there’s no known cause, and, although medication can help, often there is no sure cure.
Hirsch was intrigued with Mannis’s realization that playing music seemed to hold off the seizures.
“It’s not too surprising that if a person gets into a state of less excitability, then there are fewer seizures,” he said. “Some people have seizures that are worsened by stress or a high cognitive burden. Some people have things that put their brains in a state that makes it less likely to have seizures: exercise, for instance, or being interactive. For Scott, it’s clearly music that does that.”
“When I’m singing to myself, I feel calmer, like I’m in a different state of mind,” Mannis said. “It’s that I’m doing something I really enjoy, I can lose myself in it.”
As soon as Mannis realized the connection between music and a sense of wellness, he and his mother started seeking a mentor for him, so he could work on music more regularly. His mother took some of his tracks to music industry veteran Susan Collins, who has worked with Electric Light Orchestra and the “Saturday Night Live” band, and she took him on as a student.
After they’d worked together for a bit, she took him to the studio of Grammy Award-winner Art Labriola, and the three of them worked together for the next few years. Eventually, they co-wrote a song, “Angel in the Red Dress,” a lively dance tune that became the title of Mannis’ CD, released in December. In January, Billboard magazine profiled Mannis up and coming career.
The CD, mostly made up of oldies in a contemporary style, is available on CDBaby, iTunes and Amazon. Mannis, who performed at a launch party for the CD, is donating a portion of the proceeds to Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy.
These days, he’s back in school, working toward a major in physical anthropology, and would love to see a career that involves music as well.
“What started out as a vanity project has blossomed,” he said with a smile. “I think this has launched me on a career. Without this diagnosis, and the realization that music helps me, I think it’s something I might never have done.”
By Sandi Kahn Shelton, Register Staff
The New Haven Register (nhregister.com), Serving New Haven, CT