Mime Over Mind - a therapeutic tool to help manage Parkinson’s
by Pim van Holst, on 20 September 2023
By Barbara Salsberg Mathews, MEd.
I was living the dream. I’d retired as head of art from a busy downtown Toronto high school, my husband and I had moved to a smaller town, and our children were ‘launched’. We were traveling a lot, and I regularly visited my ‘happy place’ - painting. Except something was wrong with my dominant hand.
I was painting hyper-realistic details on an acrylic cityscape, but my right hand had ideas of its own. It kept wanting to play piano even though there was no piano nearby. So, in January 2020, a neurologist took less than 15 minutes to diagnose me as having Parkinson’s disease (PD). When I asked how he came to this diagnosis, he said when I walked I did not move my right arm and my right hand had a tremor. My whole future changed in an instant. Later, when alone with my husband, I broke down and cried.
It took me some time to accept this diagnosis. Eventually I decided to focus on the legacy I could leave behind, whether it was taking part in research trials or supporting my PD sisters and brothers to live a quality day-to-day life in any way I could.
I was reading The Brain’s Way of Healing by Dr Norman Doidge, which has a chapter called, “The Man Who Walked Off His Parkinsonian Symptoms”. This man taught himself to walk ‘normally’ by breaking down the movements into small steps, slowing these down, then gradually speeding them up until his gait appeared normal. This process was similar to how I learned the stationary mime walk as a teenager. In 1979-80 I studied experimental mime at École internationale de théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, France. I also had a touring mime company for a number of years. The art of mime uses imagery and involves being mindful of everyday movements. I decided to apply these strategies to myself.
To help me remember to stand tall I imagined swallowing a coat hanger, and immediately my once sloping shoulders were now correctly positioned. To override my droopy head and frozen right arm, I visualized a marionette string pulling my head upright from the back of my crown, and another string moving my right arm forward and backwards when walking. I concentrated on doing these exercises purposely as I went about my day. I used motor memory by repeating these actions over and over until I could do them without thinking.
When these mime techniques started working for me, I realized I could teach others to do the same. I designed and delivered workshops and presentations on using mime as a therapeutic tool to help manage annoying symptoms for people with Parkinson’s (PwP). During this time, I discovered a mime artist, Rob Mermin, who lived in Vermont, US. Mermin also has Parkinson’s and has been using mime and circus games to teach others with PD how to move ‘normally’. He gave me his blessings to build on the work he was doing.
Mime as a therapeutic tool can be used to help PwP with things we do everyday, like getting dressed, putting on our shoes, preparing a meal, or carrying objects across the room. Mime can help retrain the brain by using fine and large motor skills. Participants learn three mime concepts: Freeze/Relax, Space-Substance and Point Fix, helping make an invisible object appear solid to viewers.
I’ve put together a course called, Mime Over Mind. Participants with PD can apply the Six Principles of PD Mime, originally developed by Rob Mermin, to specific movement challenges they may encounter. Here is an example I’ve personally grappled with:
Awareness that when holding a glass of water my hand starts to tilt, almost spilling the contents.
Observation of how I am presently holding a glass of water.
Analysis of what is involved in picking up, holding and drinking from a glass of water, and breaking down the movements.
Visualize what it looks like to pick up and drink from a glass normally.
Mime — referring to the Three Mime Concepts above, practice the correct way of carrying and drinking from a glass.
Real Life — mindfully hold a glass of water using corrected movements.
A few circus games are included in these workshops to stimulate large motor skills while having fun. One of these techniques has participants walk (if able to do so) while balancing a peacock feather on their outstretched hands, focusing their attention on the colourful feathers at the top. When doing this, participants’ tremors often stop. This may occur because they’re shifting their focus and creating a new neurological pathway in the brain by placing their attention on the feather.
After my participants use real props, we then re-enact the same movements again, only this time in mime. This stimulates two sections of the brain: one area responds to real objects; a different part reacts to imaginary mime objects, helping to create a new neural route while reinforcing the learnings.
Mime Over Mind is now being offered as a new experiential course at the University of Guelph in Canada this fall. It offers students an opportunity to learn how to use mime to help people with movement disorders effectively manage irritating symptoms. I’ll be co-facilitating the workshops with Dr. Rebecca Barnstaple, a neuroscientist and dance scholar who has used improv and dance to treat Parkinson’s. Professors Kimberly Francis and Sally Hickson are the instructors for the course.
“Parkinson’s is the fastest-growing neurological disease and has no cure, which is why we need tools. We need to explore all possibilities including novel approaches,” Francis said.
In addition to becoming ‘fluent in mime,’ students will learn how to better understand and read one’s body movement. It’s important for the students to know how to apply the techniques to themselves, so they can effectively teach it to people with movement disorders. Learners are encouraged to have fun and discover new ways to override some of these awful symptoms.
There will be information on linking the arts with scientific and medical research. Students who successfully complete the course will be eligible to participate in the winter research project, led by Barnstaple and Professor Lori Ann Vallis, who recently co-led another research study on Exercise and Parkinson’s.
My research writing partner, Muhammad M. Kathia, MSc., came across a study validated in the Netherlands using mime therapy for treating facial nerve paresis [1–3]. The subjects who had more muscle control seemed to have a better chance of ‘waking up’ the rest of their paralyzed face. As in these studies, we aim to use mime as a tool to wake up the PwP’s body. Our winter research study zeroes in on people in the early stages of PD - for example, those just starting to exhibit a tremor or have balance issues.
“If you start with more people who are in early stages, they often tend to also have the most benefit,” says Francis. “So, you retrain the brain early on giving them some good techniques and methods to mindfully apply daily. That helps to create a new neural pathway that hopefully sticks. It’s the best kind of work, you get to be creative, help people, and potentially add something to the world that could be really helpful,” Francis said.
Mime is not just a beautiful art form - it can be a very powerful, practical and useful tool for people with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders. Teaching others to use mime as a therapeutic tool makes me very happy. What Barnstaple, Francis, Hickson and Vallis are offering through this timely initiative at University of Guelph, is a dream come true for me. I’d like to pay it forward by leaving something behind that is useful and hopefully improves the quality of day-to-day lives for people like me, with Parkinson’s.
Barbara Salsberg Mathews in front of the poster at the 2023 World Parkinson’s Congress.
 Beurskens CHG, Heymans PG (2003) Positive effects of mime therapy on sequelae of facial paralysis: stiffness, lip mobility, and social and physical aspects of facial disability. Otol Neurotol 24, 677–681.
 Beurskens CHG, Heymans PG (2006) Mime therapy improves facial symmetry in people with long-term facial nerve paresis: a randomised controlled trial. Aust J Physiother 52, 177–183.
 Beurskens CHG, Heymans PG, Oostendorp RAB (2006) Stability of benefits of mime therapy in sequelae of facial nerve paresis during a 1-year period. Otol Neurotol 27, 1037–1042.
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