Where Did the Idea of using Mime as a Therapeutic Tool for People with Parkinson’s Come From?

‘The Man Who Walked Off His Parkinsonian Symptoms’

I was inspired to use mime as a tool to override many of my own Parkinson’s movement disorders after reading Dr. Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, particularly the chapter on John Pepper, The Man Who Walked Off His Parkinsonian Symptoms. John Pepper, a man with Parkinson’s Disease, broke down the minute movements involved in walking, practiced these slowly, gradually speeding up, and retrained his body to walk more normally. 

His process was similar to how I learned the mime stationary walk as a teenager.

Since the art of mime involves being mindful of our everyday movements and using imagery, would practicing mime help me to move more normally? Mime also depends on motor memory — when we repeat an action over and over until we can do it without thinking. Like riding a bicycle.

Barbara purposely keeps her eyes shut as her body ‘remembers’ how to do these mime illusions through motion memory, mindfulness, repetition and imagery.

Could I develop my motor memory to recreate daily movements?

The answer is yes. Doing so has helped me reduce my hand tremors, improve my balance, my posture and my walk so I now swing both arms equally.

Others have also used mime to help with Parkinson’s symptoms.

Rob Mermin’s Parkinson’s Pantomime Project

Rob Mermin, director, lecturer, author, clown, mime and the founder of Circus Smirkus, who lives in Vermont, had a career as a mime for 40 years. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2014 after becoming aware his left arm did not swing back and forth when he walked. 

With this awareness, Rob then started to observe and analyze his movements, mindfully correcting his left arm’s swing to move in sync with his right arm. Using mime and circus training, he developed tools to help people with PD override some of the motor symptoms. You can find out more about Rob Mermin’s work here. 

Rob Mermin has run weekly mime lessons for people with PD in the United States for a number of years. He asks his students to first become aware of how they move incorrectly, then to observe themselves and analyze their movements. Next, he asks participants to visualize the corrected movement. They next do this movement in mime and then repeat it with a real object. He has been getting promising results with people with Parkinson’s, helping them to override many annoying PD symptoms. Here is an example Rob describes:

“…a fellow who sometimes freezes [PD-related sudden inability to move] before a doorway and can’t get moving again without outer stimulus (such as throwing down keys and stepping over them), learned to mime an invisible door. Now when he freezes, he imagines an invisible door, mimes it with his hands, turns the invisible doorknob, ‘opens’ the door and steps right through the doorway!”

Paradoxical Kinesia

Rob explored the Paradoxical Kinesia Impulse as an approach to movement management. Rob writes: 

“Paradoxical Kinesia is an intriguing phenomenon wherein individuals with PD-related movement difficulties suddenly perform complex movements smoothly, even though motor function had been substantially limited. What if people with PD could purposefully stimulate this phenomenon: would they demonstrate marked improvement in mobility, including gait, reflexes, balance, posture, and general coordination? Does the brain’s innate intelligence at times stimulate neuroplasticity to bypass damaged neural pathways and take alternate routes?”

Steven Iseman, co-founder of Pedalling for Parkinson’s, Rigid Riders and Spinning Wheels Tour, observed the Paradoxical Kinesia Impulse in action. He described the following incident to me:

“One evening, I was walking with a friend with PD whose movement is severely restricted in the mornings and evenings when the medication in his system is at a low point. He shuffled along the sidewalk and I kept to his pace while we chatted.  The conversation turned to a discussion of the relative benefits of walking poles and, to demonstrate his point, he quickened his pace and took long, full walking strides while pretending to hold the poles in his hand.  He was unaware of what he had just done until I pointed it out to him.  I asked him to repeat it, and he could. He could not, however, take the long strides without imagining that he was holding the poles. Regrettably, he could only maintain this ability for a few times and ultimately returned to shuffling, and he did not say what limited him from using this technique all the time when walking.  Still, is there a skill that can be practiced and developed which can improve gait without additional medication?”