Josh Kornbluth Headshot by Tue Nam Ton
Josh Kornbluth. Photo: Tue Nam Ton

Berkeley’s own creative solo-performer, Josh Kornbluth, has a new and fascinating story to tell, live via Zoom. This engaging and enlightening autobiographical monologue is about how the Alzheimer diagnosis of his beloved stepfather and the election of Donald Trump changed his life in surprisingly positive ways.

Yes, some good has come to Josh Kornbluth (Red Diaper Baby, Haiku Tunnel, Love and Taxes, KQED’s The Josh Kornbluth Show) from these two unrelated, unforeseen, and as Kornbluth would say, unfortunate events. Just as our President was being elected, Kornbluth learned that his dear stepfather, former Chicago communist union organizer, Frank Rosen, had dementia.

“It was awful,” Kornbluth told Berkeleyside in a recent telephone interview, “It’s always horrible for the families.” He recalled wondering, “What can I do to be helpful to my mother and learn about dementia?” Kornbluth and his mother had maintained a problematic relationship over the years, and now she was losing the happy ending of her “late-in-life Communist fairy tale.”

Then Josh Kornbluth remembered that a few artist friends had been active at UCSF’s Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI). It aims to improve brain health, particularly in aging and underserved populations. “I never expected to hear back from the email I sent, but it changed my life,” recalled Kornbluth.

In 2017, he signed on as a full-time Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at GBHI, later serving as a Hellman Visiting Artist at UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center. And Kornbluth is still intensely involved with GBHI, making a series of videos called Citizen Brain, which address issues including brain health, loneliness, empathy and ageism. “It’s been a beautiful surprise,” said Kornbluth, “to learn a totally new subject at 61.”

“It’s been a beautiful surprise to learn a totally new subject at 61.” — Josh Kornbluth

A large focus of Kornbluth’s work at GBHI involves the empathy circuit of the brain. Neurologists discovered a discernable, measurable empathy circuit in the brain, which can be shut off through brain disease, aging, or other reasons. This caused Kornbluth to wonder whether our entire society was suffering from a lack of empathy or a type of collective political dementia.

He refers to our collective American brain as our citizen brain. Since brains are always being rewired, Kornbluth posits that he can strengthen his own empathy circuit by practicing empathy himself and can spread kindness and compassion to others through his storytelling. Kornbluth interestingly theorizes that our collective American citizen brain can be rewired through single and collective action, which may strengthen us individually and societally.

Citizen Brain, an engaging story of Kornbluth’s foray into the world of science, illness and family is told in his inimitable humorous, intelligent and forthright style. “One conscious goal of this work was to find a way to talk about his mother” and to improve their relationship, he said. Happily, both goals have been achieved.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...