11/01/2010 10:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Adventures of Ozzy and Sanity

In the early '80s, shortly after a music trade magazine I'd been editing bit the bullet, a honcho at mega-label CBS Records hired me to help with the public relations challenges facing a corporate chief in a rock 'n' roll world. He got right to the point: "How do you handle it when one of your artists bites the head off a dove at a press conference?" This referred, of course, to heavy metal Godfather/Black Sabbath alum Ozzy Osbourne, who had also recently bitten off a bat's pate during a concert appearance. (The dove, true to form, went peacefully; the bat, before expiring, delivered a dose of karmic justice by biting our boy.)

My suggestion to have the Prince of Darkness plead temporary insanity didn't carry the day, and before long I was mercifully relieved of my duties, never again to darken the door of the PR arena.

Through his many drug- and booze-fueled years, "adventures with Ozzy and sanity" stories abounded. My friend David Was, the 'Not Was' half of the duo Was Not Was, recalls Ozzy's work on that band's track "Shake Your Head": "Ozzy only had to speak-sing his part, and said of the task: 'You just want me to talk this? -- that's a piece o' piss!' Then he was due in an L.A. studio to greenscreen his lip-synch for the video -- but wound up driving in circles, too 'altered' to make the scene."

If there was anyone who needed his sanity restored, it was Ozzy. Now he seems to have accomplished that, while holding on to his demented charm. At Saturday's Rally To Restore Sanity, he participated in a mock battle of the bands as Stephen 'pro-fear' Colbert (his distant relative, about which more in a minute) cut a rug to Oz's "Crazy Train" when Jon 'pro-sanity' Stewart wasn't swaying Kumbaya-ishly as Yusef -- aka Cat Stevens -- strummed his inspiring classic "Peace Train." ("Love Train" by the O'Jays came to the rescue and synthesized the dialectic.)

Ozzy, whose Hollywood Star is positioned in front of Ripley's Believe it Or Not! Museum -- and who claims that, after too many rehab stints to count, he's been clean for seven years -- came off as a non-insane person playing a crazy person in the service of rehabbing America's political insanity.

Ozzy's unique blend of addiction and wackiness might be a model for another epic battle: genetic determinism vs. neuroplasticity. Last week we learned that Oz, one of the first to have his full genome analyzed, is a man whose DNA reveals addictive tendencies, Neanderthal roots and a common ancestor with Stephen Colbert. (The Colbert link is 1000 years old, but who's counting?)

Some would argue that Oz's genes not only underpin his past destructive behavior but pretty much doom him to a lifetime of barbaric actions and demonic addictions. The mere fact that he's survived to the age of 61 is something of a miracle, and his secrets may soon be revealed in Rolling Stone, where Ozzy will appear as, of all things, a health columnist.

But for every new discovery of the powerful effects of genetics on who we are, there's even more evidence that neuroplasticy -- our ability to behave in ways that change the very structure of our brains -- can help free us from painful lifelong habits via such practices as meditation, aerobic exercise, Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, martial arts and learning how to play a musical instrument.

Some scientists argue that our brains are plastic enough that our actions, even late in life, can alter our genes! Norman Doidge, research psychiatrist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself says, "Thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off, thus shaping our brain anatomy and our behavior--surely one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century."

Inevitably, there's a flip side to the wonders of neuroplasticity. Doidge: "The paradox of neuroplasticity is that for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into 'rigid behaviors.' The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they've formed." Hence, the extreme difficulty of breaking deep-rooted compulsive habits.

The Rally To Restore Sanity was an attempt to nudge our political atmosphere towards civilized dialogue and away from shouted slogans. Can the triumph of neuroplasticity over determinism in individuals also apply to great nations gone astray? As the Rally closed, Stewart said, "We live now in hard times -- not end times."

Call him crazy, but even the famously uncivil Ozzy Osbourne has suggested that a profound hope for progress may be built into us, singing "Watching better turn to worse/One more time/Try to civilize the universe."