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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Mozart Effect

Whenever stalled on an intractable problem, Einstein reportedly reached for his violin. He played to disentangle his brain and clarify the question at hand. Mozart especially did the trick. Einstein loved Mozart’s highly organized, intensely patterned sonatas. He felt, as many before him, that music and the reasoning intellect were linked. Music and his scientific work, he said, were “born of the same source.”

It was with this same belief that Dr. Gordon Shaw, a University of California (Irvine) psychologist, corralled 36 undergraduates for a research experiment in February 1993. The students were given three spatial-reasoning tasks from the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests. Before each task, they listened to ten minutes of either silence, a relaxation tape, or Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major. According to a paper published later that year in Nature, listening to Mozart boosted the students’ IQ by an average of eight to nine points. The improvement, researchers said, lasted between ten and fifteen minutes. The results were widely reported as evidence of what the press dubbed “the Mozart Effect.” The International Herald Tribune, for example, proclaimed “Mozart’s Notes Make Good Brain Food.”

Don Campbell, a classical musician and former music critic, was the first to recognize the research’s commercial potential. Campbell expanded the definition of the Mozart Effect to include all music’s influence on intelligence, health, emotions, and creativity. In 1996, he trademarked it. Today, the Mozart Effect™ boasts the lateral spread typical of any successful brand. Campbell has authored 18 books, a series of spoken tapes, and 16 albums incorporating Mozart’s music. The small commercial empire includes the recently published Mozart Effect for Children, which explains, in a chapter entitled “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Neuron,” that Mozart’s music enhances the network of connections forming in the infant brain. His recordings, one of which features Don Giovanni for the developing fetus, have sold over two million copies.

Since the U.C. Irvine study, the Mozart Effect has become fixed in the public consciousness. Zell Miller, while governor of Georgia, earmarked $105,000 of the state’s annual budget to supply every newborn with a cassette or CD of classical music. “No one doubts that listening to music, especially at a very early age, affects the spatial-temporal reasoning that underlies math, engineering and chess,” he explained to the Georgia legislature. In Florida, a bill was passed requiring all state-funded education and child-care programs to give a daily dose of classical music to children under five years old. Recently, the coach of the New York Jets, Eric Mangini, began playing classical music to help his football players concentrate at training camp study sessions. It remains to be seen whether Mozart’s melodies will affect this season’s record.
What the Science Really Says

While the Mozart Effect flourishes commercially, the U.C. Irvine study that launched the phenomenon has been widely criticized. The startling results announced by the initial paper were misleading. First, the researchers claimed that the undergraduates improved on all three spatial-reasoning tests. But, as Shaw later clarified, the only enhancement came from one task — paper folding and cutting. Further, the researchers presented the data in the form of Stanford-Binet IQ scores; yet the study only measured spatial-reasoning, one-third of a complete IQ test. To arrive at the full scores, the students’ partial results were inflated by a factor of three.

The methodology of the study has also come under fire. According to some critics, the test group of 36 psychology undergraduates may not have been large or varied enough to produce credible results. Even Don Campbell has criticized the experiment’s lack of controls. In the endnotes to his 1997 bestseller, The Mozart Effect, Campbell observes that the U.C. Irvine researchers “did not administer listening tests before testing, as many researchers in the field recommend. Nor did they examine how posture, food intake, or the time of day modified their listening.” Naturally, Campbell believes that had these controls been in place, the Mozart Effect would have been more dramatically evident.

Many scientists have proposed alternative explanations for the study’s results. Who’s to say that Mozart’s sonata caused the difference in scores? Maybe listening to an annoying relaxation tape or ten minutes of dead silence impaired the students’ performance. Or perhaps the students experienced a change in mood and arousal rather than a fluctuation in intelligence. One study found that listening to a Stephen King short story had a comparable effect on spatial-reasoning scores, but only for those who enjoyed what they heard. Is it possible that Mozart’s sonata had simply stimulated or uplifted the subjects in the U.C. Irvine study? After all, Shaw selected that particular sonata not just for its organized, cerebral quality, but because it is “riveting” and “never boring.”

But the most damaging blow to the Mozart Effect has been the failure of other researchers to reproduce the Irvine results. Psychologist Kenneth Steele and his colleagues replicated the experiment in 1999 and found no trace of the Mozart Effect. “A requiem may therefore be in order,” Steele wrote in Nature. Dr. Frances Rauscher, co-author of the Irvine study, countered that the Mozart Effect cannot be found under all laboratory conditions. “Because some people cannot get bread to rise,” she wrote, “does not negate the existence of a ‘yeast effect.’”

But that same year, a Harvard psychologist analyzed 16 studies on the Mozart Effect, including the original experiment and concluded that any cognitive enhancement was small and within the average variation of a single person’s IQ-test performance. In 2007, the German Ministry of Education and Research conducted a similar meta-analysis. Their findings were unambiguous: passively listening to any kind of music, whether by Mozart or Madonna, does not increase intelligence.

The German report did, however, propose a link between musical training and IQ development. According to recent studies, the motor and auditory skills developed for musical performance may have a long-term influence on intelligence. In fact, brain mapping has revealed that professional musicians have more grey matter in their right auditory cortex than nonmusicians, as if practicing an instrument flexed a muscle in the brain. It seems increasingly likely that the long-term practice of playing music, rather than merely listening, can have the kind of impact suggested by the Mozart Effect. Einstein, after all, organized his mind by playing the violin, not listening to a recording.

Ironically, the U.C. Irvine researchers had initially planned to test whether music training for young children would increase higher brain function. When Shaw, a particle physicist, developed an interest in neuroscience later in his career, U.C. Irvine gave him the freedom to research what he wanted. But, according to his book Keeping Mozart in Mind, he had to make do with “extremely limited resources.” So Shaw scaled down his ambition. He thought, “if music training might yield a long-term enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning, then perhaps even listening to music might produce a short-term enhancement!” Fourteen years and dozens of studies later, it is clear this analogy was off the mark.
Magic Mozart

What can explain the Mozart Effect’s persistent hold on the public consciousness despite the lack of solid scientific evidence? No art-lover expects to absorb a better memory by staring at a Renaissance painting. No reader hopes to pluck IQ points from a classic novel. So why are Mozart Effect™ products snatched up by the millions?

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Mozart, a historical figure enveloped in myths, should be at the center of yet another. According to the most recent spate of biographies, the real Mozart was an incessant reviser addicted to his work. Yet the details of the Mozart legend — his astonishing prowess as a child prodigy, his immaculate first drafts — have bolstered the popular belief that the composer was a fine-tuned antenna picking up snatches of celestial song. Einstein didn’t help matters. He described Mozart’s music as “so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”

The creators of the Mozart Effect have eagerly traded on the composer’s lingering mystique. Campbell traces the source of Mozart’s talent to his time in the womb: his father’s violin playing “almost certainly enhanced his neurological development and awakened the cosmic rhythms in utero.” Shaw also portrays Mozart as supernaturally gifted. Keeping Mozart in Mind is packaged with a CD of the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major. “Before you read further,” Shaw writes in the Preface, “I suggest that you slip the CD out of the book, make yourself comfortable, and listen to the magic genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” To Shaw, Mozart is not a musical genius; he’s a magic genius whose music rains down brief moments of enhanced brainpower.

But Mozart is not the only magic genius. The transformation of a dubious psychology study into a multi-million dollar industry also has a touch of the miraculous. In The Mozart Effect, Don Campbell summarizes Shaw and Rauscher’s conclusions — the scientific backbone of his brand — when he writes: “Listening to music, they concluded, acts as ‘an exercise’ for facilitating symmetry operations associated with higher brain function. In plain English, it can improve your concentration, enhance your ability to make intuitive leaps, and, not incidentally, shave a few strokes off your golf game!”

Campbell’s translation of the U.C. Irvine study into “plain English” is inaccurate and insincere — an abracadabra that replaces questionable research with fantasy. The Mozart Effect™ has carried on long after the initial study has been discarded because it was never about science to begin with. If the Mozart Effect teaches us anything, it’s that the results of a flawed study are always at risk of becoming a common expression, a copyrighted product, a popular belief infused with a magic that is difficult to dispel.

Posted by Ajay :: 6:14 PM :: 0 comments

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Selfish Vs Selfless

Charity, do-gooding, philanthropy it’s all just selfishness masquerading as virtue. So says the cynic. In modern times, the theory that each of us, despite occasional appearances of self-sacrificial nobility, is ultimately and invariably looking out for No. 1 got a big boost from Darwin’s theory of evolution. By the logic of natural selection, any tendency to act selflessly ought to be snuffed out in the struggle to survive and propagate. So if someone seems to be behaving as an altruist — say, by giving away a fortune to relieve the sufferings of others — that person is really following the selfish dictates of his own genes. The evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse confessed that he slept badly for many nights after absorbing this supposed discovery, which he called “one of the most disturbing in the history of science.”


Before resigning ourselves to a similar spell of disillusioned sleeplessness, it might be instructive to test this theory against a particular case of philanthropy. In recent years, Bill Gates has channeled billions of his dollars to a foundation devoted to fighting disease and poverty. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may today be the single-most-powerful force in the world for the relief of suffering. But what, one might ask, is in it for Bill?

Evolutionary psychologists have come up with four plausible Darwinian reasons for altruism. First, there is “kinship selection,” which is supposed to lurk behind the sacrifices you make for your biological family. It’s based on the percentage of genetic overlap. One biologist, when asked if he would lay down his life for his brother, quipped, no, but he would for two brothers or eight cousins.

Second, there is “reciprocal altruism,” which doesn’t depend on shared genes. Here, the basic idea is: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Reciprocal altruism is seen not just in humans but in some animal species. Vampire bats, for instance, benefit one another by sharing meals of regurgitated blood.

Kinship and reciprocation are, as Richard Dawkins has written, the “twin pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world.” Neither, however, would appear to be of much use in explaining philanthropy. Bill Gates has no special genetic relationship to the beneficiaries of his foundation. Nor does he expect them to reciprocate by purchasing the next release of Windows.

A third explanation for altruism, the Darwinian advantage of having a reputation for generosity, might look more promising. Nineteenth-century “robber barons” like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie had ample reason to amend their reputations by generous benefactions. The same might conceivably be true of Bill Gates, judging from the tone of the jokes you find about him on the Internet (several of which place him in hell).

And how about the final, and certainly most dispiriting, Darwinian rationale for ostentatious giving: the aim of bankrupting one’s rivals? This is sometimes called the Potlatch Effect, after the competitive feasts (“potlatch” in Chinook) of a Pacific Northwest tribe whose rival chieftains try to humiliate one another by unmatchable displays of generosity. Perhaps the Potlatch Effect could explain Bill Gates’s philanthropy as, say, a challenge to the founders of Google to ruin themselves through comparably enormous bequests.

Champions of evolutionary psychology will complain, justly, that they are being burlesqued here. They do not claim that people always have selfish ulterior motives for being generous. Rather, they maintain that our genes have endowed us with genuinely altruistic instincts. If this is true, then a certain amount of selflessness ought to be wired into the very circuits of our brain. And that is just what researchers at the University of Oregon found in a study published last year in Science. Nineteen students were given $100 each and told that they could anonymously donate a portion of this money to charity. The students who, on average, donated the most showed heightened activity in the pleasure centers of their brain as they gave up the money. Their generosity was accompanied by a neural “warm glow.”

But is altruism really best understood as an urge wired into us by selfish genes?

It may be enlightening here to consider an analogy between altruism and prudence. Caring about others is a bit like caring about one’s future self. You altruistically give money to relieve the misery of others; you prudently put aside money now so that you will not be miserable in old age. What is the source of this concern each of us has for our future selves? From the evolutionary point of view, the answer is simple: our forerunners who lacked such a prudential instinct died out.

But that is not the end of the story. Consider Mr. Improvident, who is just like us except that he is not wired to care about his future. (There’s one in every family.) Mr. Improvident gets no neural kick from saving for tomorrow. Yet we can see that he has an objective reason to do so. He is, after all, a person extended in time, not a series of disconnected selves.

We ought to be able to see a similarly objective reason for altruism, one rooted, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel observed, in “the conception of oneself as merely a person among others equally real.” My reason for taking steps to relieve the suffering of others is, in this way of thinking, as valid as my reason for taking steps to avert my own future suffering. Both reasons arise from our understanding of what sort of beings we are, not from the vagaries of natural selection.

But can an objective reason, by itself, motivate selfless generosity? In the Oregon brain-scanning experiment, curiously enough, two of the students who were the most liberal in their charitable giving were “outliers” who seemed to get no neural reward for their generosity. They did not benefit from the warm-glow effect. Yet they were outstandingly altruistic anyway. Even the cynic might rejoice a bit in that.
Via-NYTimes

Posted by Ajay :: 5:35 PM :: 0 comments

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