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Skepticality: The Official Podcast of Skeptic Magazine
photo of Phil Plait, Alison Smith and Michael Stackpole

left to right: Phil Plait, Alison Smith and Michael Stackpole

Triple Insight

On this week’s Skepticality, Derek talks with Dr. Phil Plait (a.k.a. “The Bad Astronomer”), Alison Smith (founder of the Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society), and author Michael A. Stackpole (leader of the Arizona Skeptics) about the recent Amazing Meeting 5.5 conference on the topic of “Skepticism & Activism.”

These distinguished guests also reveal details of their plans for 2008, and Phil sheds some light on possible impending Death from the Skies — the subject of his soon-to-be-published second book.

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the Spring Season of Lectures at Caltech

Mark your calendar! The Skeptics Society is pleased to announce its Fall season of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech. The next lecture will be a tag-team event with Dr. Paul Zak and Dr. Michael Shermer on February 17, 2008. This continues the fifteen-year-long series, presenting over 200 lectures by some of the most distinguished experts in the world. First up…

Dr. Paul Zak

Dr. Paul Zak (above) will be speaking along with Dr. Michael Shermer on February 17, 2008.

Moral Markets & the Mind of the Market

with Dr. Paul Zak and Dr. Michael Shermer

Sunday, February 17, 2008 at 2:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

In this unusual tag-team lecture Zak and Shermer debunk two myths: (1) Homo economicus: that “economic man” is rational, free and selfish and (2) that evolution and economics are based almost entirely on cutthroat competition and self-maximizing greed. In Zak’s Moral Markets and Shermer’s The Mind of the Market, the authors demonstrate that people are as irrational with money as they are in all other aspects of life… READ MORE >

Important ticket information

Tickets are first come first served at the door. Sorry, no advance ticket sales. Seating is limited. $8 Skeptics Society members & Caltech/JPL Community; $10 General Public.

The following lectures at a glance…

Physics of the Impossible

with Dr. Michio Kaku

SPECIAL Event Date and Time
THURSDAY, March 27, 2008 at 7:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech
READ about this lecture >

Beautiful Minds:
The Parallel Lives of Great Apes & Dolphins

with Dr. Craig Stanford

Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 2:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech
READ about this lecture >

Beyond Human:
Living with Robots & Cyborgs

with Dr. Greg Benford & Dr. Elisabeth Malartre

Sunday, May 25, 2008 at 2:00 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech
READ about this lecture >

In this week’s eSkeptic Will Dowd takes a look at what science really says about The Mozart Effect. Dowd is a science writer based in New York City. He received an M.S. in Science Writing from MIT. He has written about neuropharmacology and the intersection of neuroscience and culture.

antique piano keys (detail)

The Myth of the Mozart Effect

by Will Dowd

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. website banner

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