Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Mozart Effect- not learning from history

Article:  Jones, S.M. & Zigler, E.   The Mozart effect- Not learning from History.  Applied Developmental Psychology, Volume 23, Issue 3, 355-372. New Haven: 


The nature vs. nurture debate has been going on for centuries, but today it has shifted from the realm of philosophy to the realm of biology and neurophysiology.  A large focus of this debate occurs in finding to what extent early experiences affect the intelligence of humans.  There have been many studies which show that there is a wide gap of intelligence between children from the extreme income groups (ie. very high vs. very low).  Such studies can very tentatively be supported by early brain development research.

Early brain development research
Research shows that there are two pathways through which early experience influences the brain- i) by affecting the normal development growth process and ii) by affecting stress circuits in the brain because of too much exposure to glucocorticoid hormones (cortisol).
First pathway:
The early years of a brain’s development are characterized by a great increase of  synapse formation and in the creation of dendrites.  According to experiences, certain dendrites and synapses are then pruned off (no longer used).  In environment-expectant processes, synapses and dendrites are overproduced in expectation of certain stimulus which are to occur, and subsequently pruned off.  One such example is that infants babble in the phonemes of many different languages until 9 months, and after that their babbling is restricted to the phonemes of their language.  There is also research that in environment-expectant processes there is a critical period and if the development does not occur within this time, it never will (as the dendrites and synapses will have been already pruned off without there being development within the child).  
There is also research supporting experience-dependent processes for the development of infants.  Here the synapses and dendrites are formed as a result of individual experiences.  The research shows that when there is an environment which offers more experiences, then there is an increased mass of the cerebral cortex.
Second pathway:
Finally, there is research suggesting that in environments where there is too much stress, there is an overproduction of glucocorticoid hormone (cortisol).  At a young age, too much cortisol can lead to dendritic atrophy or to neuron death.  What this means for children, is that they are shown too have worse social and emotional behaviour.  

Reaction to early brain development research
The effect of this early brain development research among the population was great excitement. It was seen that with correct intervention at certain stages of development, intelligence could be increased.  However the results of these findings were taken too conclusively by politicians, and a “quick fix” to intelligence was proposed.  Throughout history there have been example of many such “quick fix” projects, where inconclusive studies of the brain resulted in big, expensive programs (often tax money).  One example of such a project responding to early brain development theory is the Mozart Effect.  Most of the brain studies were marked by results which were limited to the positive effects being limited to a short duration of time.  For example in the Mozart effect, the results were limited to two days and nothing beyond that. 
The Mozart Effect was a great example of a few inconclusive studies resulting in a big hubbub of excitement and spending of tax dollars.  In two studies (one with preschoolers and one with college students), a correlation was shown between listening to Mozart and to improvement in spatial-temporal reasoning.  This quickly resulted in events such as the government of Georgia, spending $105,000 in order to send every child in the state a disc of Mozart sonatas.  However, the experiments proved inconclusive as they could not be repeated, and what resulted was a loss of tax dollars which could have been used in a more substantive way.

Author’s criticism and suggestions
In his conclusions, the author stated that if results from early phases of brain development research are taken too conclusively, then what might result is a hopelessness where before there was extreme hope.  This has been seen in many experiments.  At first it is believed that the study group will be cured completely because of early phases of brain research.  When subsequent field work shows that this will not be so, the initial great hope is replaced by great despair, and the (often needy) demographic is abandoned.  
An example of this was seen in the creation of a 6 week pre-school program for economically underpriviledged preschool aged children called Head Start.  These children came from a environments which had negative effects on IQ.  The argument was that if physical, mental and social intervention occurred at a critical time, the children’s IQ could be changed in a “crash course”.  The findings showed an increase of 10 IQ points in children after the 6 weeks.  But yet again, the results did not last beyond a certain point.  As soon as Head Start was seen to be a failure, then despair resulted and this population group was given up on.  The same trend was seen with trying to cure “retarded” individuals, and after it failed, they were left to “rot” in the homes which had originally been constructed to help them.  
A further, specific criticism to the reaction of development of brain research, is that development has been encouraged in the IQ, forgetting that the brain also controls emotions and the motivational system, which could also improve children’s results at school.
The conclusions that can and should be drawn from brain development research is that children who grow up in a negative environment (poverty, hazards) do risk negative brain development.  Concrete projects that offer “quick fix” solutions are as yet premature.  Instead of looking for a “quick fix” solution which lasts a very short while and has short lived benefits, programs should have a longer duration, and should also not merely look to directly improve IQ, but to also improve family support and individual support (for example conflict management).   


In today’s world, everything is very quick.  Even thoughts- if you have a thought, you can often “offload it” or share it, through twitter or email, and it ceases to be a private thought.  And then the thought is no longer dwelt upon, no longer developed in order to become something bigger.  It seems that many things today are not given time to develop.  But if we look at things of quality- their development often does take time.  A good bottle of wine needs to age.  A baseball player should not be put into the major leagues prematurely, just as an opera singer should not audition until technically ready.  Otherwise what results, is that what could have been a product of great quality, is seen to early and given up on.  The baseball player is not good enough for the majors, yet if he had had another year, he could have lasted there for many years.  The same holds true for the singer- if she had not been revealed to early, she would have had a great career.  This is what happens when great things are revealed to early.  Then people forget about them and give up on them.
This seems to be what Jones and Zigler are saying here- that too often brain research is prematurely revealed, and then the resulting field work has little positive results.  It seems like brain research is like that bottle of wine.  It seems to be very young, but seems to have an incredible amount of potential.  Personally, I would not be surprised if at some point there was a “quick fix” found for many problems through brain research.  I believe this for one, because the brain is so miraculous, and secondly, because human kind has to date achieved equal miracles be it in medicine or technology.  Yet, that day is not here and what Jones and Zigler say I see to be true- people will give up on the certain demographics, if inconclusive studies are used too early to field costly projects.  Brain research needs to be more conclusive.
On a side note, it was very interesting to read about the pathways of early brain development research.  

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