Monday, August 5, 2013

Mozart for Your Baby?

Perhaps you saw it on the Internet, remembered from a news story that glossed over the details or heard it from neighbors, friends or co-workers who became new parents:  Research showed that playing Mozart to babies would make them smarter.  This concept, dubbed the Mozart effect, became something of a fad with parents buying up Mozart CDs and toy companies trying to capitalize on it.  In 1998 Governor Zell Miller of Georgia “asked for money to be set aside in the state budget so that every newborn baby could be sent a CD of classical music.”  Many sincerely believed that playing Mozart, or classical music in general, to children would improve their IQs.  As it turns out, that’s not exactly the case.

As this BBC article explains the research was not even conducted with babies.  The original study, published in Nature in 1993 describes how 36 students from UC-Irvine received spacial relations tests – the kind where you are shown a solid object and asked which of the unfolded 2-dimensional figures it came from.  They did this three times.  Before each test “they listened either to ten minutes of silence, ten minutes of a tape of relaxation instructions, or ten minutes of Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D major (K448).”  Those who listened to Mozart did better, but the researchers found that this advantage lasted only about fifteen minutes.

Further research “confirmed that listening to music does lead to a temporary improvement in the ability to manipulate shapes mentally, but the benefits are short-lived and it doesn’t make us more intelligent.”  This applies to other types of music as well.  Maybe the music just stimulates the brain better or gives it a little jump-start.  In any case, these conclusions are a long way from the original parental expectations.

Even the companies that try to take advantage of these parental misconceptions by offering toys branded as Mozart and Einstein are very careful in their advertising, nowhere promising magical increases in brainpower.  One of their company blogs readily admits:  “We cannot draw a direct line from a specific infant toy to a child’s specific outcome in the future. But we do know that the number of toys cannot compare to the impacts of your bond and involvement in selecting what will endure and spark discovery everyday.”

I wouldn’t try to discourage a parent from buying these or any other toys for their children.  It’s their money and their decision.  Just remember; there is no magic answer – it’s the parent, not the toy, your "bond and involvement."  If you play with the children, pay attention to them or take them for walks to explore nature, you’re doing more for them than any toy or CD can.  In other words, you’re better than Mozart!

Note:  Those of us beyond child-rearing years face a similar challenge from companies that promote activities, books, games, puzzles, etc. that imply, but can't legally claim, to improve memory as we move into old age.  The appeal is that a laboratory-tested, magical formula might delay the onset or reduce the chances of dementia.  They play on our fear and insecurity whipped up by the media.  As always, be very, very skeptical.

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