Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Mozart meme

Heard some great lectures yesterday evening at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute. John Sloboda gave a wonderful talk about the psychology of music, and in particular what makes the difference between a musical genius and the rest of us. He showed, with some pretty compelling evidence, that firstly you need to start learning an instrument very young, and secondly you need around 10 years of averaging 2 hours per day of practice - but not just any old practice, it has to be strongly supported and guided - before then starting composition. Are musical geniuses born or made? John offered the view that it's much more down to nurture than nature. He suggested that genetics may account for musical deficits (such as the very small number of people who are genuinely tone-deaf) but probably not musical genius.

John told a story so fascinating that I want to recount it here. A US research team ran some IQ tests on a group of adults, one group immediately after listening to Mozart, the other (control) group without. The Mozart group showed higher IQ scores than the control group. Now that's interesting enough, but it's what happened subsequently and outside the research lab, that is really quite shocking. John recounted that a journalist reported this finding as "The Mozart Effect" and parents anxious to improve their youngsters' IQs started playing them Mozart, schools introduced the same practice, and in some US districts this became a requirement of the education authority. Pop-psych books were published and money was made. Google the Mozart effect and you'll see what I mean.

But does it work? No. John explained that the original study was done on adults and subsequent work has shown that the same effect isn't apparent in children, and even on adults the IQ raising effect wears off after 10 minutes or so. But that's the power of a great meme. The idea is so attractive that as soon as it catches hold the truth behind the idea becomes irrelevant. And of course Mozart already has almost mythical super-genius status, so the Mozart effect meme was already riding on a winner. Someone asked John if the same would have happened if the original study had used another composer's music. "Almost certainly not", he replied, "the Couperin effect, doesn't have anything like the same ring to it!"

But the world is full of such memes. Some emerge from flaky science, others from a flawed interpretation of otherwise good science. A particular hobby horse of mine is "The Big Bang". Popular culture regards the Big Bang as an established fact. But it isn't. There are two competing theories for the origin of the Universe: one is the big bang theory, the other is the steady-state theory. The problem with the steady-state theory is that it's just dull. Where's the excitement in the idea that the Universe has always existed? Like the Mozart effect, the big bang theory feeds a need. Finite creatures that we are, we like the idea that the Universe has a birth and a death. And if you believe in God, even better. The steady-state theory is not good news for theists.

Memes really are powerful magic.

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