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Lost in translation? The allure of neuromyths in advocating the arts

We love brain news because we identify as thinking beings.

Do you believe that people can be categorized as left or right brained? Do you believe that people only make use of 10 percent of their brain? Do you believe that you can enhance your brainpower through ‘brain aerobics’ with a personal brainer?  Or, do you believe that your child’s intelligence may increase by listening to Mozart? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you have bought into a neuromyth. 

These neuromyths are fed by neurophilia – our love for brain news, which in turn may stem from our identification as thinking beings. Neuromyths are, however, fairy tales and wishful thinking. They stem from undue simplifications of scientific results and offer misinformation about, and misinterpretations of, neuroscientific findings.

Let’s take a look at some examples. It is commonly claimed that musical learning improves one’s skills in mathematics and science. Researchers, however, note that this claim is based on a confusion between correlation and causation: A relationship may exist between the study of music and excellence in other subjects, but participation in music does not necessarily cause improvements in other learning areas. We should also note that a recent review argues that not even correlations between music and spatial and mathematical reasoning can be found, although there does seem to be a relationship between music and some linguistic skills.

Perhaps the most well-known of the musical neuromyths is the “Mozart Effect”. On the basis of results from one research group, it has been claimed that listening to the music of Mozart makes you smarter. In fact, their study showed that college students’ spatial reasoning skills temporarily increased when listening to a specific Mozart piano sonata, but no permanent effect was found. In addition, other laboratories have not been able to replicate the “Mozart Effect”. The researchers of the original study later admitted that Mozart’s music was not even the key issue but rather the level of enjoyment of the music. Of course, we can also question whether intelligence can or should be reduced to spatial reasoning skills. Despite all this criticism, this neuromyth had, and still may have, practical consequences. For instance, the state of Florida passed a bill requiring day-care centers to play classical music to children, and many expectant mothers-to-be started playing Mozart to their unborn babies.

In our meta-study on the claimed benefits of music in more recent brain imaging research, we noticed that it is very likely the popularization of research findings that creates these neuromyths. The media outlets and their audiences expect research to have sensational impact, and therefore the researchers or journalists are tempted to over-interpret the practical implications of research findings. When the limitations of research findings are not clearly communicated to people who do not know how to interpret such findings, neuromyths are born.

But overinterpretation is not the only problem that crops up when research is translated into advocacy. In addition to neuromyths, one can find clearly ignorant mistakes. For instance, one author claimed that, “playing a musical instrument engages all four (sic!) hemispheres of the brain.” The author goes on to argue that this may have been part of what made Einstein such an incredible genius. As we should know, there are only two hemispheres in the brain, and even highly talented musicians do not differ from the rest of the population in this regard. Further, the claim that Einstein was an incredible genius because he played a musical instrument conflates two aspects of his life that did not necessarily share any causal or even correlational relationship. Or, do we perhaps think that all people who play musical instruments reach the level of Einstein’s genius in physics?

Another fantastic claim was made by curriculum developers in Northern Ireland, who argued that “the human brain is constantly searching for meaning and seeking patterns and connections” and therefore (sic!) schools ought to emphasise collaborative work and connections among the disciplines. Think about it!

Based on our readings of brain imaging research and advocacy in the field of music, we suggest that researchers should take much better care of the ways their studies are popularized. As researchers are increasingly obliged to communicate research results to a wider audience in a justified attempt to destroy the perceived ivory tower of academia, they need to take care that the popularized versions apply the same ethical criteria as the actual research reports. Furthermore, if misinterpretations of research findings do appear in public, it rests upon the researchers to make corrections.

While we do believe that there are indeed benefits to practicing and enjoying music, as well as other arts, sensational news about the benefits of music studies are more likely to create false expectations than better music education practices. So next time you read a newsflash about the miraculous benefits of music and music learning on your brain – step back and think about it!

About the writers

Dr Albi Odendaal (North-West University, South Africa), Dr Sari Levänen (Helsinki University Hospital) and Professor Heidi Westerlund (University of the Arts Helsinki). The authors are researchers of the ArtsEqual consortium.

Equally well

ArtsEqual tutkii, kuinka taide voi lisätä tasa-arvoa ja hyvinvointia ja miten se voisi olla kaikille kuuluva peruspalvelu. Mutta mitä kaikkea se tarkoittaa käytännössä? Tässä blogissa näytetään, mistä kaikesta ArtsEqual rakentuu.

ArtsEqual studies how art can increase equality and well-being, and how it could be a public service that belongs to all. But what kind of things does this mean in practice? This blog describes what ArtsEqual is all about. 


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