Q&A with Elizabeth S. Spelke, Ph.D.
Dana Foundation Grantee 2008-2014
colleagues recently published a study in PLOS One that failed
to find a causal effect of music training on particular cognitive functions,
which has been widely reported in the popular press as a debunking of the so-called
“Mozart effect,” the idea that music makes you smarter. Have the media reports fairly
represented this new research?
Spelke: The negative findings we reported in that article generated a
surprising amount of interest, but I don’t think of our research as debunking
any claims. I believe the conclusions we
can draw (and did draw) from that study are quite modest. We tested for effects
of six weeks of music classes on preschool children's numerical and spatial
abilities. An initial study provided evidence for such effects, but the
evidence was weak, so we replicated the study on a new sample of children. That
second study failed to provide any evidence for positive effects of music
instruction on any of our cognitive measures; neither did analyses of the two
studies combined. There are limits to the positive conclusions that can be drawn
from these findings, and so our primary conclusion was negative. We found no
evidence that the music classes we provided enhanced children's mathematical
this say about the scientific process and the importance of replication?
ESS: If you’re
studying something important—and I think music classes are important—you need
to make sure that your findings are robust enough to be replicable. I'm very
glad that we repeated our original experiment before publishing any findings. Such
replications are not always available for studies that get a lot of media
attention. As a result, media coverage sometimes leads to conclusions that are
premature, because initial findings are trumpeted before anyone has had a
chance to assess their robustness or probe their significance in depth.
In any event, when we attempted to replicate our first study, we
were unable to do so. I think our PLOS One paper makes clear that the
conclusions one can draw from this failure are limited. We did not conclude that music instruction has
no cognitive benefits for preschool children, because there may be benefits
that our study failed to reveal. We simply reported that we tested for such
benefits and failed to find them consistently.
response to this paper is indicative of the huge amount of public interest in
the potential effects of music learning on cognition. A lot of assumptions have
been made, but little solid evidence exists. Can you speak to that?
ESS: I believe
that there is a lot of indirect, suggestive evidence for benefits both of
musical experience and music instruction on a variety of mental abilities. It’s
been rather hard to pin down specifically what those benefits are, however, or
what aspects of musical experience give rise to them.
I agree with the main points that Sam Mehr, the lead author on
this research, made in addressing the media that covered this story. First, the
direct evidence in favor of the effects of music instruction on cognitive
abilities was never terribly strong; there was reason to raise questions about
those effects quite independently of our research. Second, music and the other
arts have their own intrinsic rewards. Public discussion of arts education
should focus first and foremost on its inherent benefits, rather than on
extrinsic benefits such as enhanced mathematical ability.
Can you expand
on this idea of “intrinsic reward.” Has that been a convincing argument for the
folks who are trying to promote arts and music in the schools?
ESS: One point
that Sam Mehr made is that the alternative argument—that one should keep music
in schools or bring it back into schools because it makes you better at math—has
not been terribly effective at keeping arts in the schools either. This
argument has been promoted for a while now, and it has not produced an increase
in the presence of music and art instruction in public schools. A better
argument for arts instruction, Sam suggested, is that a well-rounded education
embraces multiple disciplines and doesn’t simply attempt to teach a limited
number of skills to which tests are geared.
Human cognition is multifaceted: it covers many domains and gives
rise to many skills. Educational systems should embrace this richness and diversity.
I think that’s a better argument for arts instruction than any promised benefit
in particular domains like mathematics.
to be a sense among researchers who study arts and cognition that there are
inherent benefits, but we just haven’t been very good at nailing them down
scientifically. What are the next steps in this line of research?
ESS: We’ve seen
one benefit in our laboratory that I’m excited about, but it needs to be
studied much, much more. We have reason to believe that music has social
benefits that enhance children's learning from other people. One striking
aspect of human knowledge is that most of what we know comes not from our
direct experience but from our interactions with others. We learn language and
many skills from our individual social partners; we learn many other things
from other people indirectly, through their writings and other media. There is
some evidence that shared musical experiences enhance children’s receptiveness
to these kinds of socially transmitted information. I’m intrigued by that evidence,
but our studies are at a very early point.
|Harvard researchers Elizabeth
Spelke and Samuel Mehr are investigating how music influences infant social
cognition. Here, a five-month-old participant listens to a singing toy with his
mother. Photo courtesy of Harvard Laboratory for Developmental Studies|
suggesting that one way arts and music training may be beneficial is by making
children more receptive to learning in a socially interactive environment?
ESS: This is the
current focus of my research with Sam Mehr. We are engaged in a series of
studies in which we teach songs to parents and they in turn sing the songs to
their infants. Then we bring the infants into the lab to see how they interact
with other people who sing the same songs as well as other, unfamiliar songs.
We hypothesize that music attunes infants’ social attention to other people,
and therefore enhances their ability to learn from other people. If that
hypothesis is supported by our initial, lab-based research, we hope to test
whether this is also true of children who are learning in group settings like
preschools and schools. Children's learning may be richest and most enduring in
environments where children can share with others a panoply of human interests
and activities, including music. Our studies in this vein are ongoing; we hope
to soon have findings that we can discuss publicly.
bigger picture that you see emerging from science’s ongoing efforts to study
the brain effects of music and arts?
ESS: Music and
visual arts are universal across human cultures, and also unique to humans. These
simple facts raise wonderful questions for brain science. Human brains function
similarly to the brains of other animals; yet, our species takes these shared biological
capacities in dramatically new directions. We have a lot to learn about
ourselves from research that probes what goes on in our brains when we
experience or create music or visual arts—and what goes on in the brains of our
children when we share arts experiences with them. I think these are much more
important questions than the question of whether a child will gain a few IQ or
SAT points by taking music classes. By focusing on the latter question, we miss
the richness of human experience and essential importance of the arts in human
scientist, do you think it matters that (as surveys suggest) more than 80
percent of people think that music makes you smarter when the scientific
evidence is not there to back it up?
ESS: I think
questions such as whether music should be taught in schools—and more broadly, whether
human societies would be poorer if music were neglected—are important questions.
We don’t know the answers yet. I wouldn’t say that people who believe that
music makes you smarter are wrong or right. We just simply don’t know enough
about the human mind at this point to be able to specify the cognitive impacts
of music, or of any of the other activities that people universally engage in. Among
all our uniquely human capacities, is there a subset of capacities that are
especially important, amid a larger sea of less important ones? My hunch is
that all our culturally universal, species-unique capacities for creating
knowledge are important, and all should be imparted to our children. But I
don’t think science yet bears on this belief.
So I stand by the modest conclusions of our PLoS ONE paper. Our findings don’t debunk any beliefs and they
shouldn’t close off research in any area. Quite the contrary: we need more
research on arts, cognition and the brain. The arts are a central product of
the human mind and a central aspect of human experience. By studying how our
minds create them, we'll gain insight into ourselves.
Published June 2014