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Wednesday, June 15, 2005


anxiously awaiting

michael skapinker in the financial times this morning took note of the mozart effect as modern mythology and a way of examining fads in management strategy. the effect was recently analyzed by stanford's chip heath and swiss psychologist adrian bangerter in a paper titled, "the mozart effect: tracking the evolution of a scientific legend," printed in the british journal of social psychology. as was summarized by marina krakovsky in stanford business:

"When we traced the Mozart Effect back to the source [a 1993 Nature journal report titled 'Music and Spatial Task Performance'], we found this idea achieved astounding success," says Heath. The researchers found far more newspaper articles about that study than about any other Nature report published around the same time. And as the finding spread through lay culture over the years, it got watered down and grossly distorted. "People were less and less likely to talk about the Mozart Effect in the context of college students who were the participants in the original study, and they were more likely to talk about it with respect to babies -- even though there's no scientific research linking music and intelligence in infants," says Heath, who analyzed hundreds of relevant newspaper articles published between 1993 and 2001.

Not only had babies never been studied, but the original 1993 experiment had found only a modest and temporary IQ increase in college students performing a specific kind of task while listening to a Mozart sonata. And even that finding was proved suspect after a 1999 review showed that over a dozen subsequent studies failed to verify the 1993 result. While many newspapers did report this blow to the Mozart Effect, the legend continued to spread -- overgeneralizations and all. For example, Heath cites a 2001 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that refers to "numerous studies on the Mozart Effect and how it helps elementary students, high school students, and even infants increase mental performance." In truth, none of these groups had been studied, says Heath.

So why did the Mozart Effect take such a powerful hold in popular culture, particularly in reference to babies and children? Heath and Bangerter surmised that the purported effect tapped into a particularly American anxiety about early childhood education. (Bangerter, who was doing research in Stanford's psychology department during the study, had been struck by Americans' obsession with their kids' education. For example, he saw that a preschool near the Stanford campus had the purposeful name "Knowledge Beginnings," whereas a preschool near a university in Switzerland was called "Vanilla-Strawberry." The latter made no lofty claims about its educational goals.) Concern about education in 1998 to distribute free classical music to new mothers, while Florida lawmakers required state-funded day-care centers to play classical music every day.

To test their hypothesis that the legend of the Mozart Effect grew in response to anxiety about children's education, Heath and Bangerter compared different U.S. states' levels of media interest in the Mozart Effect with each state's educational problems (as measured by test scores and teacher salaries). Sure enough, they found that in states with the most problematic educational systems (such as Georgia and Florida), newspapers gave the most coverage to the Mozart Effect.
i'll be honest -- the cd changer in our car currently holds mozart's haffner, prague, 40th and jupiter symphonies on heavy rotation for my wife and her captive audience who drive to work together every day. (there's also puccini, debussy and wagner in there, but that's more for me.) the point is that we have fully subscribed to this prima facie silly notion -- even to the point of buying everyone else's tots baby einstein toys (itself a company founded in 1997 during the height of the mozart mythos).

certainly, i think that a cultural education is the most denied and yet most fundamental aspect of raising a healthy, socially active and responsible child. the flight from history and society into rootless ignorance that is ongoing in our decadence disturbs me -- and i think the resulting unchecked selfishness is a destructive force to both personal lives and civilization. but that doesn't explain why i'm reading elizabethan poetry to a swollen tummy.

what does explain it is anxiety. as a soon-to-be first-time dad, i have nothing to do -- there's very little avenue to help right now. and yet, there's a vast unknown just ahead in which one is certain one's life's purpose is contained. anxiety is almost too small a word.

i got a wonderful illustration of the power of anxiety last night as our first childbirth class, a sort of seminar put on by our hospital to enlighten first-time parents. the tour of the maternity ward came toward the end, and the expectant parents had become comfortable enough to ask questions.

we were surprised to see that the maternity ward is behind locked and guarded doors. our instructor inexplicably (i thought) spent five minutes outlining the detailed security procedure and how staff were restricted from moving through the ward. left to quietly shake my head, we progressed to eventually to the nursery -- where, presented with seven or eight tiny wonderful new travelers, a flight of security questions found voice: who can get in? why? how would we recognize them? how would we recognize someone who didn't belong there? what color are their scrubs? how would we go about throwing them out?

i repressed incredulous laughter, as did my wife -- but then realized the purpose of the doors. these people must be faced with this sort of bizarre paranoia every day. of course they put doors in. first-time parents would've been calling their lawyers if they hadn't.

it's interesting to read about dr. bangerter's observations on the depth of american anxiety, as manifested in obsessive eccentricities that are truly stranger than fiction. paranoid anxiety is the common condition of the postmodern man, but perhaps nowhere so much as america. conspiracy theories and ridiculous fears find greater currency here than perhaps any society since interwar germany.

timothy melley wrote a very insightful book on this topic, diagnosing postmodern anxiety as the paradoxical synthesis of monomaniacal freiheit with deep concern regarding the civil decay and decline that is its inevitable consequence -- the very quandary that first and most completely swept prussian germany under bismarck. this has since become the western problem of decadence, as i've said before.

the acuteness of anxiety in america stems, i think, from a perceived insufficiency. europe -- particularly france -- has suffered a perverse characterization terribly in recent decades, to the point where important american politicians feel free to openly insult the cradle of western civilization as they see fit. could this not have its root in cultural insecurity?

america has long been praised for its vitality, but simultaneously despised for its shallowness and barbarity among western nations. in many ways, in fact, america has a relationship with europe akin to that which rome had in antiquity with hellas -- which was simultaneously the protagonist of all roman culture and the antagonist of roman "values", which were seen to be moral austerity, force of will and unintellectual pragmatism. roman politicans, notably cato, constantly derided all things greek and the moral dissipation of hellenic society; but there was also in roman society an acute awareness of roman shortcomings in creativity and civilization which made romans insatiable, if duplicitous, admirers and students of the athens embodied in carneades.

likewise, the conflicted bismarckian germany emerging from backwards and barbaric prussia was sharply sensitive to its civilizational inferiority and adopted bellicosity and a sense of superior inner moral strength as remedy while simultaneously harboring deep respect and admiration for the centers of western achievement, particularly england.

of course, in the end, rome was the child of hellas and followed in her example -- becoming the decadent universal state of classical civilization, just as germany's attempt at becoming the universal state of the west as resolution of paradox -- twice -- ultimately failed.

this is the role i suspect the united states is now attempting to fulfill for itself and the west. it bears noting that obsession with individual inner freedom, shocking social decay, fiercely expanding national authority, weakening institutions and widespread anxiety were all staples of late republican life in rome and bismarckian germany as they are now in america.

I don't think you should be so hard on yourself regarding the Mozart and Elizabethean poetry readings. Brain activity during pregnancies starts in the fifth month (I think, don't know the exact time), so reading and music are probably useful activities for stimulating brain activity. If nothing else, I always hoped that they would get used to the sound of my voice and associate it with sleeping, helping me a little after they were born. ;)

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