Sunday, August 18, 2013

Is This Pseudoscience?

I think I can slip this into the Music Salon because it does mention Mozart. Here is a article I just ran across:

Gym workouts and sunbathing do more for your brain than crosswords and Mozart

Here is the key paragraph:
“Let me dispel a brain development myth,” Spitzer told The Economist. “Many people think classical music is going to enhance brain function (the Mozart effect) or playing particular games sharpens one’s cognitive function. These theories have been looked at in detail and they don’t stand up. It is disappointing in a way, but what we have learned is that exercise is the key thing for brain function.”
Brain development, brain function: are these code words? OK, sure this makes a kind of sense, but it seems woefully inadequate. In French they have a phrase that translates to "intellectual formation" and it means the training that you need to undergo in order to develop your thinking capacity. This training, oddly enough, does not consist of physical exercise and sunlight. It varies according to discipline, of course. In philosophy it might consist in reading some standard texts such as Aquinas' five arguments for the existence of God or Berkeley's dialogues between Hylas and Philonous about the existence of the material world or Kant's Prolegomena to any future metaphysics. Then you need to discuss these texts with a philosopher. This kind of training goes back to Socrates.

In music, there is a fairly standard kind of training that is partly intellectual and partly aural. You learn how to read music notation, study counterpoint and harmony and learn to write music down when you hear it and sing melodies at sight. This is also usually accompanied by a review of music history. There is no way to have a deep understanding of music without going through this sort of training. Exception: in pop music they take a different approach that is largely aural.

So when they talk about "brain development" and "brain function" they must mean just the physical activity of the brain. Because if all you do is exercise and get plenty of sun, you will be perfectly ignorant and incapable of actually doing anything with your brain! I think this is yet another example of scientists talking about the brain as a mere physical organ that they have only the slightest actual understanding of. What we use every day to perform every kind of mental activity, such as thinking (cognitive function in their nomenclature), is the mind, not the brain. Perhaps in a hundred years or more we might understand the relationship between them. But articles like the one I linked to do little more than demonstrate that the mind and the brain are two different things.

But of course, just listening to Mozart or Bach or anyone else is not equivalent to training your mind.

Now let's listen to some Mozart. Here are the Beaux Arts Trio with the first movement of the first Piano Trio in B flat:


Miriam said...


I was trying to find your e-mail address but couldn't. I'm interested in discussing some ideas about modern composing with you. Are you willing to comment with your e-mail? Thanks.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Miriam,

Yes, sure could. To confound the robots, my email is bryantown, all one word, followed by