Think playing music for your unborn child will make them smarter and more successful in life? Don’t buy it.
According to Western University researcher Dr. Jessica Grohn, it’s not something to expect when you’re expecting.
Grohn, a cognitive neuroscientist, spoke about her research into music and intelligence at the 2013 TEDx conference at Talbot College’s Paul Davenport Theatre at Western University Friday (April 5). She was one of 11 speakers at the daylong event, the second in Western’s history.
The 18-minute speeches were interspersed with TED videos from presentations made at past events.
TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It was founded in 1984 as a conference that brought together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment and Design. It has since expanded in scope to include short presentations by experts in a variety of fields, which are recorded and made available online free of charge.
TEDx refers to any locally organized TED speaking event. The Western event on Friday included presentations from an architect, film directors and producers, an Internet strategist and broadcaster and two Canada Research Chairs.
According to Grohn a multi-billion-dollar industry has grown around brain training, improving memory and cognitive function, with many products aimed at children, babies and expecting parents.
Grohn said there are health and emotional benefits to listening to music, but nothing has been proven with regard to babies or the unborn.
“Music may not be the shortcut to producing mini-Einsteins, but it does have powerful effects on our minds and our bodies,” she said.
Grohn traced the roots of the claim that the benefits of music-related brain training products have been proven clinically to a line of research that stemmed from one study in 1993 that gave birth to the media catchphrase “the Mozart effect.”
During that experiment researchers put adults in three groups. One listened to Mozart for 10 minutes, the second to relaxation music, the third to nothing at all. They found that the group that listened to Mozart performed better on a spatial reasoning test than the other subjects.
The finding made a huge splash in the media according to Grohn.
“The lead researcher had calls from reporters before she even knew the study was published,” she said.
The problem was the study didn’t explain why the Mozart group did better on the test, or how it would affect children.
So other studies were done and long story short, it turns out music doesn’t make you smarter per se, but it does make it easier to learn by improving your mood.
Whether it was music or an engaging story, people seemed to do better on whatever test was presented when they enjoyed themselves in the moments before.
“So this suggests music doesn’t have any special cognitive enhancing functions,” Grohn said. “But by changing our emotional state it can help us do better on tests.”
Grohn said playing music helps with Parkinson’s patients trying to learn to walk again, and can improve endurance during exercise by reducing perceived exertion, or how hard you think you have worked.
It can reduce pain experienced during labour, speed recovery after surgery and even alleviate chronic pain. It helps stroke victims recover: Grohn said mental exercises designed around music are more engaging and patients tend to keep at them for longer periods of time than other activities.
It also helps dementia patients with memory recall. Grohn used one example of a man in a long-term care home named Henry who spends most of his time very closed off and introverted. But when he hears music from his childhood, he becomes animated, telling stories about his wife, his life and his love of music.
“This is no small thing.”
It was no small thing to get a ticket to TEDx, either. Terry Rice is one of the staff liaisons that helped the dozen-or-so students on the organizing committee bring everything together over the last three months. He said that as per TED rules, attendance was capped at 100 and students had to apply online for tickets, stating why they wanted to attend.
“It’s the hardest thing about the whole event, to be honest, because we want everyone to be able to attend,” Rice said. “One of the things we’re proud of is we have a good mix across all faculties which I think helps facilitate good discussion on the breaks and when they leave here today.”
Rice was grateful to the event’s corporate supporters, since TED caps the amount of fundraising local TEDx organizers can do as well. He said TelAV staff members, which managed the audio-video and slideshows throughout the day, were “phenomenal.”
Gillian Mandich, a part-time professor at Brescia University College, is pursuing a PhD in health promotion at Western. She said the entire day was an inspiration.
“It was very motivating,” she said. “There was a lot about following your passion and creativity came up a lot as well.”
She applied for a ticket with an open mind.
“I have the TEDtalks app and I watch TEDtalks all the time,” she said. “So when I heard they were coming to the campus I just came with an open mind.”
Her favourite talk came from Rob Stewart, a writer-producer-director who spoke about his life’s dedication to saving sharks in the wild.
“He was really, really inspiring because he just talked about his whole life and how he gave up everything and went into debt because he believed in saving sharks,” she said. “When he started there were 15 protective programs for sharks and now there are over 100. That was probably the most inspiring, seeing someone in action trying to inspire a change in the world and teaching us by leading by example.”