Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Psychology and the Brain

Several of you have written to me and asked for some articles on neuroscience. Well, actually you didn't used that word but you said you were interested in topics on the brain and memory. Although I am not trained as a neuropsychologist, I'm fascinated by the topic. It is also one of the hottest fields in psychology today.

Psychologists studying the brain are some of the most original thinkers in the science of human behavior. The human brain is the most complicated organ in our body. Even though computers have become better at chess than the greatest human players, some of the tasks human children taken for granted and do quite simply are beyond the skill of the most powerful computers.

In addition to what psychologists discover about the brain, I am amazed and have profound admiration for psychologists who find out how the brain works. The "how" in science is called "experimental design." The tenets of designing a good experiment are quite simple and used by all competent scientists in all fields of inquiry.

Designing a good psychology experiment includes comparing the subjects of the experiment with a control group, making certain that the subjects are randomly chosen and using what is referred to as the gold standard, the "double blind" study. This means that neither the subjects nor the experimenters really know who is doing what until the study is finished. Different procedures and the subjects are coded in order to eliminate what is called "experimenter bias." This is the basic outline of a research design; the details are much more complex.

Often when I hear about some research, I often wonder how they do it? For example a psychologist, Dr. Alexandra Lamont in the United Kingdom, determined that 1-yr old babies preferred music that they heard in the womb a year before they were born. Now, you might ask yourself the same question I did. How do we know if a 1-year old prefers one thing to another. It certainly would not do to ask the infant, "which music do you prefer?"

A group of pregnant women were selected to participate in this study. Each mother played a certain kind of music repeatedly during the final three months of gestation. (The auditory system of the fetus is fully functioning about this time). One group of mothers played classical music, another group played Top 40, the third group world played reggae, while the fourth group of mothers played world beat. Each group of unborn babies heard their music over and over.

After birth, the mothers were not allowed to play these songs to their children for one year. At the end of this year the experiment was begun. Dr. Lamont played two pieces of music to each of these four groups of children. Each group of children heard the music that had been repetitively played a year earlier plus other music that matched the womb music in tempo and style. In other words, Dr. Lamont wondered if the children would prefer the music their mothers played instead of something kind of like it.

Here is where it becomes easy to admire the ingenuity of scientists. Before reading on, stop and think for a few minutes how you would have figured out which type of music the child preferred. Did the first group like the classical music better than something sort of like classical music? Were the preferences similar in the other three groups?

Okay, here is what she did. Each infant sat on the mother's lap with two speakers on either side of the child. One speaker would play the music from a year ago, the other speaker would play the similar music. But this still leaves the question open – how would this help to discover which music the babies preferred.

No music came from either speaker until the baby turned its head in the direction of the speaker. Babies are curious and wiggly. When the baby turned left, the left speaker came on; when the baby turned to the right, the right speaker played its music. Eventually, the baby's brain realized that it could turn different music on or off by turning in a specific direction. What Dr. Lamont found is that preference was determined by how much time the baby spent facing in one direction. How clever.

Now, Dr. Lamont didn't invent this procedure. It was already well known by other researchers who studied infant behavior and is called the "infant head turning procedure" (catchy name). The study found that all the infants looked longer at the music that was coming from the speaker that played the music they heard prior to birth.

Dr. Lamont, being the excellent researcher that she was, used a control group of children. These children had not had the same music played to them prenatally. The same experiment was done with them, but it is was found the babies had no preference for any particular style of music.

As a postscript, some of you may be familiar with what is called the "Mozart Effect." When the media got a hold of this study they concluded that babies who listened to Mozart would become smarter than if they did not listen to it. Cottage industries sprang up selling and promoting CDs and programs for "making kids smarter."

Unfortunately, Dr. Lamont's study never came to this conclusion and further studies showed that listening to Mozart – or any other music – did not increase intelligence. Unsurprisingly, the Mozart myth lingers to this day for unsuspecting parents.

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