When I look at one of my grandchildren, who did exceptionally well at university, I say: “Thank you, Mozart.” You see, he spent much of his time as a toddler with his grandmother, and his grandmother loves Mozart. Indeed, the little lad quickly learned to recognise “Gwannie’s Mozart”. And of course we have been told that Mozart’s music is constructed in a way that harmonises with human brain patterns, and has been shown to improve intelligence.
The first published study of this effect was printed in Nature, a scientific journal of high reputation, in 1993; it showed that listening to Mozart raises IQ by about nine points. The natural desire of parents to bring up intelligent children ensured that the news spread wildly. The state of Georgia spent public money on providing music tapes for newborn babies, and commercial companies went into the business of providing tapes for the toddlers of the world. The only snag is that it has proved to be impossible to reproduce this effect in other studies. And even the original study was on adults and not toddlers or babies.
Once again I passed over my opportunity to complete the sudoku puzzle in my newspaper this morning. It seems to me to be a sterile activity. But this is only sour grapes on my part; I have no idea how to tackle it. But I should learn. After all, I have reached the age when I need to write down my wife’s name in order to be sure of remembering it. I should be exercising my brain, just as I exercise my testosterone-starved muscles on my pushbike. Unfortunately a diet of sudoku puzzles only makes one better at doing sudoku puzzles: nothing else.
This appears to be true of all such activities which claim to improve our brain power – from computer games and exercise to practising short-term memory. They may help us to improve the immediate task, without effecting any improvement in general mental facility. In contrast, real exercise – that is, good and regular aerobic activity – has been shown to improve brainpower.
But exposing the young to Mozart and practising sudoku cause no harm. It is different when plausible and authoritative reports on the connection between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine persuade parents to withdraw their children from vaccination. The effect of this was to lower the vaccination rate to a level when epidemic measles, potentially a serious disease, returned to Britain; it had formerly been declared under control. The doctor who publicised the spurious connection was struck off the medical register in 2010. But sadly even this has not persuaded some parents and pressure groups that the connection is illusory.
(Are you having a flu jab this year? If not, you may be a link in a chain which causes the death of someone unknown to you. Only one in three health workers, key junctions of infection, had a jab last year.)
Wishful thinking is often a cause for taking such scares as scientifically credible. But another factor, which is often forgotten, is the power of the story. Would you buy a model of car because I bought one last year and told you how pleased I am with it?
Or would you go to a Which? report which has tested it dispassionately and compiled reader feedback on the model?
You would choose the second – you’re not a numbskull – or would you? Any competent salesman will tell you that customers are more easily persuaded by a well-told motivational story than by any statistics. So what happens when a sad mother tells you that her child developed autism within a month of having an MMR vaccine? Does that change your view, or should it?
I have taken these examples from a new book, The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (HarperCollins, £9). If that title sounds familiar it may be because I reported on Simons’s original “gorilla invisibility” study in July last year. Here, the subjects were asked to watch a video of a basketball game, and to count the number of passes made by one side. During the video a man in a gorilla suit walked across prominently. But only about half the watchers noticed his appearance.
The authors are particularly good on what are known as “flashbulb memories”. Think, for example, of the day Kennedy died or the Twin Towers were felled. The memories are often strong and clearly visual in the mind. Unfortunately, they often turn out to be wrong, and sometimes in important detail. And, inconveniently, it can be the memories of greatest certainty which turn out to be false.
Of course we all have our intuitions, assumptions and inherited principles. My mother warned me against dancing with West Indian women. Their legs break like matchsticks, she told me with Victorian certainty. I have had the pleasure of dancing with many West Indian women – and no legs were broken (though a little maternal voice chiming in my mind still warns me to be careful).
Such instances often amuse and entertain. But there is a serious message here. If we are interested in truth it is a mistake to rely on intuitions, instincts, feelings etc. In many instances, for the want of a little examination of the evidence, you will be wrong. And, perhaps even more dangerously, you will be the victim of those whose intentions are to deceive.
So come and tell us about your intuitions, and why I am too cynical about them.