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“Classical music will protect you from Alzheimer’s” and  other lies on the internet

Friday, March 20, 2015
posted by Douglas Keene

ResearchThis week I read several sensationalized reports of research findings from some scientists in Finland. “Classical music can help slow down the onset of dementia” and “Listening To Classical Music Could Improve Genes Responsible For Certain Brain Functions”. The articles reported that listening to a 20 minute Mozart violin concerto could stave off dementia and actually modify your gene expression. Pretty amazing. Except it isn’t entirely accurate.

There are benefits for those who already know the specific concerto—in other words, musicians or music lovers.

As for the rest of us, it won’t hurt you to listen to a concerto each day, but it probably won’t keep you from getting dementia or modify how your genes express themselves. For a small proportion of us, this is very interesting news. For the rest of us, while headlines may make it seem fascinating—it really doesn’t make a difference.

We’ve talked about this before here in relationship to the criminal defense strategy to put eyeglasses on your defendant (aka the “nerd defense”). Headlines were written to sell papers (in an earlier time) and now, to generate clicks or viewers—but not to accurately reflect actual research. In the case of the nerd defense, someone read headlines, believed them, and implemented the strategy. But, their implementation was based on a misunderstanding of the findings.

Few bother to go read the actual research to discover the incomplete reporting, reporting of insignificant results, or just totally wrong reports of findings. Yet, when you do, you find the headlines did their job—you went looking, but only to discover the interpretation by the writer was incorrect.

The problem is that we remember the headlines and often not the actual finding in the primary source (i.e., the real research article). So we think what we are doing and recommending has some scientific basis for it when it actually does not. It won’t hurt you to listen to Mozart each day for 20 minutes. But, unless you already know the Mozart work, it probably won’t keep your memory intact necessarily either. So be an analytical and critical thinker.

When someone says “research finds”, or “our research has shown”, or “this works 90% of the time”, ask for the source. And when you see a claim in the headlines that is almost too good to be true, go find the original source and see for yourself. Often the actual results will turn out to be not quite what the headlines trumpet.

Brown, M. J., Henriquez, E., & Groscup, J. (2008). The effects of eyeglasses and race on juror decisions involving a violent crime. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 26 (2), 25-43

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