Thursday, September 21, 2006

Music and the Developing Brain

There's an article in the Arts and Entertainment section at (as opposed to the science section) about a study touting the cognitive benefits of music education for small children.

It mentions that even if what kids are doing sounds like "random notes or nonsense, it's likely their children are developing their brains in ways that could enhance their overall thinking".

I am very interested in how the ways in which we talk about things shapes the ways in which we value them. I am not an adherent to the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, but it isn't implausible to me that the ways in which we talk or think about ourselves has an effect on the ways we behave - if not, how could people be affected by words at all?

I suppose the thing that troubles me about these kinds of articles is how the place of the fine arts appears to be shifting away from a more Romantic notion of these pursuits as the loftiest goals imaginable, to one where it turns out that painting and music will make you a better doctor or lawyer, because you'll do better in school.

In other words, the justification for these pursuits is shifting away from an intrinsic one (they're just worth pursuing), to an extrinsic one (they're worth pursuing because they will enhance what is now intrinsically worth pursuing).

Personally, I find this shift in thinking very troubling indeed, because it orders pursuits that make us happy behind pursuits that make us productive. Am I crazy to think it should be the other way around?

There is the larger issue of the concept of brain development, which I would like to touch on, but am utterly unqualified to, except to say that I think Ian Hacking is right to say that the very concept of the childhood has become inexorably tied to and defined by this notion of development.

I think this cashes out in a variety of ways, such as the fact that for children under 5, almost all toys and entertainment is geared around learning and development, whereas after 5 it all reverts to the largely banal pablum of cartoons too "wink wink nudge nudge" clever for children and not nearly clever enough for adults. In other words, the market has responded to these studies by providing people with ample opportunities to develop their child's brain, but once they're in school, there appears to be a massive cultural shift away from teaching children, to helping them consume products. (I know things aren't as black and white as this, but this is only a sketch, not a canvas).

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I want my kids to love music because it's a great human pursuit, and I want that to continue for as long as possible. Telling me that my kids will be better developed as a result of taking music sounds good, but I certainly don't want it to be everything for all those people who are not as passionately into music or the arts as I am.

No comments: