Questioning some common beliefs

By  Leticia Cambre, Catholic Register Special
  • May 18, 2007
{mosimage}Tall Tales About The Mind & Brain, Separating Fact From Fiction edited by Sergio Della Sala (Oxford University Press, 548 pages, hardcover, $64.95).

Having a set of beliefs does not mean we stop thinking or questioning our deepest held assumptions. One of the primary reasons I love Catholicism is that it encourages critical thinking. Catholics are required not to simply believe but to understand reasons behind their beliefs. There is a healthy role that doubt and questioning play in being able to appreciate the mystery in all things.
Science often seems inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t have a lab coat hanging in their closet, but it constantly demonstrates a healthy approach to critical thinking. I have caught myself believing in the latest health discovery reported in the media without giving it much thought. Tall Tales About The Mind & Brain, a collection of essays by scientists edited by Sergio Della Sala, is a pleasant and entertaining jolt to an uncritical mindset.

{sa 0198568770}Each chapter tackles a commonly held belief about the mind or brain represented by questions such as “Does listening to Mozart make us more intelligent?” or “Can we trust our intuitions?” The essayists evaluate the supporting evidence for such claims, either deeming IT sufficient or completely debunking popular myths.

At 509 pages, these essays are meant to be read in many sittings and are great as conversation starters. By the end, the reader doesn’t remember every detail or fascinating anecdote. But we are left with a more informed and therefore healthier frame of mind with which to regard science — an attitude that science is a great tool for human understanding, but it is not perfect and must be questioned from time to time.

We are reminded about the power of persuasion, our strong urge to have answers and that asking questions need not be tiresome but can be a humourous and surprising activity.

I was surprised to learn that having toddlers listen to Mozart does not necessarily increase their brainpower. In the essay titled “The Mozart Effect: It’s Time to Face the Music,” Colin Gray and Della Sala evaluate the common belief that listening to great music, including Mozart, enhances the intellect. They explain in lay language what has actually been proven and which ideas have been pushed onto us with insufficient evidence.

Music does produce characteristic response patterns in the brain. Gray and Sala go on to show that the entire idea of the Mozart effect began with a study done in the early 1990s at the University of California. In 1993, the scientific journal Nature published a letter by Gordon Shaw stating as fact that listening to Mozart for only 10 minutes had enhanced the spatial intelligence quotients of college students. This single observation led to several changes by educators and politicians. In some American states, legislation was introduced mandating free Mozart tapes for all new parents so infants would listen and increase their intelligence.

The study tested only 36 college students and the effect of music on their spatial ability only lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Clearly such studies, while showing the value of great music, “hardly supports the claim that listening to music has permanent effects upon cognition.” This case shows science can be misinterpreted and manipulated. We transform science into a powerful myth, the general public buys into it and spends money on expensive pre-school music programs.

A myth about the effect of Mozart cannot really be that harmful, can it? But not all the scientific myths debunked in these essays are as harmless. Until reading this book, I was unaware that handwriting was being used as a sure way of determining whether an applicant’s personality was suitable for a job. Furthermore, it was shocking to discover some graphologists have had no compunction about making claims that potential employees would steal or be drug abusers based only on their interpretation of the person’s handwriting. Anyone who believes in graphology should be made to read the essay “Graphology — A Total Write-Off” by Barry L. Beyerstein. The essay brings us to the unfortunately relevant warning that science, like religion, can be misused when it is misunderstood.

Not every essay in Tall Tales debunks a commonly held belief. The essay on intuition confirms that many of our beliefs about instinct are true. Even so, the essay shows the perils of intuition, demonstrating that even within reliable science, healthy criticism and caution is always best.

Tall Tales reminds us that an attitude of doubt and questioning is healthy — not only when it comes to scientific information, but in our faith lives as well. The intellect is a gift from God. For lay readers, a dalliance with science can nurture our critical faculties so we come to a greater appreciation of human fallibility and the fragility of all things.

(Cambre recently graduated from the University of Toronto with an English degree and has been teaching music for over five years.)

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