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Readers Respond to "Brain-Changing Games"

Letters to the editor from the January/February 2013 issue of Scientific American MIND
Scientific American Mind



January/February 2013 Issue

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NO MIND BOOST FROM MUSIC?

In “Brain-Changing Games,” writer Lydia Denworth stated, “With practice, a violinist can play a Mozart string concerto beautifully, but that will not make her better at much else.” Is she not aware that there are more studies on the benefits of learning musical instruments and art on the mind than on the benefits of video games?

Gabriel Newman
via e-mail

DENWORTH RESPONDS: Although there have been studies showing transfer from music, nearly all of them have been called into question in recent years. Much of the literature makes the mistake of inferring causation from correlation and fails to control for confounding variables. A forthcoming study from Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto Mississauga, who studies transfer from music specifically, shows that the association between music lessons and cognition disappeared when demographics and personality are held constant. In addition, studies of adult professional musicians show no cognitive benefits over comparable professional nonmusicians.

For more information, please see the recent ScientificAmerican.com blog post at http://tinyurl.com/music-smarts.

EYE MOVEMENTS FOR ANXIETY

In “Can Eye Movements Treat Trauma?” [Head Lines], Tori Rodriguez cites new evidence that eye movements are an effective ingredient in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). In our column “Taking a Closer Look” [Facts and Fictions in Mental Health, December 2006/January 2007], however, we cited a large body of other evidence that contradicts that claim. At best, we can conclude from the mixed results only that further research is needed to resolve the issue. People seeking treatment for anxiety should not feel compelled to seek out EMDR if a competent therapist is available to deliver standard exposure therapy.

Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld
via e-mail

YOUNG ADULT BEHAVIOR

The title alone of “Yet Another Stage of Life?” [Perspectives] suggests that author Robert Epstein is disgruntled at the plight of the members of this “emerging adulthood,” who just can't seem to “launch” themselves into the rarefied class of grown-ups. I was far from convinced by his hypothesis: that the presence of the term will inevitably be detrimental to the individuals it describes by providing a socially acceptable condition for uncertainty and inaction.

Epstein seems to be frustrated that the label “emerging adulthood” is being used to validate the languor of young people and annoyed that what was once deemed failure to grow up is now integrated into the accepted path to adulthood. He says it's “imprudent ... to suggest that most or all individuals that age are inherently unstable and unfocused.”

I was not aware that such a severe suggestion was so widespread. Although there are plenty of young individuals in their twenties whose lives are marked by “identity explorations,” “instability” and “self-focus” (and by the way, who is to say these are bad things?), there are plenty whose lives are not, who would probably claim that the negative stereotypes Epstein associates with emerging adulthood don't apply to their situation.

Whether they do or do not does not matter: it is important to remember that young people shouldn't let stereotypes dictate how they progress through life and that the emerging adults of today are faced with a myriad of inhibiting circumstances that the author's generation did not have to face.

Matthew Didisheim (age 24)
Missoula, Mont.

EPSTEIN REPLIES: The problem with stage-of-life concepts such as “emerging adulthood” is that they sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating expectations that generate and perpetuate the stereotypes that they describe. This has certainly happened with adolescence, a stage of life many Westerners now mistakenly believe has always existed everywhere, even though it is still almost entirely absent in more than 100 cultures around the world. In the U.S., teens, parents and even many therapists believe that it is normal for teens to be in turmoil or in conflict with parents, and everyone behaves accordingly.

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